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Above: Sock Monkey Exhibit at Midway Village Museum in Rockford, Illinois.

Where did the original red-heeled sock monkey dolls come from?

History lesson: Sock monkeys originated in Rockford, Illinois, home of the Nelson Knitting Company.

By Chris Dunmire | Updated 8/20/15

Rockford, Illinois, has several claims to fame. Here's two: the WWII-era Rockford Peaches All-American Girls Baseball League (featured in A League of their Own) and the famous red-heeled sock monkey doll. Both have exhibits at the Rockford Midway Village & Museum Center at 6799 Guilford Road.

I visited the Museum to see the sock monkey exhibit and learned quite a bit about the back-story behind this popular collector's doll that has been featured on CNN and in Architectural Digest. Why Rockford? The Monkey has a specific connection with the Nelson Knitting Company in Rockford, the first to produce the red-heeled socks. According to the museum:

“The first sock knitting machines were patented by John Nelson in 1869, 1876 and 1879. He came to this country from Sweden in 1852 with the Swedish immigrants, stepping off the train in Rockford.

“Incorporated in 1880, The Nelson Knitting Company was the first company world wide to manufacture socks. ... These sturdy and comfortable work-socks were worn mainly by farmers and factory workers.

“These were the socks used to make the dolls. We learned that early dolls were made in Rockford during the Great Depression. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Ed Eisner, President of the Forest City Knitting Company, sent 50 dozen pairs of socks to an Order of Episcopal Nuns in Wisconsin each year at Christmas time. The Nuns made dolls to raise money for their Order. Eisner also talked Sears into including a pattern with each of the seamless work-socks they sold. Then Nelson Knitting Company talked Montgomery Ward into doing the same thing with their red-heeled sock. So there were a lot of people making dolls and today there are a lot of doll collectors.”

The museum's exhibit itself has an interesting artifact: a letter written by a woman who claimed to make the sock monkey design long before it spread around the states and became kind of a public domain thing. She claimed that she made the dolls out of socks from the Nelson Knitting Co. as gifts. It didn't take long before others began copying her design and selling them. This piece of folk art rightly intrigued many and exploded in popularity, and she wanted her claim to fame.

Sock Monkeys may have originated in Rockford, Illinois, but now they're available everywhere — from specialty stores like Cracker Barrel to your Aunt Thelma's sewing room. Anyone who wants one can get one or make their own. I know of a talented artist named Anne who made the cutest sock monkey doctors, nurses, brides, teachers, etc. complete with little accessories for Womanspace's annual Passport to the Arts silent auction. •

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