Interpreting Images of 19th Century Children: Toys and Props

Figure 1.--While dolls are usually a good indicator the child is a girl, boys with older sisters are an exception. Also notice how the child is holding the doll.

The props held by a child are often clues as to gender. Some are better clues than others. Some props wwre suitable for both boys and girls and thus offer littleuseful information. Other props, however, have clear gender conotations. Some may have been specifically stress the gender of a boy with curls that had not yet been breeched. HBC points out that there are no sure fire rules here. Props are good indicators, but are not surefire indicators. They are useful, but need to be viewed within ther context of all the infornmation avaialble or observeavle about any particular portrait. Some parents would bring items from home to the studio. Often children would want to be pictured with treasured items. Photographers would also have props at the studio that could be used in the photograph.

Specific Toys and Props

Some basic information on specific toys and props is avaialable. Props commnly appear in portaits of children. They were difficult to photograph because slow emulsion speeds mnt that subjects had to stand or sit still. And if there is one thing small children do not like to do is to sit still. So photographer commonly had aange of props that would appel to them to help pose them and get the portrait taken. HBC hopes to reserch period journals for clues as to props. At this stage the following should be prelimiary guidlines based on initial assessments of available images. Here the props can help somewhat with the dating, but the primary value is in assessing gender.


Kids love animals. It it some that crosses time, countries, gender and social class. There is something about animals that appeals to children. And this means all kinds of animals from terrible dinosaurs to cuddly panda bears. In the 9th century there were two particularly popular animal toys, pull toys (mostly animals) and stuffed animals. We discuss both under these terms in the list here.


Balls of various types often suggest boys. Girls may be pictured with balls, but girls were not incouraged in the 19th century to engage in strenuous outdoor play.


This is a tough one. Our initial assumption is that boys were more commonly pictured with books than girls. This is primarily beczause we know that much more attentiion dufring the 19th century was given to boys' education tghan girls edication. Girls were seen as more frivelous and less capable of serious thought. While this is well know, we are less sure just how this affected the selection of books as props. We think it did, but can not yet confirm this. The number of confirmed such images are limited and in many available images it is very difficult to tell. While we would like these photographic prop pages to be instructive, we are also using them to collect information. Here there are a range of questions such as country differences and changing additudes over time. Much more attention, for example, was being given to girls education by the end of the 19th century.


HBC believes that a cane is usually a prop for a boy. There are of course few iron-clad rules, but this appears to a prop which correlates very strongly with gender. While some props can be used for either boys or girls, HBC believes that a cane is a fairly stromg indicator that the child photographed with a cane is a boy. In this case a cane is not something that a boy would normally carry. Unlike a toy which he might choose, a cane would be one chosen for him--perhaps by the farther. A cane would seem to be a strange item for mother to close. It is unclear, however, just why a came would be chosen.


A child holding a doll is probably a girl. There are, however, photographs of boys playing with dolls. Even so, dolls are strong indicators that the child is a girl. One major exception to the doll indicator is boys with older sisters. Not only was he likely to wear his older sisters hand-me-downs, but he was more likely to be interested in doing the things like playing dolls that his older sister does. And he was less likely to be upset about wearing dresses. We believe that unlike some other props, it was the child that would usually choose the toy, including dolls, with which he or here was photgraphed. Other factors that need to be considered are chronological and country differences. After the turn of the 20th century it became even less common for boys to be photographed will dolls. Part of the reason for this was the appearance of the teddy bear. The teddy bear became an almopst overnight success when it appeared in America in 1902, later in other countries. Boys who might once have been photographed will dolls, were then almost always photographed with their teddies. Another factor is country differences. A French reader reports, "I must add in France that little boys pften played with cloth-doll. After 1930, the mothers preferd to replace the doll with "nounours" (teddy bars)." Dolls since the1970s have made something of a recovery for boys, at least in America, but they are of course now called "action figures". In this regard they are called action fogures. Boys are not, however, commonly photographed playing with these dolls.

Figure 2.--The child on the trike looks like a boy to us. The bangs like cut is often worn by boys and the Scottish plaid kit suggests that the child is a boy. The younger child is probably his brother. The bucket and shovel are less clear. They were commonly used for beach ply, but this is not a beach scene. At least for the beach, they were used by boys and girls.

Farm implements

Children are often depicted holding farm implenments. We believe that the children with farm implements are probably boys, but we still have limited information on this. One important side light here is the selection of such props. We believe that they routienly were chosen by parents. Would a small boy really come up with a idea of being pictured with a shovel or other farm implements. We suspect that in many cases such props were designed to actually show the gender of the child. This contrasts with other props, especially toys, which were much more likely to be chosen by the child desiring to be photographed with a favorite play item.


Guns, toy or real, and other weapons are strong evidence the child is a boy. While it is now no common to photograph children with guns, except perhaps rural Americans, it once was much more common. We note quite an few old photographs with children and guns. Rifles seem more common than pistols. Ahgain this is not an absolute indicator, but the vast majority of the children pictured with guns are almost certainly boys.

Hobby horses

We think that hobby horses were mostly for boys, but we are not entirely sure about this.


Both boys and girls played with hoops. This is probably the case from an early point, although metal until the modern age was a very expensive item. The barrel seems to be European in origin and dates back to antiquity. It is a little difficult to say with any certainty if hoops were more popular with boys or girls. The basic principle is that boys were more active and more likely to engage in outdoor, active activities. Thus hoops were probably more popular with boys. The hoop was an especially common prop in old photographs. Perhaps because they were by the 19th century inexpensive and popular, many 19th century photographers kept them handy in the studio. It is probably somewhat more likely to be a boy, but their use by both boys and girls. The photographic records shows both boys and girls posing with hoops. This means that the hoop is not a good indicator. Hoops were popular toys throughout the 19th century. This was because barrels were so common at the time. Thus hoops were very commonly available. They were commonly used in photographic portraits. They seem especially common from about 1870-1910, but HBC needs to refine the chronology here as our archive expands. We seem both in Europe and North America.

Mechanical toys

Children enjoyed being photographed with a favorite toy, although we see fewer mechanical toys than other props. In the days before planes and tanks, trains and fire waggons were popular toys but there were many others. These were fairly expensive, however, and not every boy's parents could afford such a toy. Mechanical toys were often especially prized by boys. We see very few girls being photographed with them. Thus we consider them to be an indicator that the child may be a boy. While a girl might have had mechanical toys as well, they were unlikely to have been her favorite doll--in most casees that would ahve been a doll.


All children like animals. Pets are thus often held by boys and girls. Girls might be more likely to hold a cat and boys more likely to hold a dog. One researcher reports that she had heard that during the Victorian era, boys were generally given puppies as pets and girls kittens, but neither she nor HBC has any written evidence substantiating this. Children's literature does seem to make this connection. HBC has noted that in the old photographs that we have noted, that dogs are more common with boys and girls with cats. This is certainly not a perfect indicator, but as a general rule, we believe that it does tend to be the case. We not, however, that there are many complications including country differences an chronological trends as well as other factors.

Pull toys

Given their prevalence in old photographs, pull toys seem to be some of the mosy popular toys in the 19th century. We see them in countless old photographs. Pull toys were the earliest and the simplest type of the category of moving toys. In this cased powered entirely by the child. They were toys on wheels, usually animals. we see wooden animals, but there were also more relistic stuffed animals. They got their name because they were pulled by a length of cord or rope. Because that is all the child had to besides engaging their imagination, they were sutable for any child as soon as they learned to walk. They could also be played with by pushing or pulling on the floor. Not all were animals, but most were in the 19th century. We see a range of amimal pull toys. In he 19th century they were known animals. People were just learning about dinosaurs (a modern boyhood favorite) at the end of the century. As best we can tell the most popular animal was the horse, at least that is the amimal that we mostly see in studio portraits. Readers have mentioned to us that horse pull toys were often an indicatir that the child was a boy. We can not yet verify that with idetified portraits, but we are looking for them.

Sporting equipment

Sports were a relatively new concept, but modern sports had begun to take shape in Europe by the early 19th Century. Sports equipment is an even stronger indicator that the child is a boy. It was not consifered lady-like for girls to play sports. One of the few exceptions here would be tennis.

Stick horse

We are not entirely sure about the gender connotations of stick horses. We believe that they were mostly for boys, but we are not entirely sure. We note Alfred Fuller an English boy with a stick horse in 1936.

Teddy bears

The teddybear does not feature prominently in historical photographs. This is of course because it did not appear until 1902. Thus the teddy bear is a very effective chronological indicator. The teddy bear is usually considered to be an American creation, but there are other historical accounts. The teddy bear immediately became popular in America and Britain, but the chronology is a bit different in other European countries. Germany became a major manufacturer of teddy bears, I'm less sure how popular they were with German children. A French reader indicated that teddies ("nounours") were not common in France until the 1930s. Teddy bears are not as an effective indicator of gender as of chronology. Both boys and girls had teddies. However, after 1902 a younger American boy was much more likely to have a teddy than a doll. The chronology varied in other countries, but the same basic tendency is obsevable.

Trikes and bikes

The children pictures with tricycles and bicycles I believe are most likely to be boys. This is true because boys were much more likely to be incouraged to engage in physical activities. Another factor is that it would be difficult to ride bikes and trikes demurely in dresses and skirts. Emilia Bloomer's effort to promote practical clothing was a failure. Even late in the 19th century, girls' almost always wore dresses and skirts. I can not yet substantiate the fact that most of the children with bikes and trikes are boys, but believe it is a good rule of thumb. This would be especially true in the 19th century.

Figure 3.--HBC is unsure as to why so many young children were given props. There are several possibilities. Notice that only the younger brother of these two Rutland, Vermont boys has a prop.


A whip is a prop we have noted in late 19th Century images. We also note them in magazine and catalog adevertizing illustrations. We do not have any definitive statement on what this represented and how to interpret them. I think they represented buggy whips associated with driving horses and carriages. Some seem small. Perhaps there were toy whips for children. Boys probably liked the idea of driving carriages like modern boys want to drive cars. Thus a whip probanly strongly suggests a boy. We are unsure just how commonly they were actuallu used as children's toys. Boys being boys, if you give a boy a whip, he is likely to use it on animals and playmates. So we are unsure just how common they are. A riding crop, however, is more ambiguous and could be either a boy or girl as both boys and girls rode horses, sometimes a young age. Remember that many studios had props for portraits. Thus the whips and crops may or may not be the personal possessions of the individuals photographed.

Studio Props

A 19th century professional photographer would have a number of props in his studio. While some parents may bring along a favorite toy or an older child select to bring one, not all subjects came with props. Thus a good photographer would have some handy. The props would be choosen them to fit the gender of his subject. A 19th century photographer would presumably not want to offend a Mother or Father by photographing their child with a gender inappropriate prop. A father might object if his son were photographed holding a doll even if the child happened to be wearing a dress. Some Mothers might think this was cute but the photographer would be a fool to do this on his own. Likewise he wouldn't be photographing a girl with a whip or cane.


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Created: November 5, 1998
Last updated: 5:45 AM 12/3/2016