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The History Of Children’s Toys

The History Of Children’s Toys


The history of children’s toys ranges from a simple cup and ball to a Slinky.  Toys don’t necessarily have to be complicated to provide hours of enjoyment. Since the dawn of time, children have played with toys both to amuse themselves and to learn about the world around them.

The Origins of the Doll

Some of the oldest known toys are human-type figures or dolls. It is said that the word ‘doll’ or ‘dolly’ originates from the 16th century and was a term of endearment used for a female pet or mistress. It was, and still is, used as the shortened form of the name Dorothy.

Children of ancient Greece and Rome played with dolls made from the materials that were available. These materials included ivory, wood, clay or bunched together rags (the original rag dolls). Unlike traditional African dolls, we know that these dolls were playthings rather than for magic or spiritual rituals. This is because they have been found inside the graves of ancient Roman children.

Different cultures over the ages have had their own dolls. For example, the Inuits made dolls from soapstone and fur.  Native American Indians had dolls made from corn husks, with no faces.  Legend has it that it was the crop goddesses’ punishment to the doll for her vanity.

Ancient Japanese Dogu dolls date back as far as 8,000 BC. Their use is not known but by the 11th century, children played with elaborately dressed wood and straw Hina dolls. Later, came the production of wood and wax Kokeshi dolls. They were typified by their oversized heads and absence of limbs. The fascinating folkloric Russian or Matryoshka wooden nesting dolls first appeared in the late 19th century. Now they are a world-famous symbol of the country.

Contrary to popular belief, a peg or Dutch doll was originally a jointed wooden doll produced in Germany. We now think of them as being the simple dolls made from clothes pegs.  During the first half of the 20th century it was predominantly  children from impoverished families whom played with these dolls.

Increasingly common from the 1860s, Parian dolls had a stuffed fabric body and an unglazed hand-painted porcelain face (sometimes hands and feet) with proper hair and glass eyes. Interestingly, brown eyes predominated until Queen Victoria’s influence made blue eyes more sought after.

Pioneering Puppets

Like the doll, articulated figures made to move with strings or rods, otherwise known as marionettes. Their counterpart, hand puppets, were in use across East Asia to Europe as early as the first dolls.

Initially created for performance, French minstrels in the 13th century would entertain crowds with hand puppets.  It was out of this tradition that Punch (originally Punchinello) and Judy was born, first recorded in England in 1662.

Today, we see the tale of Punch and Judy as a rather horrifying lesson in physical abuse, but in those days children were viewed as mini-adults. Therefor they would not have been protected from violence in the real world – hence some of the more gruesome fairy tale books. It was the late Victorians who first began to treat children with more sensitivity, shielding them from the harsh realities of adulthood.

A New Era of Toys

In the past, children wouldn’t have owned as many toys as they do today – perhaps only two or three items. These could have included a hoop and stick, an inflated ball made of a pig’s bladder and a set of glass marbles. Very wealthy children, particularly girls, would have been lucky enough to own a doll’s house (invented in the 16th century) or a rocking horse. Slightly less well-off children might have had a hobby horse – a simple wooden horse’s head on a stick that could also be ‘ridden’. Christmas stockings would have included an orange or a bag of nuts as often as a skipping rope, a set of jacks or a simple string used for cat’s cradle.

Some of the most popular toys were invented by academics in pursuit of learning. It was John Spilsbury who created the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767, by cutting up maps of the world to teach children geography. In 1816 Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster invented the kaleidoscope (Greek for ‘beautiful form watcher’) while studying polarisation optics.

The now iconic teddy bear was unveiled in the US in 1902 and is said to have taken its name from President Theodore Roosevelt. The following year, Europe began producing teddy bears , notably in Germany where the now famous teddy company Steiff was launched. We recognise their collectable bears by the button in their ear.

The industrial revolution brought mass production of toys and the coming of train sets, metal die-cast cars and mechanical playthings. The subsequent advent of plastics brought with it a huge surge in the development of toys. The 20th century heralded more availability and variety than ever with the invention of Lego (from the Danish ‘leg godt’ meaning ‘play well’), Meccano and, today, all manner of electronic gizmos.

But the best toy of all? It will undoubtedly always be a child’s imagination.

By Catherine Rose



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