Almost two centuries before Christ, a singing bird was invented by Hero of Alexandria; it became the model for a variety of whistles which have been popular ever since that time. From the ancient past, in Babylon, Persia, Egypt and elsewhere, animals made of clay, sleds, balls, and playthings on wheels survive as testimony that toys were part of human culture. The existence of toys reaches back to the dawn of civilization. For example, in the Stone Age, musical instruments made of bone and rattles made from gourds have been found as evidence that from the earliest days of humankind, people were reaching toward the art of living. The toys produced in the preChristian era can be used to study in miniature the progress of humans.
A popular winter toy of today was man’s earliest means of conveyance. The wooden sled used to drag food by early hunters has been dated as early as 6500 B.C. in Finland. Certainly children over the years discovered an exciting use riding downhill through snow. It would not be until 1889 however, that the first steering sled, the
, was produced. Another very old toy is the kite. The Chinese were flying kites a thousand years before Christ. They believed that the kite had the power to clear the skies of storms and chase evil away. Probably early Dutch traders brought the kite to Europe in the sixteenth century. A couple of centuries later, a kite was used by Benjamin Franklin in his experiments with electricity.
Toys have been found in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman burial sites, as well as among the remains of the Mayan and Aztec cultures in the new world. Maya children played with a wheeled toy shaped like a mountain wolf. The body was made of baked clay with four wooden wheels attached. It was made about 1100 A.D., and suggests that the Mayas knew about the wheel although they did not use it on carts or wagons for transportation. Toy horses made of clay existed in the days of the Egyptian Pharaohs, and the hobby horse may have been known to the Christ child. Egyptian children had tops, balls, toy boats, and pullalong animals; dolllike figures existed in the culture but were funeral figures and not playthings. Hoops were of particular interest to the Greeks because of their use in physical exercise. Tops originated in Japan, but all the early civilizations enjoyed spinning tops made in a variety of sizes. From the top, the gyroscope evolved as a later scientific development.
During the Middle Ages, fairs were annual events held on holidays; toy peddlers were in attendance selling figures of knights and soldiers, song birds, wooden dolls, animals, and more. For a penny or two, children could buy hobby horses which were very popular. They were simply constructed of a stick about two feet long with a carved horse’s head attached. Children would mimic the soldiers and other galloping riders as they paraded and pranced through the streets. “Ride a cockhorse to Banbury cross. . .” as the rhyme instructs.
Toys that move have always fostered a feeling of wonder. The royal houses of Europe, from the Renaissance on, became fascinated with automatic toys which combined the skill of craftsmen and mechanical science. Rather simple by today’s standards, the mechanical toys were made by skilled artisans who used air, water, mercury or clockworks to operate them. The concealed causes of movement were a mystery to many, and their making was sometimes thought to be the practice of sorcery. These lifelike mechanical toys became the delight of the royal and rich who demanded more novelties. As craftsmen created more realistic and complicated ones, art and science merged in the production of toys. Minute mechanisms performed natural movements in a mechanical duck made by the French toymaker, Jacques de Vaucanson, 170982. According to Dan Foley, the duck could paddle through water, preen its feathers, and move its neck. Moreover, the duck could swallow grain, digest the grain by means of a chemical solution inside and dispose of it “naturally.” (p. 53.) The problem of mechanical toys was that they were expensive and were not produced in quantity until the 1800’s. These complicated automatons that could lead orchestras or puff smoke were playthings for the rich.
Wooden toy carving is a traditional skill that has been practiced in many German villages since the Middle Ages. The skills were passed from one generation to the next, and every family member might develop 9 specialty. The town of Nuremburg became a distribution center for rural and village toymakers; later it became a production center for tin soldiers and other metal toys. It was in Germany that toymaking developed into an industry. By the end of the eighteenth century, toy sellers began to reach a large market of customers through the use of catalogues with price lists and illustrations. Toymaking, which had been a traditional German folk art, was transformed into a large industry. With the increase of machinery, standardization began, but the toys’ sturdy construction, bright colors, and design did not lessen their popularity.
The eighteenth century brought a spread of toys among children; paper and cardboard were used to make puppets. Paper dolls, ships, and soldiers began to appear. Doll clothing became more detailed with extensive wardrobes. Doll houses reflected current architecture and ranged from the elaborate to the simple lines of American colonial style. In the same period, models of soldiers were increasing as the martial spirit swept Europe.
The military exploits of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, 174086, popularized a toy that has had continued appeal. The tin soldier, made in Nuremburg in 1760, is referred to by Dan Foley as the “doll of boyhood.” (p. 62.) Small replicas of warriors and horses existed in ancient Greece, bronze soldiers were used in Roman days, and miniature clay knights were made during the Middle Ages. These ancestors of the tin soldier existed as individual pieces rather than parts of larger sets, and were expensive to produce. The tin soldier as an inexpensive toy was the work of a master craftsman, Andreas Hilpert of Nuremburg. By the 1860’s, Great Britain began to produce hollow soldiers that were soon copied by the Germans and later by the Japanese. (
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The standardization of size allowed children to maneuver soldiers on an equal basis in mock battles. Cannons, gear, horses, and soldiers provided excitement for children playing at war. At the same time, they were learning the militarism that was growing out of the rise of nationalism in Europe.
Music boxes, carousels, and musical instruments provided entertainment and also added music to the child’s world. On a less sophisticated level, bells, rattles, whistles, and squeak toys continued to be found in the hands of the young. Playthings that make sounds allowed children greater expression, enabling them to exercise their diaphragms and to practice dexterity. Noise has been a part of many cultures’ ceremonies in times of peace and war; with musical toys, children could perform and mimic the adult world’s rituals and arts.
The nineteenth century marked the arrival of optical toys such as the
. It consisted of a metal drum which could rotate on an axis. The drum was cut with a series of thin slots into which could be placed paper strips showing figures at different stages of movement. When turned, the figures appeared to move, creating the illusion of live action. The interest in movement and light at this time led to the development of the camera and the use of photographs. Continued experimentation in this area led to the Kaleidoscope which is still popular today. The Magic Lantern which used handpainted, colored slides was a short step from the development of moving slides that were projected on a large surface. By 1908, the Kittiscope was being advertised as a “moving picture machine,” notes Antonia Fraser. (p. 124.) Mechanical toys, optics, and projected, moving images led inventors towards the age of cinematography. It should be noted that optical toys were results on the juvenile level of the scientific advances in photography. “. . .When stereoscopic vision has become a reality in the motionpicture field, do we find a return to the pocket viewer, and reflect on how scientific trends in the adult world are quickly translated into children’s toys,” writes Leslie Daiken. (p. 27.)