The History of Toys

The history of toys coincides with the history of man itself. In fact, toys may have even existed long before mankind came to be as animals have been proven to have playtimes of their own, and the Strong National Museum of Play has proclaimed sticks as the oldest toy in existence. With these two facts in mind, you can only think that even before people evolved, animals have already been playing with sticks and stones.

Toys have been referenced in many ancient pieces of literature. At one point in the Iliad, Homer, a legendary Greek poet who wrote about the Trojan War, references the spinning top. Paintings depict ancient men playing board games. A child’s tomb discovered in Egypt that has been found to date back around 3000 to 4000 years ago contained crafted balls. King Tut’s tomb even had a spinning top found among his relics and treasures.

It is discoveries like these that help scholars and academics prove that toys have been around for a long time. At the very least, every civilization to ever exist in the history of man had at least developed some form of toy for their children. Archaeologists have even suggested that toys have existed since prehistoric times, although these may have been natural things picked up from the ground like sticks, stones, twines, and combinations of these things.

What are Toys?

Playing has become such an important part of understanding human civilization that academics have developed a scientific definition to qualify what the word exactly means. According to scholars, archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists, playing is “repeated, pleasurable behavior was done for its own sake that’s similar, but not identical to, other behaviors.” With play, comes toys, and according to definitions studies have produced, toys are “plaything[s], usually for an infant or child, and often an instrument used in a game.”

The oldest objects that were specifically designed to be toys to ever be unearthed are balls, yoyos, tops, and kites. In modern times, toy variety ranges from the extremely simple, like the ageless sticks, to the extremely complex, like video games. These toys, made out of basic or sophisticated and complex mechanisms and technologies all serve the purpose of preparing and developing children for growing up. A variety of skills like coordination and a wide list of manual skills are developed through a congregation of childhood experiences that children go through as they manipulate and explore all sorts of toys.

Marbles, jackstones, and controller-based video games develop motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Puzzles, blocks, and similar innovations, on the other hand, developmental agility and cerebral capacities.

In summary, historical, anthropological, archaeological, and child development studies all believe that toys primarily exist to prepare children for a role in society and nurture their bodies and minds for social, emotional, and societal responsibilities that will inevitably come as they grow as people.

Early Toys

As claimed by the Strong National Museum of Play as they inducted the stick into the National Toy Hall of Fame, it was the oldest toy to ever exist. It’s been observed that sticks, or toys that use them, have been the most common artifact in children’s graves in many regions around the world.

In ancient times – and sometimes even today – children have been known to play with whatever they find like rocks or pinecones. But as technology progressed, civilization has been found to develop all sorts of trinkets to use as toys. Digs carried out around areas of ancient civilization have presented scholars with some interesting discoveries. Toys and games have seemingly been around and have been referenced in incredible old art and literature like Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ and mosaics at the Great Palace of Constantinople. Relics that were dug up in many Egyptian villages also support the notion that toys have been around since the development of ancient civilizations.

The Greeks are recognized to be the developers of the oldest known mechanical puzzle. The puzzle was discovered in Greece and is estimated to have appeared around the third century BC. The game components included a square that was divided into 14 different parts. The goal of the game is to have people create different shapes from the many parts that the puzzle had. With the many artifacts and trinkets discovered in various excavations and expeditions all over the world, it was concluded that children from different civilizations played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles, and spinning tops, knucklebones, and last but definitely not least, sticks.

Toys in Ancient Civilizations

Researchers believe that early toys were developed through mimicking or pretend to play in various situations. Sumerian molds of human and animal forms are believed to be early toys. Kids who created combinations of objects picked up from the ground were also believed to be crafted to mimic adults who were hunting or farming.

This simulation that happens through toys and play is a reflection of the civilization’s lifestyle. Toys and play are essential to giving preparatory exercises to children to ready them for a lifelong commitment to adulthood. Toys and playtime help children learn about the world they’re in and the role they have to play in it. It helps kids develop and discover ways to help their bodies grow strong, grasp the concept of cause and effect, explore their identity, nurture relationships, strengthen their bodies and minds, and beautify their personal spaces.

The Indus Valley Civilization

Excavations in the regions where the Indus Valley civilization once stood around 3000-1500 BCE have even unearthed all sorts of toys like small carts, whistles that look like birds, and toy monkeys that slide down actual strings.

The Egyptian Civilization

Egyptians and their children played with winged dolls. Some of the dolls discovered in expeditions in Egypt even had movable limbs. Most of these artifacts were made from sticks, stones, and pottery.

Ancient Greek and Ancient Rome

Dolls in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were mostly made out of materials more accessible to them like wax and terracotta. They also played with sticks and make-shift bows and arrows, and even yoyos. So much information on ancient Grecian toys has been found that it’s been concluded that children, more prominently girls, followed a custom and rite-of-passing at certain ages that make them sacrifice the toys they loved most to their gods. At the age of fourteen, on the eve of their wedding, young girls would give up their dolls in a temple as a tribute to the gods as they cross the bridge toward adulthood.

Ancient Greek children were also found to have developed toy balls made out of inflated pig bladders. Playing with toys has been embedded in Greek culture that studies have concluded that whenever boys were not at school and girls weren’t working, they would be spending their time playing. Their activities included playing with spinning tops, model horses with wheels, hoops, and rocking horses, among the previously mentioned prevalent activities.

Studies have also found that Roman kids, aside from wooden or clay dolls, were also able to play ball games and board games. They also seem to have developed a game that made use of animal knucklebones that involved using them like dice.

Ancient Toys from Asia

The origin of the first-ever kite remains to be a mystery to this very day, although it has been theorized that it originated from Indonesia or China approximately between 400 BC and 1000 BC. The kite has had a rich history as a tool in science, religion, measurement, and warfare but perhaps its most prominent role is in entertainment – as a toy. There isn’t much documentation on the history of kites despite their contribution to science and religion. However, it has been widely suggested that its earliest form consisted of sticks and silk.

In the same way, it has been expansively accepted that the history of yoyos traces back to ancient China. Its popularity has resulted in its spread far and wide, reaching regions in both the east and the west. Yoyos made out of stone discs have been recorded to be widespread in Greece to date around 1000 BC. These stone yoyos would later evolve into wood and terracotta, too. These prominent Asian innovations were so famous, that it was called a variety of things from region to region. Throughout its long and rich history, it has been called the bandalore, whirligig, and the l’emigrette, which is french for ‘leave the country.’ The latter is often connected to the yo-yo’s popularity with the French aristocracy as they left France because of the revolution that drove them away.

Later, the yoyo regained its name and popularity further west, in the US, in 1916 when researchers looked into an article in the Scientific American on toys from the Philippines. Several sources have also claimed that yoyo meant ‘come-come’ in the Philippine Tagalog language.

Ancient Toys in Today’s Society

In those eras, toys played a big part in developing people and their respective ancient civilizations. It was an entertaining means of preparing children for bigger roles in society and introducing them to essential life experiences. As technology has yet to reach the levels available today, children of the past tinkered with natural materials like wood, clay, paper, and plastic in making their toys.

Today, this may still happen to a degree; like when kids find a piece of paper, fold it into a plane, and fly it or turn it into a boat. But in many cases, this generation’s toys have shifted towards more interactive digital entertainment and smart toys that have become the new form of what used to be a more manual, natural, and analog mechanism for joy.

The Rich History of Dolls

Dolls have been a witness to the history of all things toys. As one of the oldest playthings to ever exist, many experts regard dolls as one of the most culturally universal toys because of their impact and role in many civilizations. The use of dolls or replicas of humans or humanoids has been a popular fixture in many cultures throughout history, serving purposes that range from spiritual and religious activities and entertainment.

One of the earliest dolls to ever be found in the paddle dolls of Egypt, wooden artifacts that have been unearthed in Egyptian tombs that have been discovered to date back as far as 2000 BC. One of the most relevant and current discoveries headline the internet and many other forms of media in 2015 as a carved soapstone doll that was designed with eyebrows and cheekbones were excavated from what seemed like a grave of a child in Siberia. Experts believe that the tomb can be over 4500 years old, reaching as far back as the Bronze Age.

Dolls have been so universally entertaining and relevant, that experts have observed that Ugandan chimpanzees have developed a nurturing habit towards sticks. Further research has revealed that these tendencies are rooted in not only play but are also a reflection of gender-based preference as it is mostly female chimps who have been exhibiting this repeated behavior.

Cultural and Religious Impact

This universal love for dolls is present in all regions and cultures all over the globe. As technology progresses and the variety in available materials and resources grows due to trade and exploration, dolls have come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

Human dolls have been made out of corn husk, paper, clay, sticks, and many other things that can be crafted into human form. Some cultures have also made dolls that resemble animals like cows, pigs, and chickens. While the play isn’t necessarily the primary and only function of dolls for civilizations, its prevalence in times before ours is unmistakable and understandable.

While sticks have been proclaimed to be the foundational and oldest toy, dolls aren’t too far behind as seemingly every epoch and culture has introduced some form of miniature carvings of the human and animal forms. Dolls have been widely used to express and facilitate religious or cultural customs and ceremonies. A fine example is, in a custom still observed today, the Day of the Dead rites that make use of sugar molded into detailed and intricate skulls, tombs, and angels. Pueblo Indians, who made the modern relics called the kachina dolls, sacred objects used in their worshiping processes, had children play with the ceremonial artifacts as toys as a way to teach them about the myths of their culture. Dolls have even been excavated out of young girls’ graves in digs around the areas previously occupied by Ancient Romans and citizens of Christian Rome. The British Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto have even put dolls from the third century CE on display.

Dolls are also prevalent in Asian culture. Russians have the Matryoshka nesting dolls, the Japanese have Daruma dolls, and the Iranians have Layli dolls. The Chinese culture has also been a prominent source of quality dolls, as traders and merchants from China have distributed China dolls in various European areas such as France and Germany. The dolls were made out of porcelain and textiles like clothes and leather.

At first, most dolls were made to look like adult women. It wasn’t around 1850 when dolls started to resemble younger children more and more and began to have customizable properties such as clothes and other accessories. As dolls, in general, evolved, their customization became the primary focus of innovation when dollhouses and other add-ons made it a highly-coveted toy for female children.

But of course, the long history of toys and dolls cannot be complete without mentioning Barbara Millicent Roberts dolls or simply ‘Barbie.’ When dolls were developed to become less fragile with the introduction of combinations of resins, glue, and sawdust and plastic, dolls officially hit the ignition of their market success in 1959 through an 11-inch model of the epitome of teenage fashion.

Dolls have progressed in parallel with the evolution of technology and society, portraying the many forms and accessories of the adult male, adult female, and children throughout history. From the original wooden composition that dolls took in early times, dolls have developed to become technological mass-produced bundles of joy for generations to come.

The Industrial Revolution

Toys expanded into the domain of mass production at the same time steam travel hit an unrivaled prevalence. Conquering the exciting new frontier of mass production, toys have leaped into a development never seen before in mechanical windup toys in the 19th century.

More elaborate toys, through the industrial revolution, have become more affordable. According to Christopher Bensch, Vice President for Collections and Chief Curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, in an interview with National Geographic, “industrial processes that allowed the production of gears and mechanisms at a low price, led to autonomous toys that could be wound up to ‘do their thing.’”

The mass production techniques that were developed during this time are what cultivated the eventual prominence of small-scale real mechanics that became the foundation of the scaled-down models that would take the world by storm. As the world became obsessed with the possibility of traveling in the 19th century, the first model trains were developed. It is often recognized that the development of these smaller-scale replicas is based on the same principles that made dollhouses such a revolutionary idea as toys.

Teddy Bears and Stuffed Toys

Around the same time, in 1902, the concept of the Teddy Bear gained popularity because of a satirized cartoon by political artist Clifford Berryman. The cartoon, published by The Washington Post, featured then-president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear during a hunting trip. This spurred the creation of Teddy’s Bear by the toy pioneer Morris Mitchtorn just as, on the other side of the Atlantic, Margarete Steiff, a German seamstress, has made her strides in creating the elephant-shaped pincushions in 1880. These two trailblazers would ultimately fuel the flame for the fame of the teddy bear for generations to come.

Through the fame of teddy bears and stuffed toys, more plush toys soon followed. In 1903, Lake District author Beatrix Potter patented the concept of the Peter Rabbit. After World War I, the US bore witness to the rise of DIY soft toys through the creative and accessible sock monkeys during the Great Depression.

The next great innovation in the era of stuffed toys might be the introduction of the Mickey Mouse plush. Los Angeles Seamstress Charlotte Clark designed the first Mickey Mouse plush and was met with great public demand in 1920. At some point, with demand outpacing the means of supply, she had to sell the sewing patterns to empower the public to make their own Mickey Mouse dolls.

Her work impressed Walt Disney as well as he who was known to love the stuffed Mickey when the originals were cascaded to people who worked closely with the studio. In 1934, the Knickerbocker Toy Company spearheaded the mass production of the Mickey and Minnie dolls with Clark at the helm of operations.

Toys in the Modern Era

Between the Industrial Revolution and the Digital Age, toys have come leaps and bounds from their former self, moving from analog means to virtual space. With breakthrough after breakthrough, toys have become more than just an instrument for entertainment but have become a tool for education and child development.

With the advancements in materials, safety, and design, plush toys have become comforting presences in children’s developmental years. Technology has also aided toys in providing an extraordinary way to impart knowledge through sensory experiences.

For the more mature audiences, the invention of consoles has revolutionized play in its own way. In fact, many believe that video games are the future of entertainment through immersion and have been the field where technology has been utilized most.

Humanity has come far in inventing and reinventing toys, opening doors to innovations that not only entertain but also educate and inform through their varying capabilities and functions. Technology has truly transformed the very way humanity consumes data and information.

Elena Jones

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