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Alex I Askaroff

Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.

 
 

 

The Straco Toy Company

Eugene Marcel Gheysens

Little Betty Sewing Machines

LB

 By Alex I Askaroff

Little was known about Little Betty sewing machines and Straco on the Internet which was strange for such a popular toy sewing machine so I started digging and a short 10 years later I have compiled lots of new news...

Before I start I must say, to my knowledge, not one single collector in the world has a complete set of Straco/Gheysens models of which there were at least 20. Only EMG/Straco, originally run by Eugene Marcel Gheysens, had the unique privilege of producing a British sewing machine for Walt Disney. 

The Snow White Sewing Machine


The super-rare Walt Disney Snow White sewing machine was a little Betty model W4D made in Kent, England. Snow White was so clever that she could sew with the sewing machine the wrong way round, sitting behind it using her left hand.

Little Betty sewing machines are possibly the best selling British toy sewing machines of all time, during their long production they kept their prices to a minimum meaning that a child's first sewing machine in Britain was often a little Betty or one of the Straco/Gheysens range.


A pair of 1940's British Little Betty, Straco, sewing machines Models W1/01

We know that many EMG machines were made in England for several years and many more imported, I shall go into a little detail later on.

The Straco Toy Sewing Machine Company that later combined with Little Betty/EMG made some wonderful toy sewing machines. Their best selling British model was available in many shapes and colours.

Straco later also imported some Japanese, German and Chinese toy sewing machines and for a short while during the late 1940ís and 50ís were involved with giant German Casige Sewing Machine Company, importing some of their models and selling them once again under the Little Betty name.

The name Casige, pronounced Kaseege, was one of the great German toy makers. The company name comes from a mixture of letters of the founder of the company, Carl Sieper( Carl Sieper evenbroich) and his hometown of Gevelsberg, Westfalen in Germany

After WWII the Casige plant lay in the Western part of occupied Germany and produced machines for Straco for a short period. The similarities between the two companyís machines were obvious and no effort was made to hide Casigeís manufacture for Straco.


One of the very first Little Betty machines. Note the fairy herself picking berries. Her legend is at the end of this page. Model W1/01 circa 1938

EMG

So where did it all start?

Eugene Marcel Gheysens (EMG on some toy machines) was a Belgian industrialist involved in textile and brush manufacturing in Izegem, Courtrai, Belgium. Just prior to WWI he moved to England and started a plant manufacturing in Lorne Road, Dover, Kent. He worked alongside his son Jean Marie Gheysens who was born in Izegem, Belgium.

Around 1935 the factory was completely re-tooled for toy sewing machine manufacture but WWII broke out before mainstream production could really expand.

The plant made small numbers of basic pressed steel toy sewing machines right up until the outbreak of World War Two when rationing took hold and toy production came to a halt. I am not sure what the factory produced during WW2 but I will hopefully find out.

During WWII Jean Marie Gheysens enrolled in the intelligence services and was subsequently captured by the Germans and interred for the remainder of the war.

The toy business really took off after WWII. Now a little about Straco.

 

Straco

Straco was an American company started by Mr Fred J Strauss. Straco was the trademark of the company Stra-uss Company. The company started importing toys and games in the early 40's.


There were two models that Walt Disney sold as their Snow White sewing machine. One was the square model above and the other the Midinette.

The founder Mr Fred Strauss with his partners Fred Soyka and Ernest Metzger were the first American toy importers to start importing toys from Japan and the entire Far East in the late 40's after WWII.


The British Debutante many girl's first sewing machine circa 1960's

Some of the original Straco sewing machines were made in Germany. Then the company bought into the Little Betty company from Dover in Kent run by E M Gheysens. Even the very last of the Little Betty and Comet sewing machines were part of the Eugene Marcel Gheysens business.

All early Straco/Little Betty models came with instructions in no less than 6 languages!

 

An unusual early Straco circa 1950

 


Little Betty Sewing Machine W2 in black, green and red.

The British Little Betty toy factory was run by E. M. Gheysens and his son. It was in Lorne Road, Dover, Kent, England.

Being a major port this was the perfect place to ship the Little Betty machines all over the world.

Little Betty Model W2


The Little Betty W2 came in several colours including blue.

 


On the left is the Straco Little Betty sewing machine model W2/02 1946/50
Early all-metal Little Betty machines came in several different colours, they are the most sought after, the most popular models were green and blue and the rarest is red simply marked LB.

 Note the earlier models were all metal including the hand wheel but the later ones had plastic hand wheels.

 


                                                                    Little Betty sewing machine W2/02 circa 1950

 

E M Gheysens (EMG) were in partnership with Straco during the 1950's. The partnership must have been successful as even the last toys were still marked with the E M Gheysens label.

E M Gheysens eventually retired to Nice, France where he died in 1963. His wife continued to live there.

 

 

Little Betty Sewing Machine W3/03 1950's

A Singer 12k needles works perfectly in the earlier models I have a few in stock: alexsussex@aol.com

The sewing machine moulds were later moved to Japan, and finally new moulds and machines were made in Hong Kong to try and keep the price down.

 
Straco Little Betty machines were made in England for many years from the 40's up till the 60's.


little Betty Model W4/04 first of the plastic and metal toys

 


The Straco Little Betty Jet sewing machine with finger guard!

There was also the Jet-Sew-O-Matic senior and junior with a square base.

A machine appeared on the market around this time called the Comet Sewing Machine. It bears a huge similarity to the Little Betty W7 but is named Comet EMG. Also made in England we can guess that once again EMG was the initials of Eugene Marcel Gheysens. Was he trying to go it alone again shortly before he retired?


The Comet EMG sewing machine manufactured by Eugene Marcel Gheysens


You can see that Fred Strauss was still going strong and importing from Germany again in the 1960's

Fred Soyka, and his son Leonard Soyka bought the Straco company from the two other partners in the early 1970's and the company was run successfully through the early 1990's when it was sold again, and then ceased to exist. Mr Fred Soyka retired to Florida.


Little Betty sewing machine, the Senior model W7/07

The machines went from metal to plastic. This one was a bit of each, top plastic bottom metal,  just like mothers.

As I write his son Leonard Soyka is still active in the toy industry. Len owns a company in China that makes action figure sets for Toys R Us, KB, K Mart. In K Mart look under the Adventure Quest brand in the boys section. In Toys R Us Stores, look for Animal Planet section and most of the dinosaur sets, and animal sets are Lenís. In KB itís the Dino Valley brand.

 


Some of the last Little Betty's made in the 1960's were battery powered!

The Straco Electro-Matic and the Straco Super Jet-O-Matic made in the early 1960's were both battery powered, one made in Japan and another Germany.

There is no doubting the popularity of these sweet little toys that turn up in many guises.All Straco and Little Betty machines were sold as Practical, educational and dependable. Finally the Little Betty machines were simply marked LB.


The 1970's pillar-box red Straco Electr-O-Matic plugged into the mains! Wow! Supplied by the old supplier Casige Sewing Machines

 

 

One of the last Little Betty machines called the Midinette! It was possible made by the French manufacturers of the 1960's,Ma Cousette range, as the similarities are startling. It used a battery pack and even had a foot control.

The Little Betty Debutante and Midinette were sold through the Windfield arm of Woolworths

 

The Royale


The Little Betty Royale came as a straight stitch or this model. This was the only machine made by the company that made a zig-zag stitch.

The big problem with all of these sweet little toy is that they do not sew that well. In fact it is hard work which is probably why so many ended up in the loft or some dusty cupboard. The instructions did include how to repair the hook to lick up the stitch but for most youngsters that was impossible.

The Little betty Midinette came is three colours

 

The Little Betty, Stracoís most enduring machine was often referred to simply as model W1/01, W2/02, 3 or 4 up to 20 and some with letters after like the W4D. There were no more than 20 different models that I am aware of at this time but you never know more may turn up!


A couple of late LB or Little Betty sewing machines

Now her proper name is much more fun! 

 

 The legend of Little Betty

The story goes that Little Betty was a sweet but nervous little fairy that used to sit on the factory ownerís sewing machines while he pottered away making his first models. She would often fly into the forest and pick berries for his supper. This inspired him to put little pictures of her picking berries on his sewing machines.

One cold winters day the window suddenly blew shut with such a load bang that she was so shocked she flew away. Although he often thought he caught a glimpse of her peeping around dusty corners in his workshop she never came home and never picked him berries. He named many of his favourite sewing machines after her so as never to forget his little helper.

Hey, it is only a story!

 

 


  A very retro Straco Sewing Machine

Why new toy sewing machines don't sell well today!

Of course the biggest problem with toy sewing machines, especially the thin-tin and plastic ones is that they do not sew very well unless you are really careful and they only produce a simple chain stitch. The machines were prone to damage and many a girl who wanted to make clothes had a disappointing present.

Old toy sewing machines today are collected by enthusiasts around the world much more for nostalgia and display rather than use.

 

                           

         The Little Betty Royale sewing machine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Little Betty Debutante. Almost the last Straco sewing machine machine circa 1971.

 

And to the last of an era...

The rare Disney Snow White/Little Betty


Just before Straco finished with  toy sewing machines they made a last ditch attempt to resurrect their market with a collaboration with Disney. These are the last Little Betty sewing machines. The box is clearly marked... A product of E.M. Gheysens manufacturers of Little Betty miniature sewing Machines. Copyright Walt Disney productions.

Values

Values of the early tin-plate Little Betty, Straco sewing machines are rising fast so grab one if you can! Ebay has opened up a whole new world for collectors and whereas you may have had to search for months, if not years, now you can pick and choose at your leisure. Small toy sewing machines make a great talking point.

Why not buy one of your childhood memories back! Hey I don't sell them I was just saying...

Except for the very early tin-plate war models Little Betty sewing machines are still available at excellent prices and what a superb display they make. Just don't try and sew curtains on them!

.
"Snow White sewed this patch on and did a mighty fine job!"

The End

A brief history of Straco and Little Betty sewing machines.

By Alex I Askaroff

Fancy a great read:

All Alex's books are now on a dedicated site: www.crowsbooks.com

Ena Wilf  & The One-Armed Machinist

Or a brilliant slice of 1940's life:

 Spies & Spitfires

 

Books by Alex Askaroff: Books 

 

I hope you have found this page helpful it took me several years of research.

Do let me know if you liked it: alexsussex@aol.com


Alex's stories are now available to keep. Click on the picture for more information.

 

Hi Alex,

I really enjoyed reading your Little Betty page so much!

Thank you, my first Little Betty machine was the blue when I was 6 
years old and I've been sewing ever since.  I made lots of things on 
the machine mainly animals.

I bought myself another Little Betty last year on Ebay and will 
always hold lots of affection for the brand so thank you for 
providing a marvellous read and fabulous research, much appreciated.

Kind regards,
Jo

Hello Alex  
Ii found your article on little betty child's sewing machines fascinating, its great to see the history laid
out like that.
Cheers tony

Hi Alex,

My father and I have just read your article on E M Gheysons sewing machine. Father is now 88 years old and ran the company from 1947 to 1973. If you require any added information we would be pleased to help. I can assure you dad has a very sound mind and is as sharp as a button, we still live in Dover. Many thanks for your article we really enjoyed it,

Kind Regards,

Kieron Jaynes.

Some of this information was kindly supplied by Len Soyka in 2006. Thanks Len.

 

 

 
     

 

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