I decided to make my nieces sock monkeys for Christmas.

I am not sure why. My grandmother made them for us as children and they were naked, misshapen monstrosities that we hid under pillows. Perhaps it was because they creeped us out so much that I thought of them. My brother is a horror script writer and has passed on his fascination with all things macabre and disturbing to his otherwise princess perfect daughters. At five and eight, they can sing and speak every word to The Nightmare Before Christmas. The older one dressed as Wednesday from the Addams Family for Halloween. Sock Monkeys – ironically nostalgic with those benign yet sinister grins – the girls would love them.

Before I began, I decided to do some research. Homemade stuffed animals, in particular stuffed monkeys, were all the rage in Victorian England and America. Exotic Africa was a popular theme at the time and inspired homemakers to craft menageries for their children. But it wasn’t until the Depression, when some poor but enterprising wife made a toy out of her husband’s old Rockford Red Heel Socks, that the sock monkey as we know it today was born. The idea caught on and soon a sock monkey (and sock elephant) pattern was printed on the label of every pair of red heeled socks. Recently sock monkeys are making a comeback. You can buy or “adopt” them, depending on how mass produced or exclusive you desire.

I located several pairs of “The Original Rockford” socks and two or three different patterns. My mother also sent me a box of socks and half assembled parts she had saved from my grandmother’s house after she died. I studied the socks, the patterns and the ancient carcasses, determined what I would machine or hand sew and started cutting. By the time I was stitching and stuffing my own monkey appendages, my son started paying attention.

“This is just wrong,” he said, referring to the scattered pieces of monkey all over the table. I ignored him. After each addition, however, he picked up the emerging creature and examined it. He hated the faces. I was insistent that I wanted them as “authentic” as possible to a Depression Era style monkey. “Why eyelashes?” “Because they had eyelashes.” “Why such big smiles?” “Because they had big smiles.” “Why don’t you just make them any way you want?” “Because I want them to be ironically nostalgic.”  

They were sort of intriguing. I made them almost exactly alike except one set of button eyes was a lighter blue than the other. They had no apparent gender. They both had hearts embroidered on their chests.  They were well-made but crafty-folky by design. So traditional, they felt radical, blank slates around which to wrap any external outfit. Their symbolic potential was as fat as their little pot bellies. Before I could make them clothes, my son took pictures of them for a school project on shadows.

I dressed one in a Dora the Explorer flannel nightgown and the other in a flapper dress made from Day of the Dead fabric. I sent off the packages, believing my sock monkey adventure was over.

The next day I received my son’s Christmas list. “What do you mean you want a Hester Prynne sock monkey?” “I want you to make me a Hester Prynne sock monkey.” He had recently read The Scarlett Letter in school. I rolled my eyes.

But set to work. Again with the research, printing illustrations and reading about 17th century puritan clothing. There must be no Velcro, no elastic, no zippers, only ties and lacing. I looked up color schemes. I found a linen napkin, red felt, a scrap of boiled wool and an antique nautical button. He would get what he asked for and a surprise, a miniature Pearl monkey. My sister, watching me hand sew a tiny two piece dress and chemise, shook her head. “I am not sure who is weirder, you or your son.”

All three recipients opened their gifts on Christmas morning. My eight year old niece loved her monkey adorned in skeleton themed clothing. When my mother asked “why are there skeleton people on it?” my niece tried to be patient. “Because they are Day of the Dead people, Nana.”  The five year old liked hers well enough until it flopped over and the dress hiked up. Then she threw it down, horrified. “Why is there a mouth on its butt?” She would not touch it for several hours.

My son did not gush nor judge, but immediately demanded a monkey from every book he reads in AP Literature. Up next, Huck Finn. Then Gatsby. The rest of the family questioned why Hester was grinning. Shouldn’t she look, you know, a little melancholy being a social pariah and all? I sighed. “That is the point. She is only Hester Prynne on the outside, underneath, she is always just a sock monkey. Get it?” They did not.

10 responses to “Monkeyshines”

  1. Rachel says:

    Maybe my favorite TGW post of all time. Thanks, PB!

    My mom is preoccupied with sock monkeys (I almost said “obsessed,” but her enthusiasm pales under scrutiny after reading this). She takes hers on vacation and likes to photograph it in exotic locales. Hence, when she came to visit me in Italy, we took extensive photo shoots of Sock Monkey at the Vatican, Sock Monkey in Pompeii, etc. Maybe I should try to make a Julius Caesar or Nero (or Michelangelo! or Caligula!!) version.
    p.s. The photographs are excellent.

  2. KS says:

    Brilliant! I love it when interesting people do boring crafty things. Never boring! I REALLY want the Hester Prynne monkey doll! Should you, you know, decide to do this as a cottage industry…

  3. David Owen says:

    Love it, Pandora! Your son’s photos are wonderful, and I think you should expand it to sock monkey dolls of all the wronged girls of literature.

  4. LP says:

    “Why is there a mouth on its butt?!” Haaa! A Christmas a five-year-old can never forget. PB, this is a fantastic post.

    For xmas this year, Stella gave RB and me a sock-monkey wine bottle cover, the latest in hip bar fashion. Click here to see us using it!

  5. Dave says:

    The Reverend knows why Hester Prynne is grinning, doesn’t he?

    I love that you did all that research for historical accuracy.

  6. Tim says:

    Nice manicure in that photo, LP!

    I loved this post. I wish I were more diligent ‘n’ crafty, but whenever I get an idea to make something I usually lose interest about halfway through.

    The Hester Prynne sock monkey is amazing. That you refused to use inauthentic clothes-fastening devices is just the most.

  7. Stella says:

    I have a feeling that thegreatwhatsiterati are all sitting home agonizing over which sock monkey to ask you for for xmas…snape or dobby? kate middleton or princess diana? david byrne or brian eno? you’ve created a sock monster.

    yes, best post evaaahhh!

  8. LP says:

    Did the sock monkey receiving CPR make it through? I’ve been a little anxious, wondering.

  9. trixie says:

    wait, W’s highschool class is reading huck finn?

  10. PB says:

    Thank you for all the great comments –

    LP – your wine cover is amazing – and the monkey did live and the saving gesture spurred what appears to be an ongoing and supportive relationship (see subsequent pictos).

    Trixie – it is interesting – WB’s has two AP classes that are connected – US History and Rhetoric – so the fiction books they read correspond to the period of time they are studying – an attempt is to show a narrative voice more or less for that timeframe. So yes, Huck Finn is their 19th cent novel. WB, who is a passionate historian, is loving the books he is reading in this context. Hence I did indeed buy a sock monkey sized straw hat last week for his Huck monkey – I am a shameless reinforcer of all reading habits.

    I think I had a nightmare last night that included a Brian Eno sock monkey.