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Historical society exhibit brings the Victorian Era to the North Fork

A talking doll made by Thomas Edison in 1890, a David Walker rocking cradle from 1862 and an early 1900 replica of a fire truck from the Riverhead fire department are some of the highlights from the “Inventing Childhood” exhibit from the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead.

“The exhibit ‘Inventing Childhood’ is essentially a showcase of all of our Victorian-era toys in our permanent collection,” said museum executive director Victoria Berger. “But it’s also an underlying story of how the mindset towards children shifted during the Victorian era, and finally started to raise more conscious awareness of allowing children to be children.”

There are fascinating stories behind some of the toys. The unassuming Steiff teddy bear from 1902 represents the story of Margarete Steiff, who, despite being disabled by polio as a child, had a successful sewing career producing clothes as well as stuffed animals. 

Her stuffed animals became popular when she added a small stuffed elephant to her production line meant to be a pin cushion. 

“Inventing Childhood” stands out from other exhibits the museum has held because it has drawn entire families out to see the exhibit, rather than only academics or history buffs, according to Ms. Berger. She said the community response has been “wonderful.”

“A lot of our exhibits are very academic-heavy,” Ms. Berger said. “Those types of exhibits draw a more professional academic crowd; this one is just a great family exhibit, it appeals to everyone,” she said.

Ms. Berger said the museum has been wanting to display this exhibit for about five years but work that was being done to the museum and the pandemic caused the delay.

“The first three years, we were building the new wing, and then we had essentially two years of the pandemic, Ms. Berger said. “So we’re really just getting into gear and a lot of the projects that we’ve had on hold.”

Creating an exhibition like “Inventing Childhood” required a lot of preparation. 

“It’s like putting on a theater production, you know; the show may only last for a few weeks or a few months, but the preparations behind it are extensive,” Ms. Berger said.

Although it took about six months to put the exhibit together with about six other staff members involved, Ms. Berger said it was a pleasurable experience for all.

“We love doing the research, we love exploring our own objects, so it’s as much fun for us to produce as it is for the visitors to see,” Ms. Berger said. 

The exhibit, which opened Dec. 11, will run through April 2.