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Toys in History?

A Brief History of Toys

Toys of Society

Gender and Toys

The World of Toys

Dolls, The Oldest Toy?

Mechanical Toys History

Memorable Vintage Toys

Fun Stuff, Make a Toy

Toy History Links

This page has snippets from the history of toys and games as we know them today. We hope that you enjoy it and it is useful. Please tell us what you think: history@woodentoys-shop.com If you would like to tell us a story, add one here or a add a link please contact us or send to history@woodentoys-shop.com This page will be updated from time to time. So, please come back again if you do not find what you are looking for today. Alternatively, sign up for our newsletter by contacting us with your request and we will try our best to help.

Toys in History?

The meaning of toys as we know it today being exclusively playthings for children was not commonly used until the nineteenth century. Before then and even into the early 1800’s the word toy was used to describe anything from an adult bauble of little or no value to a very expensive miniature (like handcrafted pieces of silver furniture handmade by the best craftsmen). The word toy comes from an old English world meaning tool.

Ancient toys from excavations of Egyptian ruins show that children had a variety: painted wood balls or glazed papyrus and reeds; spinning tops of wood, papyrus, or stone; pull toys and dolls crafts of wood, ivory, gold, bronze and clay. Some wooden animals had moveable parts, like the jaws of tigers and crocodiles.

Both in Greek and Roman times there were lots of different children’s playthings. They played with clay spinning tops (some propelled with a piece of thread on the end of a stick), balls, terracotta animals and dolls with moving arms and legs, baby toys including animal shaped rattles. Roman children had dolls, wooden toy hoops, spinning tops, drums, draughts, and wooden animals.  Childrens games like naughts and crosses, knucklebones and blind man's bluff existed. Wood horses for both these eras were also favourites, including models of the Trojan horse. Many in this period were designed to develop physical fitness. Some, like the hoop, were used by both children and adults. Kites were another old plaything enjoyed by young and old. The Chinese, who invented kites over 3000 years ago, developed many variations and also used them to send signals. The Chinese or Japanese invented the whipped top at an early date. These became so popular and all different types spread throughout Asia and the Middle East. In the English 1500’s toys were popular. For example a Tudor Christmas was a special celebration full of fun and also pomp. The celebrations took place in halls and a Lord of Misrule rode in on a hobby horse, Mummers were actors, Jesters kept everyone happy and Merrymakers (ordinary people) wore costumes and heads of strange monsters! The musicians would have played with pipes, drums, lutes and whistles from a gallery.

A Brief History of Toys

Archaeological evidence suggests ancient toys were the same kind of playthings that children use today. Centuries ago Roman, Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian children had balls, rattles, dolls, animals, hoops, kites, marbles, stilts and tops. Some had traditional games like dominoes and checkers. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an estimated 2000 year old Egyptian rattle shaped like a cow with some stones inside in its collection. A baker kneading bread figure, a crocodile snapping its jaws and a dog with moving tail and jaw have also been found from this era. The World's oldest board game is believed to be The Royal Game of Ur, which was played in Babylon for over 5000 years. The traditional board game Mancala may date back to as far as 3000 BC.

Archaeology really helps to identify timelines and locations. For example clay tops were found in the ancient city of Ur dating from 3500 BC (Ur is modern day Muqayyar, 187 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq). Ceramic spinners made of terra cotta were found at Troy (Turkey) 3000 BC. Carved wood whip tops discovered in Egypt are aged between 2000-1400 BC. In China, whip tops were found dating from 1250 BC. Fired clay tops were found from Thebes in Greece dated at around 1250 BC. Greek pottery, from around 500 BC, is decorated with scenes of men and women playing with both whip and twirler top varieties. While many would have been made out of wood, it appears that ceramic tops could have been votive and used to honour the gods. Some may have also been a sign of affluence and were sometimes put in tombs as to be taken into the afterlife. Roman tops from 27 BC were found made of bone.

Many early toy-like objects (dolls and animals) were closely related to religious beliefs and it can be difficult to tell the differences between these and those for children's play. One of the oldest official and clearly identified toys were found on a site of a 3300 year old temple in Iran. They are small pull along figures of a lion and a porcupine carved in limestone mounted on wheeled platforms and pulled along by a string. Another early discovery is a crude doll with movable arms and legs, which kneads bread or grinds corn when a string is pulled. The traditional Yo-Yo is believed to be the second oldest toy in known history. Some toy historians believe the yo-yo was originally used for hunting purposes.

Pre 16th century American native children played with cornhusk dolls, small bows and arrows and leather balls stuffed with feathers. In 1585 the members of the Roanoke Expedition took dolls in Elizabethan dress for children they expected to find in the new country. The oldest surviving doll in the United States is called Letitia Penn after the daughter of William Penn, who brought the doll from Europe to Pennsylvania in 1699. In 1658 Jan Amos Komensky, a Czech educator wrote the first picture book for children and it was realized that illiteracy was a disadvantage in an expanding world and growing concern with education was felt. In the 1700’s a freer intellectual atmosphere was felt. Parents began to think in terms of their children's happiness as well as their moral wellbeing. This new attitude was reflected in an expanding toy trade and toy shops began to appear. The USA founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote about a toy store in Boston in 1713 where, for a few coppers, he was able to buy a whistle. In 1785 an advertisement in the Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia had dolls, drums and toy harps for sale.

The advent of the Industrial Revolution changed the character of toys due to being able to manufacture them in larger quantities. Wooden toys, straw and stone were rapidly displaced by iron and tinplate. Children could get manufactured toys at reasonable prices instead of having to make their own, a growing trend that accelerated factory production and distribution. Toys also became more and more sophisticated and by the end of the 19th century construction toys were appearing. Then by the early twentieth century electric trains and powered mechanical toys became very popular. Production was hampered during wars and sometimes ceased altogether as a result of shortages of both materials and labour. World Wars 1 and 2 were memorably disruptive, with many toy manufacturers converting all production to materials for war. Following World War 2 production gradually changed. Space toys with plastic parts such as robots and rockets became popular. Most of these were made in Japan. Electrical and battery operated toys have gradually come to replace those animated by spring-driven motors. The growth of television and video games has also affected pastimes and traditional games. But the longing of some parents and children for more conventional toys has led to a resurgence of the wooden toy and stuffed toy industries. Today's toy industry remains a blend of the revolutionary and traditional toys in many ways changed, but in other ways much the same as it was fifty or a hundred years ago.

Toys of Society

As long as toys have existed they have reflected the cultures that produced them. They reflect popular styles of clothing, activities, occupations, social standards and conditions. For example boats, wheeled vehicles and planes of transportation all show the styles of the period in which they were made. Doll makers and craft toys often reflect period styles and clothing. This continues in today’s society with Barbie clothes (Barbie Doll's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts), cars and trucks, computer games and the variety of athletic toy items that show the world we live in. Parental concerns about the violent nature of some toys also have historic roots, as toy weapons and military equipment date back to pre-classical times, they also can reflect eras when the males of the family were expected to defend their homes and perform military service as required.

Gender and Toys

Boys and girls show little difference in preference for pre-school toys. Something appears to happen around the age of five that divides children. Girls start playing with dolls and boys with soldiers? Boys usually want all kinds of playthings and girls seem to settle on dolls as their favourites. The toy industry blames the dearth of girl products on conservative parents who don't want their sons to play with dolls and who won't buy racing cars for their daughters! Industry executives claim any sexist charges are unfounded because toy makers would want to double their sales by marketing toys for girls (The USA buys more than $14 billion annually), but advertising suggests it is more interested in pushing boys toys than changing buying patterns. Among the most advertised in 1993 eleven of the top fifteen were for boys, three at girls and one was gender-neutral. This disparity stems at least partly from the fact that parents are more generous with sons than daughters. Boys account for 60% of purchases for age’s four to seven. The gender gap widens as they get older. Between eight to nine boys prompt 62% of total purchases and 70% at ten to twelve. The parental spending gap may reflect the fact that girls mature faster and start asking for clothes, cassette tapes and other gifts in their pre-teen years. Lately though, some firms are trying to introduce more girl oriented products, especially interactive computer programs. (Excerpts from a Wall Street Journal article by Joseph Pereira 23.9.1994).

The World of Toys

European toys were often handcrafted at home from simple materials, or in the case of the wealthier in small quantities by skilled craftsmen. During the middle ages the large network of fairs that sprang up across Europe created a demand for handcrafted toys to sell. Many reflected the life around them (knights, horses, saints). One of the earliest and most long lasting is the hobby horse. Usually it was a simply carved stick, but many had elaborate trappings and in later years rockers were provided for movement. German craftsmen, with their unlimited supply of material from the forests, specialised in beautifully carved and painted toys. Craftsmen's guilds established strict standards to ensure quality and Nuremberg became a centre for the distribution of toys. Gradually German toy manufacturers came to dominate the market. By the end of the 19th century large German factories were turning out high quality dolls, mechanical toys, construction sets, and the favourites from the past. They were so popular in the U.S.A. that before World War 1 American merchant traders purchased one quarter of the production.

American Toys: Frank Bellow wrote the following in his book The Art of Amusing in 1866:- „Perhaps one of the great social faults of the American is that he does not amuse himself enough, at least in a cheerful, innocent manner. We are never jolly. We are terribly troubled about our dignity. All other nations, the French, the German, the Italian, and even the...English, have their relaxation, their merry-making; but we, why, a political or prayer-meeting is about the most hilarious affair in which we ever indulge.“ Bellow went on to explain over one hundred „merry games, odd tricks, curious puzzles and new charades“ that were guaranteed to amuse „some desperate individual(s).“ Early New England Puritans work ethic strongly discouraged children from playing with toys. At one time, they even forbade the celebration of Christmas, Xmas gifts and the Christmas party games associated with it. Children were thought of as miniature adults (and since no laws existed to protect them) and they were forced to work alongside adults. With labour being scarce young people's work was essential to the survival of the community. On Sundays children were allowed to play with toys taught with a moral lesson, like Noah's Ark. Some of these handcrafted pieces were very elaborate and are now collectable antique toys. As a result of the restrictions children often made their own playthings from left over materials. Indian traditions like making dolls from corncobs were also adopted. In spite of the heavy work emphasis, 17th and 18th century kids indulged in many simple games whenever they could. Boys managed to escape to play cricket, football, tag and hide and seek, although these games were actually forbidden at one time or another. The southern colonies were freer and more affluent and with hired or slave labour to perform the harder work there was more time and energy to spend on amusements. This often created scandals in the North. Most of them were European toys and imported. Despite the strict environment of New England, it was there that the toy industry of America actually started. Home workers and industries started in the north, drawing on the region's traditions of self-discipline and hard work. Many farmers, shunning idleness even after a full day's work, whittled away in the evenings on a toy doll or animal.

With the arrival of immigrants religious strictures eased and play became more accepted. By the early 1700’s toy shops were seen throughout the American colonies. Many stocked European toys, with most from Germany. Initially, American merchants visited Europe to buy for their shops, but by the end of the eighteenth century the sellers were beginning to contact customers direct using catalogues and price lists. The F. A. O. Schwarz Toy Store in New York City (the founder came from Westphalia) started in 1862. It is one of the oldest toy shops in the United States and still serves as a barometer for the latest in toy designs.

During the late 1860’s and 1870’s factories were turning out tin toys by the tens of millions. Tin horses pulling wagons, fire engines, trains, horses in hoops and complete kitchens (sometimes equipped with a working water pump) were popular gifts and Christmas presents. Tinplate remained popular into the 1930’s and 40’s, but was then replaced by less expensive plastic components. America has a vast supply of natural resources: wood, tin and iron. Between 1800 and 1850 several small firms made wooden toys, but in quantities far too small to be considered mass produced. Large scale toy making was not established until the nation began to industrialise rapidly after the Civil War. Among the early toymakers was the Crandall family who created wood toys for three generations of shoppers in Pennsylvania and New York. In the early 19th century a few Connecticut tinsmiths made a simple tinplate toy range such as bubble pipes and whistles. Tinplate products were fairly expensive, because tin had to be imported before the ore mines were opened in Galena, Illinois in the 1840’s. The introduction of the mechanical metal stamping machine in Europe allowed tinplate to be quickly stamped into shape using dies and heavy presses. American manufacturers gradually began to apply these innovations. Many early American tinplate toys had clockwork motors, some of which ran for up to half an hour. During the 1880’s toymakers in Europe began to manufacture inexpensive spring driven tinplate ones on a vast scale, capturing a major share of the American market. Their products were charming and cheaper because they used stamped tinplate gears rather than heavy brass gears. By 1900 one third of all tinplate toys made in Germany were sold in the United States. American firms recognized the great potential of this expanding market and began to produce large quantities of spring-driven tinplate toys in the early 20th century and sacrificed quality for low cost production. Production of these was discontinued during World War 2.

Cast iron was the American toy manufacturer’s specialty. With rich deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone (all necessary for the production of usable iron) the U.S.A. became a world leader in the iron industry after the Civil War. The demand for iron for railroads, pipelines and bridges encouraged mineral extraction and smelting companies to expand the available supply of iron and reduce its relative cost, making it a suitable material for toys. At the same time improvements in casting technology also helped reduce costs. Although Europeans had been using iron for wheels and other components in tinplate and wooden toys since the 18th century, they never really exploited the advantages of this material. The Americans were and the most popular cast iron toys are now among collector’s collectibles today. Gradually supplanted by cheaper metals cast iron continued to be used to make toys until World War 2.

Dolls, The Oldest Toy?

The word doll comes from the Greek work „eidolon“ meaning idol. Religious images mainly of a funereal nature survive today. There are theories that these were handed over as childrens toys as they lost their significance in time. Among the wealth of figures left by the Egyptians are artefacts that most probably were dolls. Greeks and Romans also certainly had dolls. Most from ancient Greece were of burnt clay and jointed with the limbs hooked on by string or cord. They have a strong resemblance to the modern jointed doll. A young Greek girl would dedicate her doll and its wardrobe to the goddess Artemis when she married at the age of twelve. Rag dolls were common by Roman times.

The earliest European dolls to survive are made of clay. In Strasbourg specimens were found dating from the thirteenth century. A doll maker is recorded as working at Nuremberg as early as 1413. However, the central European forests provided doll makers with their best material: wood. Eventually dolls were made from wax, paper maché, porcelain, bisque and after 1851 of rubber (ideal for hugging and handling). Goodyear patented the first rubber doll around this time. Today most dolls are made from vinyl, a flexible plastic which colours easily to imitate skin tones. As early as 1585 the Europeans who wanted to colonise America gave them to the Native Americans as gifts. They seemed pleased with these Elizabethan dolls which were so different from their own of corn husk, bead and feathers.

Dolls with moving eyes first appeared in England in about 1825. The eyes opened and shut by means of a wire coming out of the body at the waist, which was easily concealed by the big dresses of the time. The first speaking ones were made in the 1820’s by the Frenchman Johann Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome for the piano. By 1823 Maelzel displayed dolls that said „Maman“ when their left hands were raised to shoulder level and „Papa“ when their right hands were raised. Maelzel took out a patent in 1834. Around the 1820’s pictures of children with baby dolls appeared. Before this they resembled small, exquisitely and formally dressed adults. Today they come in all shapes and sizes and can even perform tasks of their human counterparts and animals. Like a lot of toys today some are not designed for children at all, but made to appeal directly to the play instinct latent in most adults. Japan has pioneered in the development of robotics.

Mechanical Toys History

Over 2000 years ago ancient Greeks used wind and water to power moving statues, manmade singing birds and self-opening doors. Mechanical toys were known as early as the third century BC and in the first century AD the Roman writer Petronius refers to a silver doll which could move like a human being. In India and Arabia moving dolls and mechanical birds were known in medieval times. These were displayed at European fairs and most of the average population saw such things as mysterious and with suspicion. The Church condemned them as instruments of the devil. Medieval and the pre-medieval history of Europe reveal that moving images of one sort or another were constantly billed as novel attractions at fairs.

The wealthier, however, welcomed these entertaining objects. In 1509 Leonardo da Vinci made a mechanical lion walk through a long hall and place a fleur-de-lis at the feet of the king Louis XII as a present. In 1632 King Gustavus Adolphus received an extremely expensive cabinet in which two lavishly dressed dolls danced together. In the 17th century Louis XIV was given a richly decorated miniature carriage that had horses and servants. When the carriage travelled the length of a table and stopped in front of the king a little doll got out and curtseyed, presented a petition, returned to the carriage, and drove off again! In the second half of the 18th century, Pierre Joquet-Droz (a Swiss watchmaker) and his son Henry became so famous for their ingenuity that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette invited them to their court. Among their inventions was a doll called ‘the writer’ that could write properly (and move to look like it was copying something). Another invention ‘the designer’ was a figure that drew pictures that looked like the king! ‘The musician’ was a young girl seated at a clavichord, which appeared to play a tune, and she moved to the music. One of their most famous devices was a clock that played nine tunes embellished with a woman seated on a balcony that waved her hand and took pinches of snuff, a flute-playing shepherd, a bleating lamb, and a dog that barked if anyone touched the tiny basket of apples he was guarding. One of the earliest surviving automatic toys today is a sixteenth century Hapsburg collection gondola thought to be done by Hans Schlottheim of Augsburg. The general public most probably never saw any of these elaborate gifts. Eventually clockworks became more common and simpler mechanisms were invented. By the Victorian era mechanical monkeys were very popular and were also used in advertising (e.g. smoking or drinking tea). In the 1880’s small steam engines were used to power miniature fire engines, locomotives and boats. Electrical batteries followed powering railroads and swings for dolls and all the things we see today.

American clockwork toys (dancing figures, trains, steamboats) are memorable from the late 19th century and some of the only ones made with actual clock mechanisms.
Produced for only 30 years primarily in the northeast, the centre of the clock making industry there, they were costly to manufacture and expensive at around 2.50 to 4.50 dollars each. George Brown (introduced some in 1860) and E. R. Ives were both from Connecticut and were principal makers. They are activated by a key-wound spring that operates levers and rods connected to the movable parts. Some can work for up to thirty minutes. Heavy gauge brass gears are added to make parts run at different speeds.

There are two types of non-clockwork mechanical toys: spring driven and friction. Spring driven became popular after World War 1. In cars and other vehicles, the spring is wound by a key. These toys have cheap stamped tinplate gears instead of the heavy gauge brass ones (in clockwork) and they run for only two or three minutes. Friction toys are wheeled toys operated by a central inertia wheel called a friction wheel. European friction toys have a small cast lead friction wheel connected to a pulley that is activated by being spun like a top. American ones have a heavy cast iron friction wheel, which is activated by spinning the rear wheels against a surface. When the toy is then placed on the ground, the friction wheel provides momentum to the ordinary wheel(s).

Memorable Vintage Toys

Skittles can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and perhaps further. The game was seen in England from Tudor times and recognised by the end of the 19th century by the formation of the Amateur Skittles Association. It comes in many shapes and sizes, but the original game remains the same. It is an educational game too by helping children develop hand eye coordination and promote sharing and communication when taking turns to bowl. They can also be used in imaginative play and sometimes are works of art when not in use.

Jacob's Ladder
The Jacobs ladder is one of the oldest and famous of humble folk toys. There is a legend that one was found in the Egyptian King Tut's tomb (along with Tutankhamen's jewellery, amulets, masks of pure gold, a solid gold coffin, statues, furniture, and even a full-sized chariot), presuming use before 1352 BC when the king died at about 18 years old. They are named so from Jacob in the bible seeing a vision of a ladder leading from earth up to heaven. Like the spinning top, Jacobs ladder seems to be universal, and they are found all over the world. But how does this forces educational toy work? An engineer would say that the apparent falling of the blocks has to do with a double acting hinge. To operate the toy, simply hold the top block by its edges and let the rest of the identical blocks swing downward until the ladder is fully open. Then by holding the top block by its edges turn it 180° in a left rotation until the top and second blocks are parallel and touching. When the held block hits the hanging block, a series of blocks begin to cascade down. Then repeat the 180° motion to the right.

The traditional Yo-Yo is believed to be the second oldest toy in known history.
Some toy historians believe the yo-yo was originally used for hunting purposes.

Fun stuff, Make a Toy

How to Make a Jacobs Ladder
You need 6, 7, or 8 blocks of 31 inch x 13 inch x 3/8 inch hardwood or plywood, a 10 foot length of medium weight binding tape or ribbon, lace, and 1 inch long headed brads. Glue often seeps into the tapes by capillary action; beyond the tops and bottoms of the blocks; and makes the tapes stiff making the wood toy run poorly or not at all. A better way is to attach the tapes with small headed brads or tapering nails (the larger and thinner the head, the better). The brads hold down the tapes sufficiently well in a simple attachment to the block and the toy runs very smoothly.

Step (1): Cut out six, seven, or eight rectangles measuring 31 inches by 13 inches from 3/8 inch thick hardwood or plywood (the number of rectangles can depend on the height of the child and on the distance from the child's hand to the floor).

Step (2): If you're using plywood, fill any voids in the laminate with fast drying wood putty, sand well with 180 or 220 grit sandpaper and paint the blocks contrasting colours. If you're using fine grained hardwood blocks, leave them unpainted or finish them with varnish or oil before attaching the tapes.

Step (3): Stand the blocks on end and using a sharp pencil mark a centreline for one tape that will go over, under and over, under all the blocks. Turn the blocks over and draw the same centring line on the opposite end.

Step (4): Place the first block on a table. Attach a length of binding tape (available from any sewing shop) to one end of the block with two brads centring it over the centreline. Then tack the two side tapes onto the opposite end of the first block (1/16 of an inch from the block's edges). Lay the tapes across the face of the block so that the two side tapes go in the opposite direction to the centre tape.

Step (5): Place a second block on top of the first and wrap the tapes around the block. Pull the tapes snug, but not too tight (making sure no tape is twisted). If the tapes are too tight, the blocks won't flow. Tip the block on end and nail each tape with two brads.

Step (6): Continue adding blocks and attaching tapes with two brads to the alternating ends of each block until you reach the end. Trim the excess tape from the ends when the last block is in place. If everything is done right, when you look at the ends of the blocks, you should see a pattern of single tape, double tape, single tape, and so on.

Step (7): It is ready to use!

Jocob’s Ladder Money Trick
Fold a note of money into a small rectangle and tuck it under one of the tapes on a block. Operate the toy. It will continue to disappear and appear!

Toy History Links

Here are some interesting web sites relating to toy history, old wood toys and antique toys memorabilia and books.

Judy's Web site for old wooden toys from the 1850s to the 1950s. Pull toys and other toys by Schoenhut, Ted Toy-lers, Hustler Toy Company, Toy Tinkers, and other toy companies. Company histories. Toy lists. Links to collectors. http://www.oldwoodtoys.com/search.htm

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