Sock Monkey Madness!

Have you ever wondered about your sock monkey’s genealogy?  The history of the sock monkey goes back over one hundred years, and it all began right here in Rockford with a Swedish immigrant named John Nelson.

John Nelson

John Nelson was born in Sweden in 1830.  He immigrated to the U.S. in 1852, meeting his future wife Eva Christina Persson (Peterson) on the ship on the way over.  They were  married on November 4, 1854.

They settled in Rockford in 1857, where he worked as a carpenter before opening his own business as a cabinet maker.  While operating this business, Nelson invented a dovetailing machine to make furniture joints.  In 1865, he opened a shop sash, door, and blind factory with Gust Holem and Andrew C. Johnson.  He then began working on inventing an automatic knitting machine.

William Worth Burson

William Worth Burson

In 1866, he was introduced to William Worth Burson by his financial backs Ralph Emerson and W.A. Talcott.  Burson and Nelson began working on developing a home knitting machine.  The machine was developed and patented, and by 1871 Burson and Nelson were knitting 80 pairs of socks a day.  All the socks were knit on circular machines and the toe was closed by hand.  In 1873, Burson and Nelson developed yet another machine, the flat machine.  This could close the heel and toe of the sock automatically, creating the first truly seamless sock.  In 1877, Burson stopped his affiliation with Nelson, and by 1880, Nelson Knitting was absorbed by the FR Brown Company.

Nelson Knitting Factory

Early Nelson Packaging

Early Nelson logo

In 1883, Nelson died of typhoid pneumonia at the age of 53.  In 1890, Forest City Knitting Company was incorporated and controlled by Nelson’s family.  During the 1893 Financial Panic, Nelson Knitting responded by reducing their prices.  In Rockford, 27 factories declared bankruptcy in one day.  By 1904, the production of socks at Nelson Knitting reached 450 dozen pair each day.

Nelson Co logo 1915

Nelson Co logo 1915

The Nelson Knitting Company’s socks looked the same as their competitors’: brown body, white toe, heel, and top.  In 1932, Rockford advertising executive Howard Monk suggested that red be added to the heel of the Nelson sock to make it distinctive.  Nelson called this trademark the “De-Tec-Tic” or what is now called the Red Heel sock.

Nelson "loopers," 1930

Nelson “loopers,” 1930

By 1938, Nelson Knitting produced 4000 dozen pairs of socks each day.  A knitter could run 25 to 30 machines at a time.  The machines ran off of belts that were turned by ceiling shafts.  These machines never stopped.  During an 8 hours shift, there were no breaks.  A worker ate his lunch while he watched his machine.

Nelson "presser," 1938

Nelson “presser,” 1938


No one knows exactly when the first sock monkey was made.  The socks had been used to make dolls for decades.  But in 1955, Nelson Knitting was awarded the patent for the sock monkey doll based on the evidence that Grace Winget of Rockford made a sock monkey doll as a Valentine’s gift for her grandson in 1951.  This is the earliest recorded sock monkey.  Nelson began including instructions on how to make the sock monkey with every package of socks.  The patent expired in 1970, so now the sock monkey belongs to everyone!

Sock Monkey Instructions

Can’t get enough of sock monkeys?  Join us for our upcoming event:

Sock Monkey Madness Festival!

March 2 & 3

11am – 5pm both days

Admission: $8 Adults, $5 children/students, Museum members are free!

This year’s theme is Sock Monkey Roundup!

An original event, the Sock Monkey Madness Festival will return as a unique celebration of Rockford’s past by highlighting its once thriving knitting industry and the stuffed sock toy made from Rockford Red Heel Socks which continues as a part of America’s pop culture.

The Sock Monkey Madness Festival was awarded a national 2009 Leadership in History Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History for excellence in educational programming!

For more information about this event, click here:

Find us and much, much more in the gift shop!


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One response to “Sock Monkey Madness!

  1. Pingback: Sock Monkey Madness Festival 2014! | Midway Village Museum Collections

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