While toys today are widely associated with children, historically toys were the province of adults and were only gradually passed on and relegated to the young. Playthings, long rare and slowly changing, became far more varied and transient in modern society, reflecting conflicting cultural and economic influences over the childhood experience.

Origins of Modern Toys

For all but the rich, the preindustrial family's need to work meant PLAY and toys were not encouraged by parents. In ancient and medieval times, adults shared objects of play with children primarily during festivals as occasions for emotional release. Common play objects, such as hoops, tops, balls, and even hobbyhorses, were only gradually abandoned by adults as childish. The passing of toys to children was closely related to the sixteenth-century shift from community spectacle to domestic celebrations (with the miniaturization of crèche, battle, and animal scenes for family amusement and edification). Miniature scenes eventually became children's play sets (e.g., the sixteenth-century wooden Noah's Ark). Only in the late sixteenth century did miniature soldiers shift from being adult to children's toys. In the eighteenth century domestic miniatures, which had formerly been custom-built for luxurious display for adult women, became doll cabinets and houses to instruct girls in the arts of housekeeping and domestic fashion. Domestic automata, mechanical figures or animals that were powered by water and even steam, had amused wealthy men from ancient times, but it was not until the nineteenth century that mass production and cheap clock and winding works let adults pass these novelties down to children as toys.

Poor children, of course, found time to make their own rag- and straw-stuffed DOLLS or balls from animal skins, and created games in unsupervised groups with whittled sticks and castaway bits of cloth. Traditional toys, such as hoops pushed along the street with a stick, or hand-made cup-and-ball toys, let children display skill until the end of the nineteenth century.

The toy industry began in southern Germany (Nuremberg and Groeden Valley especially) in the fourteenth century. At first, seasonal craftspeople specialized in carving wooden animal figures sold regionally through peddlers. But by the end of the eighteenth century, cheap tin toy armies for boys and miniature kitchens for girls were manufactured according to the strict specifications of powerful merchants and distributed across Europe and North America to children in middle-class families. European toy makers also found new, cheaper materials (like sawdust-based "composition" for dolls' heads by 1850 and lithographed paper on wood to simulate domestic interiors or hand painted scenes on play sets by 1890). These innovations not only put more playthings into the hands of less wealthy children, but also made for more variety and more rapid change in toys, thus turning playthings into a fashion industry. Nevertheless, older craft production and distribution through merchants survived in many branches of the toy industry throughout the nineteenth century, delaying mechanization. German toys prevailed until World War I, when Germany still exported 75 percent of its output.

Toys in the United States

Until the mid-nineteenth century, American children had relatively few playthings, especially after the toddler years. Parents seldom thought of toys as tools of learning or character building, but rather as frivolities that interfered with the learning of sex work roles through assisting adults in their daily tasks. Religious strictures against idleness, especially in Puritan New England, made toys suspect, except perhaps on SUNDAYS or holidays. Only after the Civil War, with the spread of factories and the coming of department stores and mail order catalogs, did the American toy industry begin to emerge. Innovative interlocking building blocks and comical windup toys appeared in the 1860s and 1870s. But more common were simple miniatures of adult work tools (toy hammers, saws, and garden tool sets for boys and dolls and miniature houseware sets for girls).

Toys became part of an ideal childhood in the middle-class home. Industrialization removed production from the home and reduced the need for child labor, making playthings essential to preparing the young for adult roles. Parlor board and card games and "scientific" toys (featuring optical illusions) replaced shared domestic work to create family loyalties and to train the child in the values of honesty and competition. Such "educational" playthings served aspiring middle-class parents to isolate their young from often-unruly street gangs while also providing antidotes for loneliness. With greater affluence, the young were increasingly encouraged to enjoy the spontaneity and the pleasures of their freedom from work and responsibility. Playthings were both vehicles to introduce the real world and fantasy objects that shut off the child from that world.

Beginning around 1900 toy manufacturing diversified greatly and began to offer almost annual changes. As boys were withheld longer from the workforce and girls spent less time caring for younger siblings and doing household duties, playthings for older children became more common. Boys up to sixteen years old could look to sophisticated toy construction sets, toy microscopes, chemistry sets, and electric trains as fun, but also as practical preparation for modern careers in engineering, business, and science. Toys became even more sex stereotyped as boys' toys increasingly idealized technology, constant innovation, and the values of competition and teamwork. By contrast, a new generation of playthings for females featured companion and baby dolls, meant to encourage emotional attachments and nurturing "instincts." New interest in early child development created a demand for building blocks, crafts, and other educational playthings. The didactic and often austere character of educational toys (rejecting, for example, any association with popular film or comic book characters) limited their appeal and led to their declining role in children's lives by the 1960s.

Other popular toys encouraged fantasy. They were sometimes drawn from folk literature (like the Scottish elf Brownies figures and play sets of the 1890s) but more often from the ever-changing stories and characters of comics and movies, including Kewpie dolls (1912), Charlie Chaplin dolls (1914), and eventually Mickey Mouse figures (1930). The TEDDY BEAR, based on a story of Teddy Roosevelt sparing a baby bear on a hunt, became an international craze in 1906. This toy, in contrast to the hard wooden or stiff cloth animals of the past, was cuddly (made of upholstering fabric and filled with soft stuffing) and provided children security and protection. Teddies also made children seem innocent and charming and later reminded adults of their own childhoods. Most toys of the early twentieth century were intended to convey adult messages to children either by giving them the adult's image of their future or by presenting adult fantasies or nostalgia about ideal childhood.

Growing Fantasy and Autonomy in Toys

A major shift in playthings began in the 1930s during the Great Depression. In response to reduced sales, toy makers

Boy with Toys on Porch (c. 1909), photographed by . By the early twentieth century, toys had become part of the ideal middle-class childhood. Boys' toys idealized technology and innovation; toy trains were particularly popular. ©

offered cheaper toys, often sold by the piece rather than in sets (as they had often been sold in the past). This tended to encourage children to purchase their own toys, bypassing parental control. Toy companies also began to use licensed images of popular radio and movie personalities in their toys to increase sales. Buck Rogers toy guns, Little Orphan Annie decoder rings, Popeye wind-up figures, and SHIRLEY TEMPLE dolls served as props to reenact stories or to identify with heroes. Military figures, science fiction play sets, and cowboy cap guns gained a new prominence in boys' play in the 1930s as war approached and the optimism that had characterized the previous generation of construction and scientific toys declined.

In many ways, toys during the post-1945 BABY BOOM GENERATION returned to the era before 1930. In a period of new scientific and technological advances and perhaps closer bonds between fathers and sons, space toys and miniature cars and trucks were common. Adult fascination with the rugged individualism and moral certainty of the pioneer, cowboy, and Indian fighter led to parents' buying cowboy suits, holster sets, and Lincoln Logs as well as frontier ranch and Fort Apache play sets for their sons. These often featured movie and TV western heroes such as Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, and the Lone Ranger. By contrast, parents gave their baby boomer daughters miniatures of mother's work, including kitchen sets and replicas of name-brand products like Toni home permanents, presumably to teach girls their future roles as homemakers and consumers. As in the past, baby and companion dolls continued to invite girls to build play around relationships and emotional ties.

While the 1950s seemed to be a throwback to the past, there was one significant innovation in the world of toys during this period–the beginning of mass ADVERTISING of toys directly to children on TV programs. The Mickey Mouse Club was not the first children's show to promote toys when it first appeared on TV in 1955, but its advertising was designed to appeal to the child's imagination rather than the parent's values. Mattel toys proved that year-round advertising featuring children actors could create a mass demand for "burp guns" and Barbie dolls even outside of the Christmas gift season. Increasingly children pressured their parents into buying the "must-have" toys seen on TV.

Changes since 1960

In 1959, Mattel's Barbie doll, with her model's body, broke from the friendship and nurturing themes of the companion and baby dolls that had predominated since the 1900s, and put grown-up fashion and spending in its place. To the eight-year-old of 1960, Barbie represented a hoped-for future of teenage freedom from the dependencies of childhood that ignored the likely future responsibilities of her own mother. Barbie certainly did not teach girls to shed female sex stereotypes. Rather, she encouraged girls to associate being grown up with Barbie's "shapely" female body and with her freedom and carefree consumption.

G.I. Joe, introduced in 1964, was at first a boy's military dress-up doll modeled after real soldiers. During the Vietnam War when military toys became controversial, Joe and his friends became a line of adventure figures (who searched for treasure, for example). By 1975 G.I. Joe was again a fighter, but in a science fiction world divorced from the experience of real war. By 1978 boys' toys had become props to reenact the fantastic gadget-filled adventure of the Star Wars series, when the producers sold the rights to produce millions of action figures of the movie heroes and villains to Kenner Toys.

Since 1982, toy companies have produced TV cartoons based on their own toy lines. Mattel's series, He-Man and Masters of the Universe, featured warring characters from a TV program. However, with these toys, unlike the toy guns of the past, the tiny figures, not the boy, pulled the triggers.

Following on the success of action figures, toy makers introduced little girls to their own world of fantasy figures and play sets. In the early 1980s, greeting card companies developed lines of minidolls (Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, and others) popularized with Saturday morning cartoons and movies. In the 1990s, the periodic release of movies like Little Mermaid or Aladdin created demand for toy figures associated with movie characters. Each child received her or his own "heroes" based on the media craze of the moment. While the American toy industry grew to sales of over 20 billion by the end of the twentieth century, parents' values and memories had little to do with children's toys even as children experienced more autonomy, albeit in a highly commercialized form of play.

Fate of the Toy Industry Outside the United States

In contrast, toys remained relatively static after 1920 in Europe and elsewhere. American toy innovations penetrated European childhood, especially with Walt DISNEY's aggressive marketing of character licenses to European doll and toy makers in 1935. The Americanization of toys meant a shift of play away from an adult world of training and toward an international culture of childhood created by linking children's movies and other media to toys. Of course, older toys survived after World War II in Europe: British Meccano construction sets returned and the Lesney "Matchbox" cars updated a tradition of play based on realistic miniatures of adult life. The Swedish Brio Company perpetuated a tradition of high-quality wooden toys (simple trains, cars, animals, and blocks) and promoted them as an educational alternative to licensed character toys. In the 1960s, the German Playmobil Company thrived by offering sturdy plastic updates of traditional wooden play sets. German toy makers abandoned war toys and specialized in electric trains, stuffed animals, and fine character dolls.

Where TV advertising was minimal or prohibited (e.g., Sweden), TV toys were somewhat slower to dominate the European market. Traditional craft toys (such as dolls, miniature animals, jumping jacks, and kites), made of common materials and featuring generic humor, still exist in the street markets of Asia and Africa in great regional variation. But even in poor countries, where parents cannot afford American name-brand action figures and dolls, local manufacturers make cheap imitations.

From the 1960s, European toy companies survived by imitating or becoming subsidiaries of aggressive American toy makers (e.g., with imitations of Barbie or European translations of G.I. Joe as Action Man). American control of licensed characters, associated with globally distributed movies like Star Wars, assured American dominance of the new type of toy line. The most dramatic exception was the Danish Lego interlocking blocks, which, starting in the mid-1960s, became a global boy's toy. By the late 1980s, however, Lego compromised with the American toy industry by introducing kits or "systems" designed to construct a single model based on exotic science fiction or fantasy themes. While educational toys survived in specialized upscale stores, appealing especially to parents intent on giving their infants and toddlers a head start, the older child has become part of a global consumer culture through satellite TV, movies, COMIC BOOKS, and after 1991 especially video games. Toys are increasingly designed and marketed through American and Japanese companies and manufactured in South China near the international commercial center of Hong Kong for global distribution.

While some toy companies have undertaken research on children's response to new toys (such as Mattel and Lego) and development through toys (e.g., Fisher Price), only recently have children's playthings attracted impartial scholarly research (such as that by the International Toy Research Association). Toy collections are often small and specialized reflecting the particular interests of collectors. But major displays of historic toys are available at the Margaret Strong Museum (Rochester, New York), the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (London, England), Legoland (Billund, Denmark), and the Brio Toy Museum (Osby, Sweden).

See also: Boyhood; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Construction Toys; Early Modern Europe; Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Girlhood; Theories of Play.


Chanan, Gabriel, and Hazel Francis. 1984. Toys and Games of Children of the World. Paris: UNESCO.

Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hewitt, Karen, and Louis Roomet, eds. 1983. Educational Toys in America: 1800 to the Present. Burlington, VT: Robert Hull Fleming Museum.

Kline, Stephen. 1993. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing. New York: Verso.

McClintock, Inez, and Marshall McClintock. 1961. Toys in America. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.