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Monkeying Around With Vintage Primate Collectibles

Recently, on American Pickers, Mike and Frank found a freaky piece of vintage advertising that they referred to as a “Sealtest monkey”. (To be clear, and factual, this probably isn’t a monkey… Monkeys have tails. This appears to be a chimpanzee.)

Sealtest Dairy, once a division of National Dairy Products Corporation (which went on to become Kraft and then was bought and sold a number of times), was the sponsor of The Big Top (1950-1957), a children’s show on CBS. Obviously, Sealtest used the show to promote its dairy products, including ice cream and cottage cheese.

The piece Mike Wolfe found, was used in stores to make kids scream — not in fright (although that’s more than possible!), but in the “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream” sort of a way, provoking parents to silence their children with a purchase of Sealtest ice cream.

And then, in a vicious marketing cycle, Sealtest turned around and used the “Big Top” circus theme on products to get kids back in front of the TV — which sent them back to the store… There was a plethora of print advertising, including that promoting circus events at stores, using circus animals, circus acts, and the dreaded clowns.

Product packing, ephemeral and longer lasting, pushed the product and the television show.

Wolfe still expected to profit off his $300 purchase and sell the “Sealtest monkey” for $320.

That no chump change for a chimp.

There’s another famous and collectible chip who dates to the same time period: Zippy the TV Chimp. Zippy was discovered by Howdy Doody’s Buffalo Bob, when the chimp stole a cherry out of Bob’s drink. The chimp’s reward? A five-year contract.

Zippy would end up appearing on a number of TV shows, including Captain Kangaroo, Gary Moore, and Jackie Gleason. But it was his 1953 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show which probably turned Zippy into one heck of primate personality. And that lead to collectibles. Well, at the time it was simply merchandise. There were Zippy children’s books and films, including (along with another chimp named Lucky) playing the role of Cheeta in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle Movie in 1955. But the most memorable of all are the Zippy stuffed toys.

By September of 1953, toy maker Mary Phillips Rushton had obtained the official license to use the names “Zippy,” “Zip,” and “Howdy Doody” and created a sketch of a rubber-faced or masked Zippy doll, complete with Howdy Doody hat. By March 8, 1954, the first shipment of the Zippy toys were made to stores.

Even though Rushton filed her copyright days after the first shipment of Zippys were made, knock-offs quickly appeared. Rushton would sue over these lookalikes, but they were sold by Bijou Toys, Inc., F. W. Woolworth Co., Sam Richman, Dreamland Doll, Inc., Plastiplate Co. Inc., and others. The earliest official Rushton Zippy the chimp dolls are marked with “Copyright The Rushton Co.” impressed upon the bottom of the shoes of the figure and “(C) The Rushton Co.” under the chin. These vintage stuffed Zippy dolls also bear cloth Rushton tags or labels. (You can see photos of the markings and labels here.) The Zippy family would grow to include “son” Chip and Tippy, the white chimp, who was either the girlfriend or the sibling… I guess even chimps had to avoid monkey business in those years.

In the 1980s, Dakin Company produced a number of Zippy dolls and restaurant chain Cracker Barrel has also sold versions of Zippy; but it’s the original and official Rushton Zippy dolls which are worth the most, selling for $100 or more.

But, of course, our love of monkeys and chimps pre-dates Saturday morning and other time-slots for children’s television programing. There are the animated or mechanical toys most of us have seen, and this earlier example of a tin lithographed chimp on a bike toy from Exit 55 Antiques.

The evolution of our monkey love goes back for ages, in part documenting the evolution of bicycles. Bertoia Auctions, which does well in the monkey business, sold this Hubley monkey or chimp on a tricycle, fetching a fine $1,948.

Also at Bertoia, this factory showroom piece from Hubley’s Royal Circus cast-iron line called the Monkey Wagon sold in 2009 for over $97,000.

Of course, not all the pricy chimps and monkeys are toys. Some of the most valuable include porcelain primates, like the Meissen Monkey Band. Even with repairs, a 20 piece lot of the musical monkeys sold for $20,315 in 2009.

Perhaps the most valuable of all are the “Red Monkey” stamps: a sheet of Chinese stamps commemorating the 1980 year of the monkey which sold for $184,400 last year.


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