Turning from the general history of toys to the toys in the American past, it can be noted that the rigor of colonial life and Puritan strictness in New England did not halt children’s play and their use of toys. The early English settlers brought dolls as gifts to the Indians. Of course, the American natives were familiar with dolls and introduced the corn husk doll to the newcomers. The Indians made toys and dolls from the things that nature provided. Both groups found that the cat’s cradle was common to their societies. Some Indian toys have joined our culture, and they amuse and teach as they did long ago. For example, the Pawnee Indians used a wooden hoop from which bright colored items were hung. The hoop was attached to the cradle and attracted the baby’s eyes and hands. Today we call it the cradle gym.
The struggle for survival in early America necessitated a childhood of short duration. Amusements in which the young could partake were usually connected with the work cycle, such as the gathering of all ages for some cooperative activitycorn husking bees or barn raisings. Just as children’s clothing was not any different from the adults, nor were their amusements, which included cockfignting. Premature death in colonial times was very common, and there was a high rate of child mortality. “Toy coffins complete with removable carved wooden figures of the deceased, introduced a note of grim reality into the youngster’s creative play,” according to Brant and Cullman in
. (p. 45.) Despite the Puritan period’s limitation on play, children did escape to their own world and played with kites, balls, and marbles in outdoor games, and fashioned toys with their jackknife, which is a term that means a boy’s knife.
A group of toys that has been part of our heritage since the colonial period is the American folk toy. Built from wood, scraps of cloth, corncobs or whatever was at hand, these toys were handmade by people for their own use. Many of the designs for folk toys were passed down from one generation to the next. The puzzles, dolls, action toys, tops and other varieties were fun and sometimes promoted thoughtfulness in the children. Some folk toys, such as the skyhook and the flipperdinger, utilized principles of physics. The latter was a blow pipe with an air outlet on the top side; when the pipe was blown through, a little ball with a hook would rise towards a ring of wire that stood a few inches above it. The object was to hook the ball to the ring by raising it on an air stream. Simpler toys such as beanbags, whistles, bolos, wooden puzzles, and dolls were enjoyed by both maker and user. Made from native materials, folk toys reflect the simple ingenuity of our folk heritage, and often reflected the work of skilled hands and a keen imagination.
The American Revolution introduced a new attitude toward play due to economic prosperity and increasing leisure time. The earlier homemade toys were made more for entertainment, although they often permitted physical and intellectual development as well. Toys directed at teaching appeared during the Revolution years; for example, Locke’s blocks related play to learning. Named after John Locke, they were the earliest alphabet blocks in history. Throughout the 1700’s, Americans continued to make homemade toys, but in the 1800’s, toys became more plentiful. While many were imported from Europe, soon an American industry would take root.
The 1830’s and 1840’s saw the birth of the American toy industry. A guild of toy makers was organized in Massachusetts by William S. Tower in the late 1830’s. During the next few decades, wooden and metal toys were produced by craftsmen working in tool manufacturing or cabinetmaking as a sideline. Wealthy Americans continued to buy imported toys, but after the production of the tin soldier in Germany and England, fastgrowing America joined the competition. With the availability of raw materials and new manufacturing technologies, American manufacturers were able to produce toys in quantity and less expensively than in Europe. In the 1840’s, the Turners in Meriden, Connecticut, and tinners in adjacent towns began to use scrap pieces of tin to make tin toys. From this area, the industry spread to New York and Philadelphia. As American industry expended after the Civil War, metal toys became even more available to a wider domestic audience. By the 1870’s, the George W. Brown Company produced 40 million items each year during that decade.
Trackless toy locomotives, made of tin and powered by a clockwork mechanism or simply pulled, became popular in America. Steamdriven models made of brass and copper with elaborate painted finishes became collectibles rather than toys, because they were considered too dangerous by some parents as toys. The train seemed to symbolize the progress and power of an emerging country during the second industrial revolution, which moved the machine to a prominent place in the society. By the late 1870’s cast iron toys were being made, and between 1866 and 1932, the Ives Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, made the finest iron toys, especially locomotives. The clockwork trains made by Ives included working air whistles and smoking devices that sent up puffs of smoke from the stack. At the end of the nineteenth century, with the development of the drycell battery, electrical trains were produced. As electricity reached into more and more homes, the transformer permitted the use of household current, and miniature railroads grew and entertained young and old.
American companies excelled in the manufacture of iron toys, which were produced from reusable molds. Many iron toys were vehicles that could be pulled. Tens of thousands of circus wagons, carriages, fire engines, and walking horses were made from the 1870’s until World War II. During the last thirty years of the 1800’s, mechanical banks of all varieties became very popular.
Since their introduction in 1903, Teddy bears have survived fads and have maintained the affection of many children. The Teddy bear appeared as the result of a cartoon in the
based on a photograph showing Teddy Roosevelt after a bear hunt with a little brown cub at his feet. Roosevelt had refused to shoot the cub and the cartoon used the analogy to illustrate a border dispute between the states of Mississippi and Louisiana. Leslie Daiken relates that Morris Michtom, who founded the Ideal Toy Corporation, wrote to President Roosevelt inquiring if he could use “Teddy” to refer to the toy bear that he wanted to produce. Roosevelt replied that Michtom was welcome to use the name, and production began. (pp. 118119.) In Germany, the Steiff Company had already been making bears with longer and thinner limbs, but the Teddy bear was strictly American in origin.
Before World War I, toy soldiers began to exceed trains in popularity, and their appearance in English nurseries might suggest the encouragement of the martial spirit. Toy airplanes did start to appear in great numbers and affected the market as space toys would do decades later. German exports to America ceased because of the war while the U.S. industry continued to expand. The 1920’s saw a movement away from war toys at least until the following decade, but the greatest change came in the toy industry itself. With modern methods, the industry was able to produce toys cheaply and thus make commercial toys available to a mass market.
“Let’s play cowboys and Indians” or “cops and robbers” were cries heard in the late 1930’s and into the 1950’s. These games may have been less disturbing to adults than the soldier imitation, but they served the same purpose: children were expressing natural aggressiveness through play. By this play, they could learn to control it. The continuous appeal of guns as toys in the hands of the young made the games more fun. “Bang, bang, you’re dead!”
Attempts to market “peace toys” have met with failure. In Europe, one experiment which had children play with miniature figures of civilians and a model of a Y.W.C.A. resulted in the children using the figures as soldiers and storming the model. Children will continue to build and build with blocks only to make their creation fall down and laugh with glee. The children are just learning to control their environment, exerting their power, and thereby learning about themselves.
Toys that promote constructive play do fill other needs. In 1901, a British inventor, Frank Hornby, patented a set of construction materials made of thin strips of metal with perforations for nuts and bolts. His invention called
was copied in the U.S. and was renamed the
. In his article, Bernard Mergen relates that the sets allowed children to construct skyscrapers which architects were designing for urban America.
, invented in 1914, followed the same idea of building in outline form. (p. 165.)
, which comes from the Danish word “leg,” to play, was invented by Papa Christiansen, who had made wooden toys for his children during the 1930’s depression. His son, after the war, began to make the blocks out of plastic and then designed an interlocking system so that they wouldn’t fall down.
provides many possibilities for children to assemble and rearrange the small blocks according to their creative and constructive instincts.
For centuries children have learned, for example, to walk with push toys. And assuming that there is no fundamental difference between antique toys and those of today, children are still learning. The horsedrawn fire engine of the 1800’s has been replaced by the sleek, motorized ones of today. Even if toys have not changed, their availability to children has for mass production serves to supply a vast and youthful market. The industry uses plastic, steel, and paper which is molded by machines, punch presses, and printing devices. The mechanical hands of industry are directed by the demands for a particular toy that is often created by television and the print media. The beautifully crafted toys of the preplastic era in wood, tin, cast iron, and other materials are the relics of bygone days.
To the child of today, toys of the past may provide little interest; a miniature knight in armour would not excite and a hobby horse would no longer link the plaything to a 20th century occupation. But a survey account of toys in history does give us a picture of the development of human culture.