05 December 2013
Jane Harrop gives us all a general history of toys ...
Toys date back to ancient times and the excavation of Stone Age graves, when a person was buried with their belongings, shows that children possessed small crude looking forms, very much like toys. Historians believe they would have been some sort of symbolic religious item used to ward off evil spirits rather than a plaything.
The similarities follow with the Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Romans and Vikings, with remains revealing articles like hollow whistles and rattles, small sit on pull along carts, miniature furniture, dolls with beaded hair and small animals carved from a variety of natural materials including wood, stone, bone, mud, clay, bronze and earthenware. There is no doubt as time progressed along the historical time line that these types of items were found to amuse children.
Up until the middle ages most toys would have been homemade, and for the poor would have continued to be. For the wealthy toys began to be sold on market stalls and by pedlars.
By the sixteenth century the making of wooden toys began to be commercially made by craftsmen and by the seventeenth century Nuremburg became established as the world toy trading centre due to the abundance of trees in the Black Forest. One of the first and most famous of all early toys made in Germany was the Noah’s Ark toy. The region was also responsible for producing the first rocking horse, which is considered to be one of the most traditional toys of all time and also the first dolls’ houses for adults. A century later in 1700 they were made in England and known as baby houses for girls to practice playing home in preparation for adult life.
As time progressed toys began to be sold in shops, however, at that time a ‘toy’ related to a knick-knack rather than a child’s plaything and the shop would have sold other goods such as drugs, spices and small wares. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that shops were entirely devoted to toys and games. The word ‘toy’ was used by craftsmen to describe a tiny copy of the real thing in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Oxford dictionary defines a ‘toy’ as: an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.
By the Victorian era, mass-production and better pay meant that toys became more affordable and with the growth of the railways toys could be easily distributed around the country. The most popular material for making toys still remained wood, although colourfully designed tin plate toys were particularly popular with boys as they could be bought from traders for a penny. Girls preferred dolls, traditional wooden dolls with stick like arms and legs were made is great quantities in Germany, although English dolls were favoured as they were much more refined and made from wax and later porcelain.
By 1900 the English toy industry had finally began to compete with German manufacturers, toys shops had something for everyone, well made toys for the rich and cheaper toys for the poor. One book describes the period as having an avalanche of toys. The industrial development of transport and the increased production of man-made materials meant that the toy industry boomed.
Soft toys which had been home-made for centuries became particularly popular with the wonderful creations from Margarete Steiff and the most appealing of all twentieth century toys, the teddy bear first made in America in1903.
Toys which had essentially been made for adults were miniaturised and optical toys like the zoetrope could be bought in kit form for a penny. Frank Hornby from England invented his famous model making construction system ‘Mecano’. More toys than we can mention were produced as the century progressed, children’s literature and later television often being the catalyst for many new designs.
The production of toys declined during Second World War, but resumed in force during the 1950s when the new material ‘plastic’ revolutionised the toy industry.
Throughout the centuries, there have been two main categories of toys; toys that move and toys that don’t move. Toys have played and continue to play a major part in a child’s development and one of the best places to see this, together with the evolution of the toy industry is at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London (www.museumofchildhood.org.uk).
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© Jane Harrop
The teddy bears accompanying this article have been made by Sue Wilkes from ‘Shoe Button Bears’ (T: 0161 282 8636, E: [email protected]) and the pull along circus tiger and Jumeau doll by Sandra Morris from 'Tower House dolls’ (www.towerhousedolls.co.uk). The remaining photographs are toys that have been made by myself (www.janeharrop.co.uk), some of which are projects from my book ‘Toys and Games’.
This feature was originally published in Dolls House and Miniature Scene magazine. If you like making miniatures, why not buy yourself a copy of the magazine. Or better still take out a subscription so you never miss an issue. For fans of Facebook and Twitter, or to email, print or comment on the feature, please use the buttons above to share with your friends.