Families living 100 or more years ago would be flabbergasted at the number and variety of toys in most 21st century American homes. Before the days of mass production and movie tie-ins, children might have owned one or two treasured toys, and they were just as likely to be handmade as store-bought.
The earliest written mention of a toy comes from Greece in 500 B.C.E. and referred to a yo-yo [source: Encyclopaedia Brittanica]. However, before the 18th century, toys as such, barely existed. Children often improvised playthings from whittled-down sticks or else played with cooking utensils while imitating their mothers at work. In any case, children didn't have a lot of time for play as they were expected to work in the house or on the farm. Commercially made toys began to appear in the mid-1700s and took the form of dolls, dollhouses and rocking horses, among other items. Indeed, these exquisite expensive items were often for wealthy adults as much as their children – a "toy" didn't necessarily mean an object for a child, but rather an item of amusement or diversion [source: Chudacoff]. In the 1700s and 1800s, the toys that most children possessed such as kites, hoops or dolls were likely to have been made at home.
With the advent of mass manufacturing at the turn of the 20th century, commercially produced toys became cheap and ubiquitous. Some of the most popular ones today are versions of toys that were popular in the early 1900s or even before that.
Dolls from the 19th and early 20th centuries were built to last for a girl's entire childhood, but their hard, painted faces, usually made of wood, poured wax or composition (glue mixed with sawdust or wood pulp) make them unlikely to rival an American Girl doll for a modern kid's affections. But put a dollhouse from the same era in a room full of children, and we're guessing it would still captivate boys and girls alike.
There's something about seeing household furniture in miniature that makes even everyday items seem special. A handmade antique dollhouse may have been built as a model of the family's own home, down to the toys, fabrics and furnishings in every room. Some of the most elaborate dollhouses from the Victorian era included kitchens with entire sets of miniature china dishes patterned after the home's full-sized pieces and tiny "food" items carefully crafted in the same delicate scale [source: Victoriana Magazine]. The Queen Mary's Dolls' House, built for Queen Mary in 1924, even had electricity and running water and a stocked wine cellar! It's on display at Windsor Castle in England.
These wooden horses, which are mounted on curving pieces of wood that form a cradle, have been around in some form or the other since the Middle Ages. They were an evolution of the hobby horse, a horse's head mounted on a stick which was used to practice jousting – and became a toy in its own right. The earliest rocking horse still in existence is one that belonged to England's King Charles I and dates to around 1610 [source: Legends Rocking Horse]. The design was rather crude. It wasn't until the 18th century that the rocking horse as we know it, carved of wood, horse in mid-gallop with a bow rocker underneath, was created [source: Powerhouse Museum].
Its popularity really peaked in mid-19th century England when the horses were elaborately carved and painted and often had a mane and tail made out of real horsehair. A rocking horse was a staple in many an aristocratic nursery and was considered a good toy for a boy to practice riding until he was old enough to try the real thing [source: Powerhouse Museum]. Rocking horses are still available for sale today.
Wind-up toys and figures were built in Europe as early as the 1600s. Powered by clock mechanisms, these first wind-up toys were intricately made from wax or porcelain and were intended more for the amusement of wealthy adults than for children [source: Collectors Weekly].
By the late 1800s, less elaborate versions for kids appeared on the scene, and they came in almost every imaginable shape and size. Made of tin, composition or cardboard, these simple mechanical toys took the form of farm animals, human figures, carnival rides, horse-drawn carriages, and, a bit later, cars, trucks and airplanes.
Once wound, these toys repeated a single task, such as climbing a ladder, riding a bike or pushing a wheelbarrow. One wind-up musical merry-go-round that sold for 79 cents in the 1920s carried riders around and around on little carousel horses and pigs.
Billed as "The Greatest Construction Toy in the World," the Erector set allowed kids to build models that really worked [source: The People History]. It was invented in 1913 by a doctor named Alfred Carlton Gilbert, who envisioned it as a toy that would teach children how buildings are made and how motors work [source: Erector]. The sets came with electric motors and hundreds of parts, including girders, gears and wheels, which could be combined to construct structures like drilling rigs, elevator lifts, Ferris wheels, helicopters, and bridges that promised to hold up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms) [source: Erector].
Erector sets were originally marketed solely and unapologetically to boys, with ads featuring fathers and sons admiring towering structures with girders that "resemble structural steel." The A.C. Gilbert Company was sold after Alfred's death in 1961, but erector sets remain popular all over the world, with kits for creating buildings, planes and vehicles, including working remote-control race cars [source: Erector]. Today, erector set enthusiasts of all ages take part in erector set competitions and share their "builds" in online communities.
Long before the invention of plastic Big Wheels or pink Barbie Jeeps, came the first pedal car for kids in the late 1880s, soon after Karl Benz introduced the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine [source: Collectors Weekly].
As automobile production took hold in the early 1900s, pedal cars for children became popular in the United States, Europe and Australia. Designed to look like real-life vehicles such as Grand Prix race cars and the Ford Model T, the pedal cars were made of sheet steel, with simple open steering systems and open bottoms where the pedals were located [source: Collectors Weekly].
By the early 1930s, ride-on toys took the form of planes, MAC trucks, Graf Zeppelins and high-end cars like Cadillacs and Chryslers [sources: The People History 1920s, The People History 1930s, Scott]. With no brakes and plenty of hard, sharp angles, these metal toys may not live up to today's safety standards, but we'd bet that wouldn't stop any kid who had the chance from hopping on to take a ride.
Morse Code Learner's Set
Texting-obsessed teens and tweens might be interested to try their hand at Morse code. After all, parents have caught on to texting shorthand, but how many of them are fluent in dots and dashes?
The telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse in the 1830s, and from as early as the 1920s, telegraph learning sets were sold as toys for both children and adults who wanted to learn the technology [source: The People History].
Some toy Morse code sets were made by telegraph companies like Western Union, while others were produced by general toy manufacturers including Lionel Corporation, Hasbro and Sears Roebuck and Co. While the earliest versions promised kids the chance to learn a new communication technology, later toys reflected signs of their respective times: Morse code toys produced during the 1940s were geared toward sending signals in war time, while sets from the '50s and '60s featured images of astronauts communicating with alien beings on other planets [sources: The People History, Hunter]. Today, you can learn Morse code via an online game – same fun, different device.
The joy buzzer was one in a long list of prank toys produced by Soren Sorenson Adams, a Danish inventor whose novelty toy creations read like the perfect inspiration for the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop run by the infamous twins from the Harry Potter series.
Invented in 1928 and named to Time magazine's All-Time 100 Greatest Toys list in 2011, the joy buzzer is a little round device that fits in the palm of the hand and delivers a loud vibrating noise when the user shakes the hand of an unsuspecting victim. It wasn't the first invention for S.S. Adams (that would be his Cachoo Sneeze Powder in 1906), and it joined his other famous gag items like the whoopee cushion, the exploding cigar, and the snake nut can, which featured a springy fabric snake that launched out of what appeared to be a can of mixed nuts [source: Townsend]. All of these gag toys as still available today.
Unlike the joy buzzer, which created a startling noise but no electrical current, the Electric Thriller, another joke toy popular in the 1920s, delivered an actual electric shock to any friends foolish enough to grasp two metal rods in their hands as you generated electricity by turning the manual crank of an attached device [source: The People History].
True story: As a kid, my own father caused an explosion and small fire in his parents' basement while experimenting with his chemistry set. Such results would be nearly impossible to produce with current chemistry sets, which replace acids, explosives, and poisons with nonvolatile ingredients for growing crystals or making long-lasting bubbles.
American chemist John J. Porter is credited with creating the first toy chemistry set in 1914, and erector set inventor A.C. Gilbert introduced his own version in 1920 [sources: Hix, Zielinski]. Like erector sets, chemistry sets were designed to teach boys (yep, just boys) about science. They were marketed as a step toward a career in chemistry, and they included a whole lab's worth of equipment and materials, including heating elements, glass test tubes, and substances like sulfuric acid, poisonous sodium cyanide, and explosive potassium nitrate. Safety regulations of the 1960s and 1970s largely did away with "real" chemistry sets, although more inclusive kits have begun to make reappearances in the 2100s [source: Zielinski].
As for my dad and his 1950s vintage chemistry set, fortunately no one was injured, and his mother eventually let him back in the house.
Hoop and Stick
We're going way back to a primitive toy that required nothing but a few items that most children could readily find on the family farm. Children would take the metal or wooden rim from an old wagon wheel and use a sturdy stick, paddle, or loop of wire to roll it as fast as it would go. Although the hoop as toy had been around since at least 1628, it came into its own in the 1800s [source: Victoriana Magazine].
As simple as the concept sounds, children came up with endless variations of hoop and stick play. Both boys and girls (finally!) played competitive games including hoop races, slaloms and obstacle courses. Children would sometimes even get a hoop rolling fast and then attempt to run through it as it turned [sources: Abernethy]. The hoop and stick might also be a solo pastime, as children would roll the hoop as they walked to and from school or town, much the way a kid today might kick a soccer ball around the yard or down the street to a friend's house.
Hoop and stick games remain popular activities for kids who visit historic attractions like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Philadelphia's Independence Hall area. You can even buy a high-end hoop online made out of ash or hickory if you want your kids to try the activity at home.
A perennial favorite around the Christmas tree or spread out on the playroom floor, model trains have held the interest of kids big and small for the better part of a century. Modern wood or plastic versions with snap-together tracks and smiling TV character engines are still lots of fun to play with, but they don't hold the same fascination for us as the detailed replicas that came before them.
According to Collectors Weekly, model trains first became popular when department store owners added them to Christmas window displays around 1920. Early train toys of the 1870s and 1880s were messy and dangerous, using kerosene or alcohol to heat water in a boiler and create steam. But as real-life trains moved from steam to electricity, the British toy manufacturer Hornby introduced electric trains modeled after actual train lines.
Like dollhouses, model trains give us a chance to recreate our world in miniature, with layouts limited only by a family's imagination, budget and available floor space. Moss and pine cones stand in for grass and trees, while tiny buildings often replicate an actual townscape. And while old-school model trains may seem too complicated or time-consuming for today's busy lifestyles, model railroad displays at museums and outdoor gardens still draw huge crowds, especially around the holidays, keeping us every bit as mesmerized as those first model train window displays must have done.
Barbie, the ultimate classic doll, turns 60 this year. HowStuffWorks goes to the party.
Author's Note: 10 Antique Toys That Still Look Like Fun
The toy cabinet at my grandmother's house was filled with model cars, miscellaneous wind-up toys, and a strange little cylinder that made a noise like a cow when you turned it upside down. Everything was made from metal (some of it rusty by the time I came along), and the sharp edges and small parts would probably horrify today's safety-obsessed parents, myself included. But those toys held our attention for hours on end. Researching this article made me nostalgic for a time before I was born (Is that even possible?) when no batteries were required and a single hand-made gift might last long enough to be passed down to the next generation.
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