The Easter Bunny

The Hometown History column is presented by the Fenton History Center and The Post-Journal. Each Friday, a distinct item from the Fenton History Center collections or archival special collections will be featured. Learn about your hometown history through parts of its past.

If one of the items featured brings back some memories or brings up a question, please contact the Fenton History Center at 664-6256 or to share your memory or get an answer to your question.

The Easter bunny story has its origin in pre-Christian fertility lore. The hare and the rabbit were the most fertile animals known, giving birth to several litters a year. They, along with the eggs they carried in their baskets, served as symbols of new life during the spring season.

The bunny as an Easter symbol seems to have its origins in Germany, where it is first mentioned in German writings in the 1500s. The first edible Easter bunnies were made in Germany during the early 1800s – made with pastry and sugar.

Introduced to American folklore by German settlers who arrive in the Pennsylvania Dutch country during the 1700s, the “Oschter Haws” was considered almost as much a pleasure for the children as the arrival of St. Nicholas on Christmas Eve. The children believed if they were good, he would lay a nest of colored eggs. The children would make the nests from their caps and bonnets.

One bunny belonged to Steig Olson, late, of Jamestown. It was made by his mother, Fanny, when he was small. She was an outstanding needlewoman. Steig has donated a number of pieces of her work to the Fenton’s collections. It was made in the 1920s and his name is “Peter.” Peter has an elephant companion as well in the donation.

The rabbit is made in the “crayon quilt” style. The pattern is printed or stenciled on the fabric – cotton muslin in this instance. The outlines of the design are embroidered, and the inner parts are filled in by crayon, and then ironed to set the color. Such things were often sold in kit form. This type of needlework was popular from about 1900 through 1930. Children’s quilts and pillows were often made in this manner.

The definition of “stuffed toys” – or stuffed animals – is that they are sewn from a textile and stuffed with a soft material. “Peter” is made from cotton muslin, and stuffed with cotton batting. These toys are often made to resemble animals, legendary creatures, cartoon characters or inanimate objects.

The German company Steiff was the first commercial enterprise to create stuffed toys in the 1880s. In 1903, the stuffed bear was designed. In the U.S., Morris Michtom created the first “teddy” bear after being inspired by a drawing of President Theodore Roosevelt with a bear cub. Peter Rabbit was a favorite character in the books of English author Beatrix Potter, and was the first stuffed toy to be patented in 1903. Sock monkeys appeared during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Peter, with his green tailcoat, can perhaps be found the night before Easter, delivering his colored eggs or possibly toys, to all the children. He would make a lovely gift by himself.

The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

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If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.