NORTH ADAMS -- Just before Christmas in 1892, a new toy hit the shelves of stores from Maine to California, and it sold like wildfire -- 200,000 pieces moved that season.
The "Arnold" Tabby Cat toy, printed on calico and later cut out and sewn together, was the first of a successful line of "rag" dolls and animals printed by the Arnold Print Works, the Marshall Street predecessor of Sprague Electric Co. and Mass MoCA.
This spring, Eclipse Mill gallerist Ralph Brill, owner of Brill Gallery Productions, will reproduce a series of the Arnold Print Works pieces, complete with a North Adams label.
"These animals and dolls are still highly collectible today," he said. "Doll collectors look for the dolls and the uncut sheets of cloth. I've been told that if you are a doll collector, you have to have an Arnold. At the same time, nobody here knows about this. It's a shame."
His interest in the dolls began several years ago, when he began researching the local mills for what has become "The Mill Children" exhibition, a collection of paintings, musical compositions and other works inspired by the children who worked in the Eclipse Mill and other local factories in the early 1900s.
The show, which features the work of local artists, debuted at the Eclipse Mill in August 2011 before traveling to the Bennington (Vt.) Museum. The show will open March 15 at the Charles River Museum in Waltham, where it will continue until June 15.
"The dolls will become part of the show as well," Brill said. "But really, I'm doing this for three reasons: First, I want to find anyone who may have one of these originals in their attic. Second, I want to talk about the Arnold Print Works and the idea of the creative economy. It isn't new -- it's happened here before. And third, I want to learn and share the story of the Arnold Print Works."
Founded in late 1860s by Harvey Arnold and his brothers, Oliver and John, the Arnold Print Works was built on the corner of River and Marshall streets and would later include the Eclipse and Beaver mills, along with a mill in Williamstown and another in North Pownal, Vt. At its peak, the company, which manufactured printed cloth textiles, employed some 3,300 workers and paid out $1.3 million in wages annually.
"There's a lot that's been said about Sprague Electric and Mass MoCA, but we want to tell the story of the Arnold Print Works," Brill said. "Everyone talks about the creative economy likes it's a new concept, but I don't believe so. North Adams was packed with artists at one time -- artists were among the workers brought in from French Canada, Italy and Poland to work in the mills."
He added, "This was an artistic community. This place was packed with people. A hundred years ago, this city had 22,000 people and it needed to think boldly and it was packed with innovators."
The story of the creative economy can be told through the Arnold rag dolls, he said.
"This is a slow repeat of the creative economy," Brill said. "It's a humble turnaround. We're just playing catch up now. We, as a community, need to embrace this as part of the city's heritage instead of thinking of the latest group of artists to arrive as interlopers and outsiders. This happened before -- a group of strange artists moved into the community -- this is only the second chapter."
Originally brought to the Arnold Print Works by Celia Smith and her sister-in-law, Charity Smith, of Ithaca, N.Y., the Tabby cat would become a big seller for the company. The cat was followed by a line of kittens, a pug dog and puppies, an owl, a monkey, a rabbit and various dolls, including Little Red Riding Hood.
"Arnold Print Works actually patented their dolls," Brill said. "They're very beautifully made. There have been reproductions in the past, including some fakes from China, but I want to make them here and put a North Adams label on them. This is something the city should be proud of and should take pride in. The people of this area should know about this connection with their past."
Unfortunately, he said, most of the people who worked at the Arnold Print Works have died or are very old.
"We need to tell the story of the Arnold Print Works. I want to find the people who worked there or their children. I want to shake the branches and find out if anyone has original prints or stuffed versions around. We may be interested in purchasing them, copying them or displaying them."
For more information on the Brill Gallery, which is located in the Eclipse Mill, or to give information, visit www.brillgallery109.com, or call 413-664-4353.
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email