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The evidence of toys in prehistoric times is ambiguous in that such objects as doll-like figurines, which to modern eyes may bear a similarity to toys, probably had a religious significance. Toys must have existed in prehistory, however, since children and adults universally use their imagination to create toys out of pieces of wood, straw, hide, feathers, or other materials that are easily perishable.
Objects which have survived, because they were made in terracotta, and which can be more securely classed as toys have been discovered at sites in the Mediterranean, the Near East, and the Indus Valley dating from the 1st and 2nd millennia BC; these include models of animals, some in the form of pull-along toys on wheels and some with articulated parts. However, it is still difficult to tell whether miniature pots and figurines excavated from the same sites were intended as children’s toys, or as objects of religion and ritual.
In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the grave goods in children’s burials included dolls; particularly striking are the Egyptian paddle-dolls, made of flat, paddle-like pieces of wood that were given arms and a head; the piece was painted and the head given beaded hair. Games equipment, such as counters, dice, and marbles, also survives from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Small terracotta animals, often with moving parts or on wheels, are widely found, as are jointed figurines. Toys made of cloth have rarely survived. The use of such toys as hoops, yo-yos, and knucklebones is illustrated on Greek vases and in Greek and Roman sculpture.
Universal Toys Such toys as dolls, figures of animals, balls, spinning tops, and toys with a simple mechanism are universal in that they are found in almost all cultures throughout the world. These types of toys form a significant aspect of folk art. Within the folk-art tradition, toys that execute simple movements are widely found. Among them are jointed figures sent into acrobatic antics by pressure or torsion; similar figures activated by swinging weights; toys in which opposed figures move in apparent conflict; balancing or falling toys motivated by gravity.
Pecking-bird toys, for instance, in which movement is activated by weights can be found all over the world. One feature of folk toys is the inventive use of materials found readily to hand: bones, nuts, pine cones, maize cobs and ears of corn, and, in the later 20th century, tin and plastic containers and lengths of wire. The vehicles made from wire by African children show an extraordinary ability to model three-dimensional forms. It is in eastern regions of Europe and in India, Africa, China, and Mexico that the folk tradition of toymaking is the most vigorous today.
Miniature carved utensils and wooden toys continue to be made by the rural populations of eastern Europe, particularly in parts of the former Yugoslavia. Toys made of natural materials and produced by traditional methods feed a demand in the West for individualistic, handmade goods, which contrast with the mechanically mass-produced toys, made overwhelmingly of plastic, that are manufactured by multinational companies. The Middle Ages to 1800 The few toys that survive from the Middle Ages in Europe have usually been found in excavations.
These are often games pieces and earthenware figurines, but many are toys made of cast metal. The craftsmen who made pilgrimage badges could as easily produce toy soldiers, such as the famous 14th-century example in the Musi? e de Cluny, Paris. Written references to toys are a reminder that children, then as always, could make their own toys; the 15th-century poem Ratis Raving mentions a girl making a doll from a cloth, and children constructing dens from sticks and stones.
Among the most frequently illustrated toys in illuminated manuscripts and early printed books are windmills and hobby horses, which, used in play imitating the activities of the adult world, could provide an introduction to the culture of chivalric warfare. After the Middle Ages, evidence of the manufacture and marketing of toys emerges in Germany, in areas where woodcarving was a traditional craft. Toys were among the many productions of the carvers of Oberammergau, in Bavaria, who were active from the early 16th century.
A busy carving community in another Alpine village, Berchtesgaden in Austria, also produced toys among much other carved work in the 17th to 19th centuries. On the southern side of the Alps, the Gri? den valley, now in the Italian Tyrol, supported a vigorous toy industry from the 18th century. Further north, two areas enjoyed toymaking booms in the 19th century: the Meiningen uplands around Sonneberg in Thuringia, where papier-mi? chi?
was a favourite medium; and, eastward, the Erzgebirge mountains around Seiffen, where woodturning was a speciality. These areas dominated the world toy trade well into the 20th century. Nuremberg, more or less equidistant from each, became their trading centre, from where toys were exported throughout Europe. Throughout this time toymaking remained chiefly a cottage industry. Wholesalers, whom the cottage industries supplied, initially carried with them quantities of samples to show potential buyers.
In time, rather than demonstrating the range of their goods through samples, wholesalers began to produce catalogues, illustrated by copper engravings and, later, lithographs. The early 19th-century catalogues of the Nuremberg dealer Georg Bestelmeier show quite complicated toys that reflect contemporary life-market stalls, kitchens, stables, farmyards, barracks. Later catalogues illustrate multitudes of small picturesque figures, both of people and of animals, many of which were too fragile to have survived. These catalogues have therefore become vital documents for toy historians.
They also reveal that small-scale versions of musical instruments (fiddles, trumpets, and drums) and weapons of war (swords, guns, and bows and arrows) made especially for children were staple toys in the 18th and 19th centuries, as were hoops, tops, battledores and shuttlecocks, and similar games equipment. The manufacture of lead soldiers was pioneered in Nuremberg in the later 18th century by Hilpert, Heinrichsen, and other makers. An inventory of the merchandise of an English shop in 1681 shows that among toys available at the time were wooden horses, dogs, birds, “babyes” (dolls), painted boxes, trumpets, and whistles.
Most were probably imported from Germany. “Dutch” dolls (in fact made in the Tyrol) received this name perhaps because they were exported from Germany by way of the Rhine through Holland, or perhaps because “Dutch” is a corruption of “Deutsch” (meaning “German”). Among the largest toys to be imported from Germany were Noah’s arks, their many small animals made by the labour-saving method of shaping a length of wood on a lathe to the profile outline of a camel or lion, for example, and slicing the length of wood to produce multiple figures, which were then hand-finished and painted.
Larger toys, such as dolls’ houses and rocking horses, which became widely available in England in the late 18th century, were made locally. It was also at this time that toyshops began to appear in England and France and that booksellers and publishers began to focus on children as a new market, issuing not only children’s books, but also paper games such as jigsaw puzzles and board games (see Children’s Games).
Most early board games (where English publishers such as Harris, Wallis, and Spooner led the way) were based on the “race” principle, in which players follow a numbered course, moving counters according to scores obtained by throwing dice. These games were immediately made educational, for the race format could easily be adapted to convey historical, geographical, and other types of information.