*** children boys' toys

Children's Toys

boys dolls
Figure 1.--Usually dolls mean that the child is a girl. However some boys also played with dolls like this French boy, the son of emile Zola. This is probably because he had an older sister and was schooled at home. Note how he holds the doll, rather different than a girl when playing with dolls. Jacques wears long shoulder-length hair and is about 6 or 7 years old. He wears a sailor suit that his mother usually dressed him in with above the knee knickers.

Toys have been found in ancient civilizations. The ancient Roman children loved toys and games. The popularity or at least the availability of toys declined in the general economic decline after the fall of Rome. Toys again begin to become more plentiful as the economy of western Europe develops. As late as the 18th and early 19th century, however, there was a general consensus that toys and games were wasteful indulgences and that even young children should be involved in more beneficial activities. This attitude had begun to significantly change by the 19th century and the Victorian era. The popularity of toys increased greatly in the 19th century as modern concepts of childhood began to form and play as an activity for children became more accepted.


Archaeologists have found toys from ancient civilizations. Toys became modern common as Europe emerged from the medievil era and economic conditions improved. As affluence spread over a larger social base, this meant that children had more time to play. As late as the 18th century and the early 19th century, however, as there was a general consensus that toys and games were wasteful indulgences and that even young children should be involved in more beneficial activities. It was common for very young children to be taught to read and even foreign languages. Of course this was the affluent class. Poor children still had to work from an early age and had little time to play or the ability to purchase toys. Most toys at any rate were still hand made and there was little in the stores of the day because even wealthy parents did just not approve of their children playing as it was considered frivolous. This attitude only began to significantly change in the 19th century and the Victorian era. The popularity of toys increased greatly in the 19th century as modern concepts of childhood began to form and play as an activity for children became more accepted. We have archived many images on HBC depicting the toys children played with in different eras.


Photography beginning in the mid-19th century has left us a fascinating record of the toys children played with. A great deal can be learned from these photographs and the tous the children are photographed with. Unfortunarely, we can not always tell that the toys depicted are actually the childs toys. We can be more sure with the family snapshots of the early 20th century.c Boys throughout the ages have become very attached to their toys. Often when they were painted or photographed they have liked to pose with their favorite toys. Sometimes other props were used, but it is likely that the boys generally preferred their toys. In many instances the toys are studio props which the photographers used to help pacify the children while taking their portraits. Here usually we can not tell just from the photograph. Interestingly, the development of photography roughly conicided with the Victorian era and the development of modern attitudes toward toys and child rearing. This tendendency of children to pose with their toys is extremely helpul in identifying the gender of younger children. Boys until the 1920s were commonly outfitted in dresses when younger and many had long hair. Thus it is often difficult to tell if younger children are boys or girls. The props they hold, such as their toys, while not fool proof, can be useful in determining the child's gender. Children holding sports equipment, balls, toy soldiers, guns, and other boyish toys are usually boys. Children photographed with dolls or baby chairages are probably girls.

New York toys 1900s
Figure 2.--Here we see clear differences in toys. This New Years 1900 portrait show the girls with dolls and the boy with a train. We are not sure if these are Christmas presents or studio props. The prtrait was taken in Boscobel Wisconsin.

Gender Destinctive Toys

We notice some toys that were gender destinctive. Toys like dolls, dollhouses, jacks, paoer dolls, teas sets, and other toys were generall seen as girls toys. Toys like balls, blocks, chemistry sets, erector sets, guns, sailboats, and sports equipment as well as video games today are generally seen as boys toys. Of course there was no absolute destinction. we see boys playibng wuth dolls and girls with balls. A factor here was the gender of older siblings. These destinctions have also varied over time. It is now much more acceotable foir girls to engage in athletics than it was only a few decades ago. Feminist argue that these detinctions are socially based. That boys play with guns because they are encouraged to do so and likewise girls play with dolls because they are also encouraged. To an extent sucg socialization pressures probably do have some effect. Genetic enginnering over time is also a powerful force. Those who work with young children know tht boys and girls are wired differently and that gender differences are not entirely the result of the socialization process.

Boys' and Girls' Toys

Some toys were for both boys and girls and thus do not convey any useful information about a child's gender. The child playing with them could be either a boy or girl. Of course that is nothing to say that some individual boys did not play with girls' toys like dolls and girls did not play with boys' toys like fire engines. But here we are talking about the general pattern. These coeducational toys were not in many cases necessarily adverised as for boys both boys and girls, but available images and written accounts suggest that many boys and girls enjoyed these toys.

Country Images

We are also collecting images of children in different countries showing the kinds of toys the children played with over time. Here most of the images we have collected are American, English, French, and German. We hope to gradually add images from other countries over time. Germany before World War I was especially known for manufacturing children's toys. The Steiff stuffed animals, especially well known. I'm not sure yet how the popularity of different toys varied from country to country.


The value of children's toys is anither interesting topic. The psychololgy of childen's toys is an important aspect of childhood. As the old saying goes, "play is the work of the child," and it is so true at virtually all ages, from infant child to young adult. Today's child has a vast number of electronic toys, among other toys. We wonder if modern children derive any more pleasure from them as did the children of the past and their relatively primative toys, as for example those of the 19th century which seemed to focus on blocks, dolls, simple pull toys, and games. Amd we wonder what the relative benefits are in terns of psychololgical development, sociological ajustment, and learning.


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Created: January 15, 1999
Last updated: 5:48 PM 2/10/2010