Thanks to industrialization and changing attitudes about child labor, kids today enjoy significantly more leisure time than children living a century ago or more. Despite having fewer hours for playtime, children throughout history found ways to entertain themselves, even if the only toys available were bits of rock or scraps of fabric. Creative kids found ways to transform whatever materials they had on hand into toys that gave them just as much amusement as today's cutting edge electronics. Read on to learn about the history of play and explore some of history's top toys, from the rudimentary jacks of the caveman days to the steel building sets of the early 19th century.
The simple hoop in its various forms has entertained children for thousands of years. Kids in ancient Egypt shook dried grapevines around their waists as early as 1000 B.C.E., forming the earliest-known hula-hoops. By the 14th century, both adults and children used metal or wooden hoods for spinning, another pastime similar to what's now known as hula-hooping [source: Patrick and Thompson]. Children and adults in Europe and the Americas rolled wooden hoops over the landscape by hand or by using a simple wooden stick to propel the hoop forward. By the 1800s, young ladies in Europe engaged in the game of Graces, where two players tossed wooden hoops through the air to one another using a pair of slim wooden sticks. Graces was seen as one of the few acceptable sports or games for females of the time and was rarely practiced by men or boys [source: Boyle].
By the mid-19th century, British sailors coined the term "hula-hoop" after they noticed how traditional Hawaiian hula dances mimicked the way people in Europe spun hoops around their hips for fun. The hula-hoop peaked in popularity during the 1950s but can still be found in major toy stores to this day.
The Erector set was the Lego building set of the early 20th century. Created in 1913 by a Yale-educated doctor, this toy contained a selection of steel girders in various sizes that kids could connect using regular nuts and bolts to craft buildings, bridges, machinery and countless other structures. Like modern building blocks, the components in an Erector set could be disassembled and reused over and over, leading to years of play and learning. Later sets came with electric motors, wheels, pulleys and gears so kids could bring their creations to life, resulting in Ferris wheels that spun at the turn of a crank or steam shovels that could really pick things up.
Toy makers sold more than 30 million Erector sets during the product's first 30 years, largely thanks to one of the first national advertising campaigns used in the toy industry [source: Bass].
Since ancient history, marbles have amused children around the globe, and archaeologists have dug up specimens from Africa to ancient Greece to North America, with some marbles dating back to 3000 B.C.E. [source: Patrick and Thompson]. The earliest version of this toy was made using whatever was on hand, such as stones, nuts or fruit pits [source: Strong National Museum of Play]. Later, marbles were made from clay, and high-end versions were hand-painted with intricate designs. By the mid-19th century, toy makers used molten glass to create marbles with an integral colored swirl. Other fine specimens were made from agate or Venetian marble, which gave the toy its modern name. By 1902, marble-making machinery allowed for mass-production of this classic toy, making marbles the must-have toy among middle-class children throughout Europe and the United States [source: Scott].
The most popular marbles game is called "Ringer," where kids attempt to drive one another's marbles out of a circle drawn in the dirt. Depending on the rules, kids could play for keeps or simply for fun. Antique marbles have become a popular collector's item, with rare units selling for hundreds of dollars.
Ancient Greek documents date the yo-yo back to 500 B.C.E., when children and adults crafted models made from wood, metal or painted clay [source: McMahon]. By the 18th century, French nobles played with yo-yos made from glass or ivory [source: Patrick and Thompson]. The modern yo-yo dates back to 1929, when immigrant Pedro Flores started the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in the United States. Within a year, his company, which later became the Duncan Toy Company, was producing a whopping 300,000 of the toys each day [source: Townsend]. Yo-yo competitions and the quest for ever-evolving tricks and showmanship helped promote this toy throughout the country. While the yo-yo has fallen out of favor thanks to the introduction of more complex toys and games, the yo-yo competition circuit remains strong. Modern versions of the toy, including light-up and ball versions that automatically retract, have helped the yo-yo enjoy periodic revivals among the masses.
Little girls have always found ways to practice their nurturing skills using simple dolls made from whatever materials were on hand. Homemade dollies were often crafted from rags or scraps of clothing, though children have also used wood, bone, clay and other materials to sculpt these toys throughout history. The earliest known doll dates to the 1st century; it was found in Egypt and made from scraps of rags and papyrus. While it's likely girls have played with similar dolls since ancient times, the materials used to make these toys are relatively fragile, and few specimens have survived to the modern age [source: British Museum].
Mass-production during the 20th century made store-bought dolls more accessible to children in the United States and Europe, who pushed rag dolls aside in favor of modern versions made from vinyl. The rag doll enjoyed a brief resurgence during the 1970s, when children flocked to Holly Hobbie, a soft-bodied doll inspired by the handmade dolls of the past [source: Brewer].
While performing experiments in the field of optics during the early 19th century, Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster noticed that angling a set of mirrors within a tube resulted in mesmerizing patterns of light. While Brewster didn't set out to make a toy, he quickly realized the value of his invention and patented his kaleidoscope within a few short years. Using chips of colored glass, tinsel and beads in conjunction with the mirrors helped the kaleidoscope form elaborate patterns of color and light. Expanding on Brewster's idea, American toy makers used bubbles of air contained within tubes of liquid to create similar patterns and designs when the tube was rotated [source: Sobey and Sobey]. In the days before television, film or even old-fashioned projectors, the kaleidoscope served as a wondrous and cutting-edge toy for people of all ages.
Thanks to its simple craftsmanship, some versions of the classic cup and ball can be found in many different parts of the world. The toy likely originated in France during the 16th century, when young nobles amused themselves with the bilboquet. This toy consisted of a wooden ball equipped with a small hole. A string connected the ball to a pointed stick, and players would swing the stick in an attempt to align the hole and the point, which would lodge the ball in place at the end of the stick. European explorers took this toy around the globe, where it shows up in artwork and literature from Japan to North America [source: University of Waterloo].
As the toy spread, different cultures created slightly different versions; some use a wooden cup to catch the ball, while others use a flat wooden stick with a hole that the ball is supposed to pass through. Some versions, such as those found in Japan, use a two-sided cup, while the traditional pointed-stick Bilbo cup remains a common variation. While simple in design, this tough-to-master toy provides hours of enjoyment to people of all ages.
As a young John Lloyd Wright watched the construction of an earthquake-proof structure designed by his father, he was inspired by the building's interlocking beams; while there was no shortage of toy building sets on the market during the early 20th century, there were none that used this type of interlocking design. In 1924, Wright introduced a set of wooden log toys with notches at either end of each log to fasten the pieces together for sturdy construction. He named his toy after President Lincoln and even used a picture of Lincoln on the box to help with advertising. He named his product "Lincoln Logs" after the former president's famous childhood cabin [source: Strong National Museum of Play].
The connection to the beloved former leader combined with the toy construction craze of the early 1900s helped Wright sell countless sets of logs. Made exclusively from wood, this classic toy is still sold today, more than a century after it was first introduced, allowing 21st century kids to craft the same log cabins and wooden forts as their ancestors.
If your most recent memories of jacks involve treading carefully to avoid stepping on their evil points, you might be surprised to learn the long and storied history of this beloved toy. Historians suggest that children have played some version of this game since the Cro-Magnon period, when kids scooped up rudimentary jacks to improve hand-eye coordination for hunting [source: Strong National Museum of Play]. Long before the days of modern metal jacks and bouncy rubber balls, kids fashioned jacks from the knucklebones of sheep or simply used beans, rocks or pits from fruit. Balls were made from wood, or kids simply tossed a rock in the air and tried to scoop up as many jacks as possible before the stone hit the ground. The song "This Old Man" was developed by young jacks players as a means of counting their progress through the game.
Toys have always served as a means of helping children learn adult skills in a fun, kid-friendly way, and the rocking horse is no exception. For centuries, horses were a vital part of life, crucial to transportation, hunting and sport. The earliest rocking horses served as a safe and easy way for kids to pick up basic riding skills, without the danger associated with falling off or being thrown off a real horse [source: Powerhouse Museum]. Sixteenth century models were homemade and built similar to cradles. It wasn't until the 18th century that the rocking horse took on its modern form, with carved wooden legs stretched over long, curved bows [source: Strong National Museum of Play]. By the mid- to late-19th century, mass production made the rocking horse more accessible to middle class families, and the toy enjoyed a golden age of popularity through the early 20th century.
In 1880, toy makers modified the classic bow design, adding a set of crossbars perpendicular to the bows. This so-called "safety rocking horse" made it more difficult for kids to tip the toy and reduced both injuries and damage to walls and furniture.
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Author's Note: 10 Historical Toys
If you've ever spent any time around kids, you know that they'll always find a way to play. What surprised me as I researched this article was just how long kids have played with things we'd recognize today as toys. It's staggering to think that thousands of years ago, kids made their own rudimentary versions of jacks, yo-yos and hula-hoops. One can only marvel at the ingenuity of children and their determination to find fun regardless of the circumstances.
- Bass, Carole. "The Erector Set Turns 100: Real-life Magic from a Yale Doctor." Yale Alumni Magazine. Dec. 5, 2013. (Nov. 25, 2014) https://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/blog_posts/1648
- Brewer, Susan. "Famous Character Dolls." Casemate Publishers. 2013. (Nov. 24, 2014) http://books.google.com/books?id=Y95laWk98uoC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
- British Museum, The. "Rag Doll." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/r/rag_doll.aspx
- Boyle, Laura. "The Game of Graces." The Jane Austen Centre. March 12, 2013. (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.janeausten.co.uk/the-game-graces/
- McMahon, Felicia. "History of Toys." Encyclopedia Britannica. May 15, 2014. (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/601284/toy/274906/History-of-toys
- Patrick, Bethanne Kelly and John Milliken Thompson. "An Uncommon History of Common Things." National Geographic Books. 2009.
- Powerhouse Museum. "Rocking Horse, 1875-1900." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=37763
- Scott, Sharon. "Toys and American Culture." Greenwood. 2009.
- Sobey, Ed and Sobey, Woody. "The Way Toys Work." Chicago Review Press. 2008.
- Strong National Museum of Play. "Duncan Yo-Yo." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/duncan-yo-yo
- Strong National Museum of Play. "Erector Set." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/erector-set
- Strong National Museum of Play. "Jacks." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/jacks
- Strong National Museum of Play. "Lincoln Logs." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/lincoln-logs
- Strong National Museum of Play. "Marbles." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/marbles
- Strong National Museum of Play. "Rocking Horse." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/rocking-horse
- Townsend, Allie. "Yo-Yo." Time. Feb. 16, 2011. (Nov. 24, 2014) http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2049243_2048646_2048990,00.html
- University of Waterloo. "Bilboquet: Cup and Ball or Ring and Pin Games." (Nov. 24, 2014) http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/VirtualExhibits/bilboquet/pages/