By Jane Hayes
Barbara Eisner Gerry is the granddaughter of John Nelson, inventor of the sock knitting machine. Nelson arrived from Sweden in 1852 and was supposed to disembark from the train in Chicago; however, an outbreak of cholera there kept him traveling farther northwest to settle in Rockford. Many of the original Swedish settlers were manufacturers and inventors during this period of Rockford’s history. Barbara’s parents were Edward Eisner and Elizabeth Nelson, daughter of John Nelson. Her parents met at Camp Grant, where Edward was one of the officers.
Both Barbara and her older sister, Katharine, attended Keith Country Day School, and when they were unable to go to school, they went to work with their parents at the knitting mill so they learned about their parents’ careers. Barbara’s mother sent her two girls east to attend boarding school in Virginia at Chatham Hall in Chatham, Virginia. After high school, Barbara went to Sarah Lawrence College, where she received her art design degree in 1948.
After college, Barbara and Katharine moved to Houston, Texas, where in 1949, she met her husband, Elbridge Gerry (from Duluth, Minnesota) and raised four children there. She and her husband moved back to Rockford in 1992 to care for her parents.
Barbara’s interest in sock monkeys did not start until adulthood when her father gave a handmade sock monkey to her first child. While Barbara preferred playing with paper dolls, their paper costumes and the Sears catalog as a child, she could see the value of the monkeys, Depression-era toys that could be made from scraps. Every year at Christmas, Nelson Knitting Company donated 50 dozen pairs of socks to an order of nuns in Wisconsin to be used as a fund-raiser for them to sell. Their handmade monkeys, reindeer, moose, and elephants became an instant success.
In 1869, John Nelson got the patent on his sock-knitting machine, and by 1880, Nelson Knitting became the first to make socks worldwide. Fox River Mills bought out the company in 1992, and now have the rights to the red heels. Canada did not have ready access to the red-heeled socks, so they improvised and created Canadian Rockfords. Originally, there were no red-heeled bottoms on monkeys until Howard Monk suggested the bottoms be red as an advertising gimmick. He felt each one had its own personality and identity.
Currently, there is a monkey collector in New York who has more than 200 monkey dolls and has written two books. Barbara has also written a book as a tribute to her deceased son Thomas and his dog Mooky. Barb’s book, Rockford Sock Monkey Tales, is available at Midway Village for $20. Joan Sage wrote the dedication notes, Angie Scordato did the artwork, and the editor was Angela Malavolti.
While Barbara didn’t become enamored with the sock monkey doll as playthings, as an adult, she realized the importance with their symbolism and Rockford. She has influenced its surge in popularity over the past few years by encouraging the construction and placement of fiberglass monkeys throughout Rockford. Such monkeys can be seen at Midway Village, the Stockholm Inn, the Rockford Register Star, the National Lock Building, Rockford/Chicago Airport, Swedish American Hospital and other local buyers.
Time magazine has named the Sock Monkey one of the top 100 influential toys over the past century. Nelson, the personalized name of the large stuffed monkey, has traveled beyond Rockford to make his television debut on morning shows in New York City. Romania has a sister city to Rockford where the monkey craze is becoming popular. Seeing the sock monkey in a Super Bowl ad and other noteworthy advertisements has brought Barbara great pride. Nelson and his legions of fans have helped him cross into pop culture in America and abroad.
In March for the past 10 years, Midway Village celebrates its Sock Monkey Madness Festival to honor this simple symbolic tribute to the home of its birth. Each pair of red-heeled socks has a pattern for this fun toy inside its packaging, and many children have practiced their sewing skills by creating their own.
Barbara Gerry is fond of wearing sock monkey designs on her clothes. Proud of her efforts to bring over-sized monkeys back to life in Rockford, she is currently considering writing another book. At 88 years young, Barbara has given up her art aspirations because of limitations, but she has replaced that with becoming a forever young author.
From the Oct. 15-21, 2014, issue