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Monkey Business

Monkey Business

From their humble beginnings as Depression-era toys to becoming a cultural icon, sock monkeys have earned their place in American history.

Lived-In Style

What started as sewn-up and stuffed old socks has climbed its way into the hearts and homes of children and collectors for almost a century.

Vintage handmade sock monkeys on metal coat tree.
Photo: Dean Riggot

A LITTLE HISTORY: A classic American toy since the 1930s, the most popular sock monkey was made using two brown socks from the Nelson Knitting Company in Rockford, IL. Originally these socks had white heels, but in 1932, an advertising executive named Howard Monk came up with the idea to change the white heel to red, creating what is known today as the "Rockford Red Heel." It was these heels that created the monkey's iconic red mouth. During the depression, when toys and fabric were expensive, grandma used a pair of grandpa's old work socks to fashion sock monkeys for their grandchildren to play with. Over the years, the toys have been made with many different socks, including white tube socks, and the species has evolved to include cats, elephants, and bears.

COLLECTORS' NOTES: Although sock monkeys have been mass-produced for years, collector Deb Haupt of Haupt Antiek Market buys only vintage handmade monkeys. "I love that every monkey has a different personality," she says. When assessing the age of a vintage sock monkey, look at its outfit to give you a clue, says Deb. A monkey in a '50s poodle skirt couldn't have been made in the 1930s. Also, check out the stuffing. Older monkeys were stuffed with sawdust or nylons, while newer ones sport white fluff stuffing. Give it a whiff, too. If it stinks, take a pass; if you try to wash it, the old embroidery floss may run. Expect to pay between $15 and $30.

Patent for sock monkeys in 1953.
ABOVE: Though the license has since expired, the sock monkey was patented in 1953.

Fox River Mills purchased Nelson Kniting Mills in 1992 and continues the great sock monkey tradition, selling crafting socks, sock monkey motif socks and mittens, and two sizes of sock monkeys.

RESOURCES Follow collector, Deb Haupt, here. For additional crafting ideas and images check out Sew Cute and Collectible Sock Monkeys. There's even a sock monkey museum and festival in Rockford, Illinois!