A homemade sock monkey wearing a fez and scarf.Photo byKim Scarborough, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A sock monkey is made from socks and made to look like a monkey. This stuffed toy animal is from the cultures of the United States and Canada combining a mixture of folk art and kitsch. As for kitsch, this is what the Merriam-Webster dictionary says:

Kitsch is an early 20th-century borrowing from German, and it refers to things in the realm of popular culture that are tacky, like car mirror dice, plastic flamingos, and dashboard hula dancers. (Source.)

Usually, the Sock Monkey is brown and white. It also has red lips, long arms, long legs, and a long tail. When making one, you can add details to it such as the hat in the above photo. This toy is part of pop culture. 

Did you ever wonder how the red lips were attached?

Where did these come from?

There’s always a story behind a story. During the Victorian era, making stuffed animals was a popular activity during the Arts and Crafts movement in Europe and North America. People were making stuffed animals for their children. The crafters who were making these animals were getting their ideas from storybooks like The Jungle Book.

In 1866, William W. Burson and Swedish immigrant, John Nelson, partnered to form Burson & Nelson. In 1872, they invented the parallel row knitting machine. It’s a remarkable mission to have to come up with a piece of equipment that could make a pair of comfortable socks. A patent on the machine was issued to Burson and Nelson in 1868.

The machine was developed and patented, and by 1871 Burson and Nelson were knitting 80 pairs of socks a day. All the socks were knit on circular machines and the toe was closed by hand. (Source.)

In 1873, they had a machine that could close the heel and toe–essentially a tube sock. In 1878, Burson left the partnership to organize his own knitting company.

In 1880, Nelson Knitting was incorporated. The Nelson sock (advertised as the “Celebrated Rockford Seamless Hosiery”) was produced by the Nelson Knitting Company in 1880. The seamless heel’s popularity was also produced by other companies.

Sadly, Nelson died in 1883 at age 53 from typhoid pneumonia. His son, Franklin, improved the knitting machine to produce seamless socks. Franklin and his three brothers formed the Forest City Knitting Company in 1890.

Unfortunately, Nelson Knitting failed to patent its revolutionary design, meaning that it was immediately knocked off. (Source.)

Sock Monkeys were produced from red-heeled socks (Rockford Red Heel) that came out as early as 1932. Howard Monk who was an advertising executive came up with changing the heel of the brown sock from white to red. This was the same year the knitting company trademarked the red heel. It was marketed as the De-Tec-Tip so their customers would know it was a Rockford sock.

This red heel is what gives the Sock Monkeys their mouth. During the Great Depression, sewers and crafters were making the Sock Monkeys from worn-out Rockford Red Heel Socks.

Within an hour of the first red-heeled socks hitting the pages of Sears & Roebuck, craft bloggers had begun sewing the first sock monkeys, photographing each step to include with painfully detailed instructions. (Source.)

By the 1940s and 1950s, the president of Forest City Knitting would give away 50 dozen of socks each year to an order of Episcopal nuns in Wisconsin during Christmas. They in turn made dolls to earn money for their order. The company talked to Sears and Montgomery Ward about including a pattern for making a doll with each pair of socks they sold.

In 1954, Forest City Knitting merged with Nelson Knitting. In the late 1960s, Nelson Knitting is purchased by Kendall Co. out of Massachusetts. In 1979, after Colgate-Palmolive had acquired the Kendall Co., Nelson was purchased by investors and local knitters, which company would eventually merge with BSN Sports of Dallas after Nelson had to file for bankruptcy in 1985.

By 1990, the company is known as NK Mills. It was later purchased in 1992 by an Osage, Iowa company, Fox River Mills, and this company bought the red-heel patent and continues to make the dolls.

Helen Cooke

In 1953, Aurora, Illinois resident, Helen Cooke, patented the Sock Monkey. There was also a man named Stanley Levy who was also selling them.

Helen sued Stanley because even though his design was different, he was selling a Sock Monkey. Stanley reached out to the Nelson Knitting Company thinking they might declare Helen’s patent as being invalid.

Supposedly, it collected dolls made in a two-year timeframe to gather evidence showing that Helen shouldn’t have the patent. There was a doll made in early 1951 by a woman named Grace Wingent. She also lived in Rockford and made a doll for her grandson. This was before Helen even had her patent.

Eventually, Helen settled the case against Stanley after she saw all the evidence. Nelson Knitting was awarded the patent in 1955. Needless to say, Rockford, Illinois became known as the home of the sock monkey.

Sock Monkeys today

There’s a company in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania called Little Earth Productions established in 1993 that sells Sock Monkeys tailored towards your favorite NFL team (they have licenses for NFL, MLB, NHL, NCAA, MLS, and NASCAR.) However, there isn’t one for my Superbowl-winning team, yet, unless they are sold out.

Sock Monkeys are found in different styles, themes, and colors. Most older ones go back to the late 1950s, and there are a lot from the 1970s. They’re considered vintage if they were produced from the red-heeled socks knitted by the Nelson Knitting Company, or similar socks knitted with red heels by other companies in the same timeframe. The modern version is associated with the dolls created after the Nelson Knitting Company was acquired by Fox River Mills, Inc.

The Sock Monkeys that are homemade are one-of-a-kind because they’re unique because of their differences in faces and bodies. They’re also mass-produced for the public which makes that uniqueness somewhat void since they would all look alike.

The Sock Monkey has been a toy of endearment and the subject of events. It’s also been found in books. Allegedly, it’s supposed to be a good luck charm. In early 2015, a woman named Jody Lewis from the UK entered the Guinness World Record for making the largest Sock Monkey from socks standing at 10 ft., 5.59 in. tall.

Rockford, Illinois

Maybe Rockford should be nicknamed Sockford? The City of Rockford has the Sock Monkey as part of its history. The first Sock Monkey Madness Festival was held in 2005 at the Midway Village Museum. The history of the Nelson red-heeled sock as well as the Sock Monkey could be viewed.

Interestingly, this festival shows the original Sock Monkey that helped the knitting company win the patent.

Last month, it was reported that the old knitting factory building which has been sitting empty since the 1990s and is undergoing a clean-up that could last for a couple of months. It’s unknown what will happen to the building after that.

Click here to read author a blogger, Sarah Angleton’s blog, No Shoes Required: My Life as Well-Traveled Sock Monkey written in 2013. Click here to learn about artist and author, Dee Lindner, the Sock Monkey Lady®.

Thanks for reading! Did you have a Sock Monkey you treasure?


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