In 1836, eight-year-old Susan Blunt of Merrimack, N.H., was given a wax doll. It was, she recalled some 80 years later, "the only doll I ever had." What she meant was that it was the only purchased doll she ever had. By her own admission she had plenty of homemade "rag-babies," but the wax doll was a wonder to Susan, because it had glass eyes and real hair. It was, unfortunately, a short-lived wonder. Although the doll was kept carefully tucked away in a drawer, it met with tragedy. "One day I went to look at it," Susan wrote, "and it was ruined. The sun had shone in so hot that it had melted the wax, to my great greef [ sic
Like Susan's wax doll, the many toys and games in the Old Sturbridge Village collection once had owners who no doubt could have shared endearing tales about them. The well-worn paper ears on a wooly sheep and the faded and torn face on a jack-in-the-box signify years of affection, but the stories that might have accompanied these artifacts of childhood are all too often long lost. We can begin to understand their significance if we ask a few questions about the changing attitudes toward work and play in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the subsequent development of the toy industry.
Toys and games have not always been associated solely with children. Before the eighteenth century there was no segment of the European or colonial American culture devoted to "childhood." There were virtually no toys or books made and sold especially for children, although children certainly played with things of their own invention or shared in the games of adults. It was not until the theories of philosopher John Locke and his followers began to take hold in the eighteenth century that toys and games were seen to have an important role in educating children. Many Europeans and Americans began to view play as the key to successful learning, rather than as a sinful and idle pursuit. This new attitude led to the development of a market aimed at adults who wished to "improve" their children.
The reception of new values regarding child's play varied according to education and wealth, with many high-status parents buying into the idea early on. Other, less wealthy, families gradually adapted to the notion of the didactic value of play by giving homemade toys to their children and purchasing toys when finances allowed. Susan Blunt's distinction between homemade and purchased dolls suggests that by the 1830s manufactured toys had successfully infiltrated the small village in rural New Hampshire where she grew up. As a blacksmith, her father was probably not a wealthy man, but it must have been important for the Blunts to give their child a "real" doll.
The earliest toys and games manufactured and marketed specifically for children were developed during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, there was a successful international toy market largely centered in Germany and England. In keeping with the theory that play should be educational, early toys and games were often designed to be challenging to young minds. One of the leading producers of children's games during the first half of the nineteenth century was the Wallis family of London. Their toy building set--"The Organ of Constructiveness Developed" or "The Young Builder"--is in the Old Sturbridge Village collection. Designed to improve a child's skills in manipulating and assembling materials into recognizable structures, this set may have been purchased by parents who hoped it would help their child develop skills useful in later life.
Toys and games were also commercially made in America in the early nineteenth century. Like children's books of the period, many were highly moral in tone. In 1843, the Salem, Mass., publishing firm of W. & S. B. Ives (which later became Parker Brothers) issued "The Mansion of Happiness, An Instructive Moral and Entertaining Amusement." Also in the Village collection, this board game is designed to make players pass through pictured virtues and vices, such as "honesty" and "idleness," while enduring punishments, such as the whipping post!, before reaching "Happiness" in the center of the board. This very popular game was invented by Miss Anne W. Abbott, the daughter of a Beverly, Mass., clergyman.
The inventive Miss Abbott is also credited with creating card games for mass production. Her most successful card game, "Dr. Busby," sold more than 50,000 copies when first issued in 1843 and continued to be a popular favorite throughout the nineteenth century. The Village's game collection has two "versions" of "Dr. Busby"--one issued in 1843 by the Ives firm and another made by hand. They suggest that the toy industry had an influence even on toys made at home. T. P. Bogert, the maker of the second version, may have been demonstrating a resistance to mass-produced games, or may have simply copied the manufactured game to test his own artistic skills.
A more traditional homemade toy in the Village's collection is a crudely carved pair of oxen, painted red. The carver may well have based them on oxen owned by the family. Playing with these animals probably helped a young boy aspire to becoming a farmer--or, perhaps, this was his parents' wishes. By contrast to these home-carved beasts, an exotic toy leopard in the Village collection is probably a European import. Modeled from papier-mâché, the creature has a sophisticated swivel-mounted and counter-weighted head and lower jaw, which bobs up and down to give the beast life-like movement as it is pulled along. Such a toy was probably bought for a child of a fairly wealthy family and may have been seen as an object of status as well as enjoyment.
Toys and games such as these may evoke images of innocence and play from a simpler time, but, in fact, we can see that they emerged out of changing views of childhood and the development of new markets and consumers in the early nineteenth century.
Source Old Sturbridge Village Visitor