Toys for children are a big focus of attention at this time of year. Apart from electronic items, the tradition toys such as dolls and cars remain as popular as ever.
Dolls have been toys for thousands of years. A favourite, for example, in the British Museum is the bone figure of a child or teenager from the Egyptian Predynastic period (supposedly 4000-3600 BC) wearing, among other things, lapis lazuli sunglasses. This doll was found in a grave, placed there presumably in the forlorn hope that it would be of comfort to the deceased in eternity. The doll is an Egyptian work of art. If mass-produced, it could be sold in today’s toy stores.
Cars and truck toys, on the other hand, obviously did not appear until the early 20th century soon after the real vehicles on which they were modeled were introduced. The first die-cast toy car from the Strombecker Corporation, for example, was a Model T Ford in 1906. Scaled down replicas of motor vehicles were an obvious adjunct to the toy train sets developed in the late 19th century. The wonder is how rapidly motor vehicle toy/model manufacturing echoed the ever-growing output of the factories producing their life-size progenitors.
What is it that interests us in recasting reality on a smaller scale? The seventeenth-century doll houses in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum were not children’s toys but rather hobby collections of the wives of the wealthy merchants reflecting their personal interests: their homes. Replicas of real homes, these dollhouses were often on a magnificent scale. As the Rijksmuseum website indicates, “Whenever an important visitor dropped by, the … hostess would… display the contents of the cupboards, reveal hidden spaces, light the lamps and would let real water gush from the fountain in the garden. Doll’s house demonstrations sometimes went on for hours.”
The more wide spread affluence created by the industrial revolution, however, introduced ‘childhood’ as a distinctive stage of life. Children were no longer regarded as merely small-sized adults. Play and learning were encouraged activities, which meant that scaled down and simplified models of real “things” were suitable as toys.
Pedal cars—a less miniaturized response—also have an interesting history dating back to the 1890’s when most were modeled from the real cars on the road at the time. Popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s, out of production in the mid-1940’s when all metal was reserved for the war effort, they experienced resurgence in the 1950’s to 1960’s with many different models and colors. Incorporating the most current trends of the automotive world, pedal cars featured working lights and horns, moveable windshields and ragtops, chrome detailing and hood ornaments, and white wall tires and custom paint jobs.
Today the list of motor vehicle inspired toys is almost endless. But there may be a negative development in all of this. There are many highly realist computer games that feature cars involved in racing. Children have to know that how you drive on the screen is not the same as driving on the roadway, where going out of control may result in death, not just a loss of points.