Sometimes I feel like I grew up in an antique shop. So many of my childhood memories are in salvage or antique shops, carefully searching every stall for the perfect toy while my parents hunted for furniture. I would see the same sorts of toys everywhere we went: Russian nesting dolls, vintage Barbies, Raggedy Ann dolls, and plastic figurines. They were all fine and dandy, but I wanted something unique to collect. Something other kids did not have. That is when I discovered Wade Whimsies.
Wade Whimsie History
Wade Whimsies were produced by George Wade & Sons Ltd, an English pottery company. Founded in 1810, the company was started by consolidating a group of individual potteries all operated by Wade family relatives in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England. They originally manufactured products for the wool spinning and textile industries until expanding to include homeware and bottles for the local beer industry. In 1930 they hired Jessie Van Hallen, an artist already familiar with producing celebrity and animal ceramic figurines, who played a key role in the development of the Wade Whimsies.
After the Second World War, George Wade & Sons Ltd was struggling financially and looking for new avenues to pursue when an employee, Iris Lenora Carryer, suggested they make figurines for promotional purposes. The premium promotional prize had been around since the 1800s, when early baseball cards and cigarette trading cards, were introduced to incentivize sales and brand loyalty. In the early 1900s, Kellogg introduced a book you could purchase through mail-in offers included in their cereal boxes. This later expanded to comics and eventually collectible pins. This model paved the way for George Wade & Sons Ltd’s idea of producing small, simple glazed figurines that they could sell as collectibles.
Red Rose Tea & Wade Whimsies
Initially produced and sold as a set, Wade Whimsies were first manufactured and sold in 1953. The first set included a horse, leaping fawn, spaniel, poodle, and squirrel. After pursuing several different wholesalers, they developed a relationship with the Canadian branch of Red Rose Tea in 1966. Starting in 1967, the first series of Wade Whimsies were included in select boxes of Red Rose Tea. The packaging had images of the entire series and encouraged Red Rose Tea buyers to collect the entire set. The Whimsies were instantly popular, so much so, that in 1969, Red Rose Tea expanded the Whimsies promotion to the British market. After market testing in a few cities, the promotion was finally brought to the United States in 1983. While most of the Whimsies series were available through the Red Rose Tea promotion, you could also purchase figurines directly through mail-order to get limited edition figurines (like Disney-licensed figurines) or to complete your collection.
Wade series in the United States
The first series in the United States consisted of designs previously used in British and Canadian promotions. This series included a chimpanzee, lion, bison, bush baby, owl, bear cub, rabbit, squirrel, bird, otter, hippo, turtle, seal, wild boar, and elephant. These were distinguishable from their predecessors in that they usually had more simple glazing patterns (often just a single color rather than the two or three colors you would see in British Whimsies).
The second United States series was available from 1985 to 1996 and was still primarily based on existing international designs. This series included my prized leopard, as well as a giraffe, koala bear, pine marten, langur, gorilla, kangaroo, tiger, camel, zebra, polar bear, orangutan, rhino, raccoon, puppy, rabbit, kitten, pony, and cockatiel.
From 1994 to 1999, the “Circus” series was available in the United States. Branching out into human figurines it included a ringmaster, human cannonball, strongman, clown with drum, clown with pie, bear, sitting elephant, standing elephant, monkey, monkey wearing tutu, lion, poodle, seal, horse, and tiger.
At the turn of the century, the United States started having Whimsies designs produced specifically for the region and its history. This started with the “Endangered North American Animals” series, available from 1999 to 2002. This series highlighted the plight of select endangered animals in North America, and the packaging even included information about the species, their habitat, and conservation efforts. The designs introduced in this series included the spotted owl, bald eagle, polar bear, peregrine falcon, humpback whale, Florida panther, manatee, green sea turtle, timber wolf. and sturgeon.
The Noah’s Ark series was released in all Red Rose Tea markets from 2002-2006 and included a pair of elephants, rhinos, zebras, goose and gander, hen and rooster, ram and ewe, lion and lioness, and Noah and his wife. This series also introduced ceramic display stands designed in theme with the character that could be purchased through Red Rose Tea separately.
The 2006 to 2008 United States series was also available in Britain, with designs inspired by pet shops: a duck, pony, rabbit, turtle, kittens, puppies, labrador retriever, budgie (bird), tropical fish, and a cat available. This series also had a separate Pet Shop display base available.
The seventh Whimsies series was designed specifically for the United States market and was meant to correspond with big holidays and events within a calendar year. It was called the “Wade Red Rose Calendar” and included a snowman, cupid, leprechaun, Easter bunny, Mother’s Day flowers, graduation hat, Uncle Sam, sandcastle, scarecrow, kitten in a pumpkin, turkey, and Christmas tree.
The “Nautical Wonderland” series was available from 2012 to 2016 and featured a compass, conch shell, mermaid, ship wheel, treasure chest, diver’s helmet, lighthouse, sailboat, seagull, seahorse, crab, and starfish.
In 2016, Wade rebranded their company and quit producing the Whimsies. In the five years since this rebrand, they have designed two sets of figurines for Red Rose Tea that were manufactured by a different company and available exclusively in the United States market. The “American Heritage” series was the first of the two new series and included the Liberty Bell, Washington’s hat, an American bison, settler’s wagon, the White House, a tractor, space shuttle, arrowhead, and train. The most recent series, released in 2020, is the “World Monument” series that celebrates recognizable monuments from across the globe, like the Sphinx and Taj Mahal.
According to Red Rose Tea, more than 300 million Whimsies have been included in tea boxes in the United States alone. While Wade no longer produces the Whimsies series themselves, the company is still in operation to this day and producing a range of products, from custom spirit bottles to homeware and various kitchen items. The Wade Whimsies series have been collected and enjoyed by generations and can be fun collectibles for children and adults alike. They are widely available in collectible and antique shops and easy to find on the internet. You can collect them all or hone in on certain themes or animals. Find what you love, or what a child or grandchild would enjoy, and start your collection today.
Megan Shepherd is a curator, freelance writer, and artist. She has worked in fine art museums for a decade and holds two Master’s degrees in the field. When she takes a break from art she enjoys science-fiction books, antiquing, backpacking, and eating her weight in Dim Sum.
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