Zookies are super, large, colourful character-type creatures are great fun to collect.
During the 1950s, a number of companies began manufacturing ranges of animals, hoping that people would go on to collect several in a set. Wade introduced their exceedingly popular Whimsies – delicate, realistically-modelled porcelain miniature animals and birds – and a company called J. H. Weatherby & Sons Ltd. in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, decided to do the complete opposite, producing a series of sturdy comical animals which they called Zookies. An advertising leaflet from 1957 read, ` People who buy one, buy another and another and buy them for their friends too!`
According to records, forty-four different Zookie models were designed, though it`s possible that some of the later ones never made it into production. The average height of a Zookie is four inches, but because of the nature of the modelling – they are stocky, chunky creatures – they appear much larger. Some of them seem to resemble popular Disney characters of the time, while others have comical faces and look just as though they’ve stepped from the pages of a child’s book. Most are colourful, and they all have a high gloss finish, similar to Wade products. It seems that some of the range must have been more popular than others because the tiger, rabbit, elephant, koala and sad dog are much easier to find than, for instance, the pony, pelican or tortoise. The pieces are easy to identify as the majority are marked `Weatherby, England` on the base. Sometimes the word `Hanley` is there, too.
Weatherby and Sons Ltd. (who often used the name Falcon Ware), was an old-established company. Founded in Stoke-on-Trent in 1891, they began by manufacturing tableware, toilet sets and vases, later supplying china to the hotel and catering trade. It wasn`t until after the second world war that the company decided to move in to the giftware line. They produced such items as `Chuckleheads` (cups and saucers shaped like animals), `Beasties` (dinosaurs), commemorative items, dwarf figurines and tableware (including a range of small trays) often decorated with 1960s favourite images such as gonks, Butlins and daleks. A range of realistic animal ornaments were also made. The company was not connected with the Falcon Works, Longton, makers of Sylvac. Because of the bulk of the pieces, the creatures tend to look larger than they really are – the giraffe seems tall, yet is only five-and-a-half inches high. He has been modelled in a seated position, with a benevolent expression on his face, and is bright yellow with brown markings. The tiger cub is similarly coloured – he is one of the most commonly-found models, and has an open, laughing mouth. Surprisingly, the zebra also follows the orange and brown colour scheme, rejecting his usual black and white garb for a more-colourful coat.
The seal, with unusual black heart-shaped eyes, is probably the longest piece at six-and-three-quarter inches – slightly longer than the sinister green crocodile, who is opening his mouth in a `welcoming grin`. Most substantial of the Zookies is the standing baby elephant, even though his actual height is only four-and-a-half inches. This large-eared creature with his raised, curled t runk, happy face and long-lashed eyes is very similar to Disney`s Dumbo. A seated elephant was also made but is much harder to find.
Dogs were the most popular pets during the 1950s, which probably accounts for the variety of canine Zookies – there are seven different models, including one which is the spitting image of Disney`s Tramp, while the sad brown spaniel greatly resembles his girl-friend, Lady. Then there is a happy mutt with sticking up ears, a solemn boxer, a dignified poodle and two mournful dachshunds. Occasionally you might come across the grey and white cat with a ball of wool, but that is quite rare, as is the large blue/grey mule. Other rare Zookies include the tortoise, frog, kangaroo, rabbit holding a flower, ass and monkey.
One of the most easily found is the laughing rabbit (some people call him a dog but he definitely has bunny teeth!) wearing either a red or a green jacket with one large button. There seems to be slightly more red jackets than green, but both are common. Another frequently found piece is the koala, though surprisingly he usually sells for double the price of the rabbit, possibly because he is popular with teddy bear collectors. The koala isn`t quite so characterised as the other Zookies, but is very cute and is nutmeg brown. His eyes are smaller than most of the other creatures in the range, and he has the typical, flat koala nose. Another delightful animal is the lamb, who seems to be about to leap. His white and grey fleece has been cleverly moulded to give a nubbly appearance. Usually, the lamb faces to the left but apparently it is possible to find one facing the opposite way.
The horse is very spirited with braced legs, large eyes, long tail held high and ears pricked. He has a glossy chestnut coat and a black bridle. Other animals include a fat brown smiling hippo, a delightful camel with splayed legs, a skunk with a raised tail and his paws over his nose, a sideways-glancing monkey and a deer seated in a Bambi-esque pose. Birds
aren`t neglected in the Zookie series. A handsome toucan, perching on a branch, has black and white plumage, a red head and long, curved, yellow beak. The two ducks are really comical, and are in complete contrast, as one is long and thin with an open beak and small feet, the other is short and fat with a closed beak and big feet. They are both bright green, the thin one having a red head. According to the Falcon Ware book, the thin duck was available in two sizes. The rather rare pelican is grey, with a yellow bib and beak. He is seated, while the dignified penguin adopts a typical upright stance. It`s strange how some of the Zookies are much more caricature-like than others. The rare green and yellow frog wears a serene smile and clasps his front legs, while the bumpily-textured tortoise has a smirk. One of the nicest is the hard-to-find blue, yellow and green curvy fish with a merry expression.
Zookie colouring varies considerably from piece to piece because they were hand-painted. The shading and blending of colours is impressive, the rich hues and glossy finish giving a pleasing appearance. Many of the pieces have interesting textures to indicate fur, feathers or fleece, and often the artist has skilfully emphasised this with his paints. Obviously, as with other hand-painted ware, some pieces are better painted than others. Some of the pieces, such as the duck, penguin and elephant, have been found in two sizes.
Weatherby made their Zookies into the 1960s, but by 1970 production had ceased. The company finally ceased trading in 2000. Prices of the creatures vary today, but the more common Zookies normally sell for around £12-£25, depending not only on the piece but also the venue.
Animal-lovers will enjoy forming a collection of these zany creatures with their cheerful, jolly expressions.
‘The Falcon Ware Story’ by Susan Jean Verbeek, Pottery Publications, ISBN 0951488937.