Toys! What a wonderful time of year to think about toys! Why do toys make us so happy? Well, they engage our brains in a fun way and stimulate our imagination. Many toys are purely for entertainment; they have moving parts, make sound, or have flashing lights. Some are used for sport or physical activity, such as bikes and jumping ropes. Others spark imagination, such as building blocks or coloring and drawing books. How many toys serve the purpose of teaching life lessons? More than you think. Some of the most beloved toys of our childhoods, worn by repeated use, were cherished because they were fun and gave us years of unending entertainment and lasting memories. Did we realize while we were enjoying these toys that we were also learning valuable skills?
It is difficult to imagine a time when toys were not part of a child’s world. As recently as the early 17th century, children were thought to be born with sinful and inherently evil natures. Parents and society believed that these natures had to be conquered by the force of strict discipline, by teaching goodness through prayer and going to church, and by reinforcing good manners. The few toys that did exist, such as spinning tops and playing cards, were shared by adults and children alike.
The idea of integrating learning through games and play began later during the Enlightenment or “Age of Reason.” Enlightenment was a social and cultural movement of the late 17th century, which emphasized reason, scientific method, and individualism over tradition and religion. By the middle of the 18th century, the concept of Enlightenment became more widespread and began to be accepted in the home, which affected the way that children and their role were viewed.
Under the newly enlightened philosophy, it was generally believed that children were instead born with inherent goodness, purity, and innocence. It was thought that education should begin at birth and continue well into adulthood. The new parental approach included encouragement of natural growth, instilling love, and nurturing personal interests. Protecting children’s innocence from the adult world became a parent’s priority. This is where the idea of a home nursery, a dedicated place for spontaneous play and learning, came into being. The nursery was an isolated space where children ate their meals, took lessons, and slept. Child-related objects, toys, and furniture began to be made specifically for use in the nursery.
Interestingly many of those nursery toys would be similar to the ones we use today—for example, a doll. Girls could emulate their mothers by caring for a special doll, making clothes for and dressing it, and giving it “life” with imaginative play. Dolls often became cherished by the family who passed it down from generation to generation.
This Winterthur doll dates from the mid-1800s. She is dressed in a silk, checked dress, bloomers, knit stockings, a laced corset with stays, two petticoats, a pocket around her waist holding a tiny handkerchief, and a large, silk, triangular scarf pinned around a net cap. Dolls such as this were often dressed in homemade clothing resembling clothes worn by the girl’s mother.
While young girls at this time enjoyed playing with their tea sets, they were learning important social skills, such as proper etiquette and how to be an elegant hostess in society. Using her imagination, a girl could emulate her mother and set a fashionable table, serve a meal, or host a high society tea party. Childhood playing was actually a rehearsal for adulthood.
As people began to work by the hour or week and were paid in cash, money management and responsible financial behavior were considered necessary values to leading a good life. Parents of all economic classes felt obligated to teach their children about saving. Toy banks taught the value of thrift while making the practice of saving money fun. To meet the demand for toy banks, toy manufacturers made banks from various materials in all shapes and sizes. Because the satisfying sound of clanging coins was magnified by hard materials, most banks were made of ceramic or metal.
The socioeconomic lesson learned from the nursery rhyme “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” is conveyed in this miniature toy. This black oilcloth, open-toed slipper contains small straw dolls representing an old woman and 10 poorly dressed children with painted faces. Some considered that reading the poem (and playing with the toy) sensitized the child to the plight and life of women with large families. A life lesson taught through a toy!
Sunday was a time for rest and worship. Toys made specifically for Sunday play, called “Sunday toys,” were religious in nature and based on stories from the Bible. For children in the late 1800s, Noah’s Ark sets were a popular and treasured toy. Sometimes elaborately made, the arks carried as many as 100 pairs of animals as well as Noah and his family. This example has an ark shaped like a large house. The red roof opens on one side for storing the hand-carved, painted treasures that would go inside: 67 animals, 56 birds, and 6 human figures. While the primary lesson to be learned was that of Noah obeying God’s command, children’s imaginations often branched off into variations of Treasure Island or Swiss Family Robinson.
Between 1700 and 1900, children’s toys were not only fun but also provided important life lessons through play and imagination. The lessons emphasized appropriate social behavior, socioeconomic lessons, morality, religious mores, proper etiquette, and the value of money. While they may not have realized it, children were learning for life as they played.
Post by Roberta G. Weisberg, Senior Cataloger, and Dayle Thorpe, Volunteer in the Textile Collections Department