After more than 50 years, it remains true: Folks still go bananas over sock monkeys

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KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF: Anyone can make sock monkeys. The patent on the dolls expired long ago.
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MONKEY BUSINESS: Frank Shelain, a production superintendent with Nelson Knitting Company, and a knitter inspect one of the Rockford, Ill., company's first red-heeled socks.
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DOLLMAKER, DEALMAKER: Ray and Lois Peterson are no strangers to sock monkeys: he bought the 'idea' of the dolls for his company - and she has made many a monkey.

When R.C. ‘Ray’ Peterson flew to Memphis, Tenn., in 1953 to buy the ‘idea’ of a sock monkey doll, he didn’t know that a wonderful Ameri­can tradition was on the brink of discovery.

Peterson was making the trip on behalf of the Nelson Knitting Company, where he was the assistant to company president Tuve Floden. The Rockford, Ill., company had been making socks featuring red heels since 1935.

‘One of our wholesalers put me in touch with a lady who created a sock monkey doll from a pair of our socks,’ Peterson said. ‘I thought the monkey would be a great promotional item for the company, and I wanted to meet her.

‘I was instantly sold on the idea, and when I asked her what she wanted in exchange, she said she did not want anything,’ he said. ‘I told her to think it over, and I would stop back the next day. Her reply was, ‘Would a hundred dollars be too much?’ I replied, ‘No, but how about a thousand dollars?’

‘She did not faint, but she was overwhelmed by this generous amount.’

Promoting the doll

After Peterson’s trip, the company patented the sock monkey doll on July 14, 1953. Soon, Peterson’s wife, Lois, their church group, and other church groups of employees from the company began to create the dolls.

Lois Peterson remembers stuffing the monkeys with sock scraps donated from the factory and being paid $1 for each monkey.

‘Overall, our church group alone made hundreds and hundreds of these dolls,’ she said. ‘We created them for about a year, just so the company could give sock monkeys away as a special promotion to distributors like Sears and Montgomery Wards. They were given a free sock monkey doll with every purchase of 30 dozen socks. Making monkeys was a laborious task, but one that now seems well worth the labor of love.’

Her husband started with the company in 1938, working as a part-time machine tender and earning $8.40 a week. He worked his way up through the ranks and became president in 1957, and he didn’t hang up his socks until May 28, 1976, after several acquisitions and mergers.

‘People may say that the luck of the sock monkey was with the company, and maybe that’s so,’ Ray Peterson said. ‘At age 90, I certainly feel a bit of luck came my way and is still shining upon me.’

The Nelson Knitting Company no longer exists today, and their early knitting machines were either junked or donated to museums. The sock monkey doll patent has also long since expired. Anybody can create a sock monkey doll, and, in fact, the nation is going bananas over them.

Use Google to search the Internet for the words ‘sock monkey,’ and it will retrieve 1.4 million places on the Web that might have the information you seek on the critters – a number that’s a tenfold increase over the last three years. Many Web sites are de­voted to the dolls and those who adore them. In the real world, you’re likely to run across sock monkeys in gift shops, galleries and museums.

The monkeys remind many folks of simpler times. Many sock monkeys became make-believe playmates for children, stirred imaginations and became privy to whispered secrets. With their wide grins, red bottoms, and long, gangly tails, they still bring smiles to old and young alike.

Will we ever know when the first sock monkey doll was created – and at what person’s hands? That may forever re­main a mystery.

‘While my trip to Memphis in 1953 certainly puts a firm stake in the ground, someone could have made a red-heel sock monkey as early as 1935, when the company added the red-heel feature,’ Ray Peterson said. ‘And a sock monkey doll could have been made even earlier from the brown and cream-colored socks with swatches of red sewn on.’

In any case, this American tradition is safe for years to come. Fox River Mills, Inc., in Osage, Iowa, purchased the red-heel trademark and continues to manufacture a modern-day version of red-heeled socks.

Dee Lindner is a freelance writer living in Stone Lake, Wis. Also known as The Sock Monkey Lady, she invites enthusiasts to explore her Web site, located at http://www.sockmonkeylady.com. She would like to hear about your family sock monkey stories and can be reached by e-mail at sockmonkeylady@cheqnet.net, or by regular mail, at Sock Monkey Lady, Inc., P.O. Box 84, Stone Lake, WI. 54876.