Toy story: A short history of awesome playthings

From sticks and marbles to Teddy and Mickey, toys have developed alongside technological and human advances – though some have stayed remarkably faithful to their roots.

By Simon Ingram
Published 1 Dec 2020, 18:24 GMT, Updated 3 Dec 2020, 10:11 GMT
The journey of toys has mirrored our civilisation's development, and our ability to imitate others, instruct ...

The journey of toys has mirrored our civilisation's development, and our ability to imitate others, instruct ourselves, reinforce (and bust) stereotypes and use imagination. 

Photograph by Tim Gainey, Alamy

FOR AS LONG as people have been around, so too has play. There's even a scientific definition for it: repeated, pleasurable behaviour done for its own sake that's similar, but not identical to, other behaviours – and to this end it cascades into the animal kingdom, too. Studies have observed play in creatures from crocodiles, to chimps, to wasps.

As to why species of all kinds play, there is a raft of theories, from test-runs for adulthood, to developing motor skills and physical intelligence, to enhancing communication skills. And simply having good old, entirely non-useful but mentally uplifting fun. “For me, one of the most salient qualities of play is that it doesn’t strictly have a purpose at all—that’s what differentiates a playful action from one that looks virtually identical,” says Christopher Bensch, Vice President for Collections and Chief Curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. "I love to garden and consider that a form of play but, if someone ordered me to dig 100 holes, that would be work, or duty. 

“Play is restorative and engaging,” he adds. “In its most immersive form, it takes us deep into a flow state where we lose track of time and ourselves.” 

The natural accompaniment to the two kinds of human play – imitative, and instructive – is the toy. And while some have evolved, some remain remarkably consistent with some of the earliest known toys in the history of human civilisation – from sticks grasped to use as walking staffs, to the natural curiosity with rolling objects that led to the ball. And from throwaway bits of the natural environment to treasured reminders of happy times passed through generations, toys have grown in parallel with human civilisation to one of its true cornerstones. Here are a few notable examples of toys that, in their own way, changed the way we play.

Given the very first toys were likely to have been natural objects recruited from the ground, evidence is in short supply, but it’s speculated they were likely to have been sticks and stones, bones, twine or combinations of these. These were possibly used in imitation of adults using weapons to hunt – and used as a kind of proto-training aid for self-preservation necessary to survive adulthood.  

A child bends down to pick up a stick in woodland. Behaviours of children with 'found' toys like this today likely mirrors the very earliest human children.

Photograph by StockSnap, Pixabay

“Play is restorative and engaging... In its most immersive form, it takes us deep into a flow state where we lose track of time and ourselves.”

Christopher Bensch, National Museum of Play

Balls crafted for play are likely to have been amongst the very first purpose-built toys. Semi-precious stones shaped like marbles believed to date to 3000-4000 B.C. have been unearthed in a child’s grave in Egypt, and throughout that country’s civilisation a highly developed recreational culture grew that included primitive dolls, sports using balls made of papyrus and stuffed with cloth or hay, and board games such as senet. Games such as the modern jacks derived from knucklebones – which in ancient times, was exactly what was used.

Toys on a string

Long a symbol of childlike joy, it is unknown when the first kite appeared – though it was almost certainly in China or possibly Indonesia, between 400BC and 1000BC. They appear to have been put to many uses, from fishing tools, to communication devices and measuring aids – the latter two useful in battle – but also as tributes, and as toys. We don’t know much about ancient models, as kites aren’t conducive to preservation over thousands of years; but the earliest were probably made from paper or silk, with later incarnations designed or accessorised with mythology in mind.

In adult hands, the kite would transcend military purposes to become an ever-more elaborate scientific tool, triggering humans’ fascination with the aerodynamics of flight – and eventually giving rise, in the most literal sense, to aircraft. But the simple design (if not the materials) of the first kites endure in toys to this day.

'Making the Kite,' a lithograph of an 1869 painting, shows a young American boy constructing a hexagonal kite. The basic design of kites to this day are likely remarkably similar to the earliest kites of ancient China – though the first were not simply used as toys.  

Photograph by Library of Congress

Similarly, the yo-yo likely came from China, and spread widely both to the east and west. They were certainly being played with in Ancient Greece in at least 1000BC, with discs made from stone and later wood and terracotta. The yo-yo has been called various things throughout its history, including the bandalore, whirligig and in France the l’emigrette – the latter meaning ‘to leave the country’, a sinister connotation referencing the toy's popularity with the French aristocracy fleeing the French Revolution. It regained 'yo-yo' in the U.S. in 1916, when name-checked in an article in Scientific American on toys from the Philippines. Some sources suppose 'yo-yo' means ‘come-come’ in the Tagalog language.

The mighty doll

Dolls as playthings are amongst the oldest and most culturally universal toys. Miniature imitations of humans are powerful symbols, and have been employed since the earliest times in everything from art to worship, as talismans and for so-called black magic. Wooden carved ‘paddle dolls’ have been excavated from Egyptian tombs dating to around 2000BC; and in 2017 a carved soapstone doll with striking eyebrows and cheekbones was unearthed from the grave of a small child in Siberia dating to the Bronze Age, around 4,500 years ago. Dolls even cross over into the animal kingdom, with young female Ugandan chimps displaying nurturing tendencies towards small sticks, which research has suggested not only gives insight into play behaviour, but also reveals gender-based toy preferences in our primate relatives.   

'Bisque' dolls - named for their biscuit porcelain construction, which gave their skin tone a realistic matt finish – were hugely popular in Europe in the 19th century. The ability of manufacturers to augment the dolls with accessories, outfits and doll houses spawned an expandable business model that would later inform the idea of the train set.

Photograph by DPA Picture Alliance, Alamy

Human dolls have since taken many forms: from corn-husk, paper, clay and peg dolls, to Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, Japanese Daruma Dolls, and Iranian Layli dolls. In the mid-19thcentury, ‘China dolls’ with heads of porcelain and bodies made of textiles such as cloth and leather became very popular in Europe, with Germany and France the leading producers. Many were initially made to look like adult women; around 1850, more and more began resembling children, often with customisable outfits and accessories, as well as elaborate houses. ‘Bisque’ dolls – so called for the ‘biscuit’ porcelain that gave their features a realistic matte finish – became popular in the second half of the 1800s, with premium models sometimes finished with real human hair.

Dolls evolved into less-fragile composition materials – a mixture of resins, glue and sawdust – and more elaborate design in the early 20th Century, examples being the cherubic Kewpie, and the Bye-Lo doll which had glass eyes that closed when reclined. With advancement in plastic and synthetic textiles, dolls hit their mass-market stride in 1959 when Mattel's Barbie – an 11 inch incarnation of a 'Teen-age fashion model’ – made her debut in a swimsuit, and a choice of two hair colours.

Short for Barbara Millicent Roberts, the doll was and remains a cultural phenomenon: Barbie has since sold over a billion units, and the doll's diverse range of identities have enjoyed over 200 careers.

Mid-1960s Navy and Army G.I. Joes, and Barbie and Ken. While gender stereotyping seemed to dictate a male preference for G.I.Joe, the two toys were closer in spirit than most realised; An early prototype of Navy G.I.Joe was actually made from a 'butched up' Ken doll. 

Photograph by A composite image: G.I. Joe credit Chris Willson / Alamy; Barbie and Ken, courtesy Mattel, Inc.

Although Barbie was joined by her companion Ken in 1961, the stereotyping of the time meant boys would have to wait until the imitation game crossed the gender barrier with a doll – or rather ‘action figure’ – marketed for them. When it did, it did so with guns blazing: 1964 saw G.I. Joe take aim at the American toy market, appearing in the UK two years later under license as Action Man. Christopher Bensch counts a prototype Navy G.I. Joe amongst the National Museum of Play's collection, and it's an artefact with a twist: “As macho as Joe is, he might be embarrassed that this prototype is actually a standard Ken doll who’s been ‘butched up’ to look tougher.” 

“Early model trains ranged from lumps of moulded cast iron or lead with non-moving wheels to lively miniature steam models, nicknamed ‘dribblers,’ which had the habit of setting fire to their owners’ floors and furniture. ”

The industrial (toy) revolution

Mass production techniques and the emergence of steam travel led to exciting new toys, too. “Mechanical windup toys in the 19th century made a turning point in play,“ says Christopher Bensch. Elaborate toys became more affordable with, he adds, the advent of “industrial processes that allowed the production of gears and mechanisms at a low price, [which] led to autonomous toys that could be wound up to 'do their thing.’” It was the appearance of small-scale 'real' mechanics that would lead to the integration of scaled-down grown-up innovations that continues to inform many toys. Bensch says: "It’s that kind of technical shift that leads in our own times to toys like Tickle Me Elmo, and Furby – just with more electronics and batteries inside.”

Back in the mid-19thcentury, imitating the smoking, swift miracle of travel sweeping the world, the first toy trains began to appear. Early versions ranged from lumps of moulded cast iron or lead with non-moving wheels to lively miniature steam models, nicknamed ‘dribblers,’ which had the habit of setting fire to their owners’ floors and furniture.

Inspired by similar principals in dolls houses, model railway sets were an ever-expanding toy which was rewarding both for the player, and the manufacturer; instead of selling a single unit, the toy inspired creativity and augmentation with further product. Train sets remain hugely popular with children and adults alike. 

Photograph by Naturfreund_pics, 214 Images, via Pixabay

Critically though, these trains were simply standalone toys – rather than part of a set that could be developed and augmented like a real track system. Enter German toymakers Marklin, whose experience with endlessly expandable (and therefore endlessly lucrative) doll’s houses led them to create the first customisable train track sets, complete with mass-produced ‘tinplate’ trains and standardised gauges, in 1891. The genre endures at both ends of the age scale – with characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine keeping kids interested, and a thriving hobbyist scene enjoyed by detail-loving adult enthusiasts. 

From Teddy’s bear to Mickey Mouse

While carvings of animals have been found in children’s tombs in Ancient Egypt, and homemade rag dolls filled with straw or offcuts of material have been around since at least Roman times, purpose-made stuffed animals are a relatively recent invention. Margarete Steiff, a German seamstress, began creating elephant-shaped pincushions in 1880. After observing that many children ended up using the pincushions as toys, Steiff began designing more animals. In the U.S. around the same time, in 1902 then-president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was pictured in a cartoon by political artist Clifford Berryman with a subdued, puppy-like bear, satirising a scene from a hunting trip in which the president refused to shoot the animal.

The 'Elefantle' made by seamstress Margarete Steiff in 1880 was originally made as a pincushion; on hearing that the cushions were being used as toys, she designed more animals, eventually adding a bear in 1902. The bear was described as 'plusch beweglich' (plush and flexible.)

Photograph by Steiff

Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear, was satirised in this 1902 cartoon the The Washington Post. It spawned the creation of 'Teddy's Bear,' by inventor Morris Mitchtom. Simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic, Steiff was developing a line of stuffed animals, including bears. The two companies would feed the demand for the 'Teddy bear' that would soon captivate the world.

Photograph by World History Archive, Alamy

The cartoon spawned an inventor named Morris Michtom to create a prototype stuffed toy he called ‘Teddy’s Bear.’ Coincidentally, Steiff began making bears around the same time, and both toys became enormously popular – the phrase ‘Teddy Bear’ entering the vernacular of children’s culture more or less instantly.

More plush toys followed, with Lake District author Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit the first such toy in the world to be patented, in 1903. Following the First World War, the Great Depression in the U.S. saw a craze for DIY soft toys in the characterful form of ‘sock monkeys.’

Mickey Mouse's first 'plush' incarnation – such as this 1920s example – was as a toy designed by Los Angeles seamstress Charlotte Clark. She so impressed Walt Disney that, when production demand got too great, the sewing pattern was sold so that the public could make their own. Many are now collectors items or heirlooms; a vintage-flavoured Mickey toy features in Disney's 2020 Christmas video.

Photograph by Phil Rees, Alamy

With the advent of cinema, after the character’s debut in Steamboat Willie Los Angeles seamstress Charlotte Clark – with the able assistance of her nephew’s sketches – created the first Mickey Mouse dolls in 1930, under license from The Walt Disney Company. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners.) 

Walt Disney himself reputedly loved Clark’s dolls, which were originally handed out to those close to the studio. But demand soared, and soon – unwilling to deviate from the characterful Clark design – Disney allowed the stitching pattern of the soft toys to be made public, allowing those interested in owning a Mickey to make their own. In 1934, the Knickerbocker Toy Company took over and began mass producing Mickey and Minnie dolls under Clark’s direction – and to this day the toy remains iconic. 

Today, with advancements in material safety and design, soft toys – or plush toys – are a ubiquitous as comforters in children’s early years, and are amongst the items many treasure into adulthood.  

Getting creative

The principles of German educator Friedrich Froebel would inspire the holistic ‘whole child’ approach to imaginative play-driven early education – and would later lead him to coin the term ‘kindergarten.’ Opening the first of these in his hometown of Bad Blankenburg in 1840, as well as encouraging activities including origami, craft and braiding, as educational tools Froebel created a set of ‘gifts’ – simple wooden geometric blocks – with which children could make structures during play. 

The Slinky idea came about when a Naval engineer knocked a spring from a shelf – then watched as it 'stepped' its way to an upright stop.

Photograph by Matthrusc, via Pixabay

Toys that inspired imaginative construction based on more grown-up equivalents took great leaps in the early 20thcentury. The man later also responsible for Dinky Cars and his eponymous clockwork train set, a Lancashire inventor named Frank Hornby invented Meccano in 1900. This year that also saw the first commercial production of plasticine, the clay-like moulding material invented three years earlier by a British artist named William Harbutt as a tool of ‘free expression.’

Later toys leaned less on art than on physics. 1945’s Slinky was developed after a Philadelphia Naval engineer named Richard James knocked a spring from a shelf and watched it gracefully ‘step’ to the floor, where it settled upright. The unlikely toy was rather successful: made from 80ft of wire coiled 98 times, it’s been estimated that the volume of Slinkys sold since the company began would encircle the equator 121 times.

Early incarnations of LEGO included larger bricks for younger children as well as the smaller versions. The child featured on the packaging was the founder's grandson Kjeld Kristiansen, who would later become the company's president. 

Photograph by Lego

In Europe, an equally iconic toy had similarly inauspicious beginnings. In 1932, during the inter-war depression, a Danish domestic carpenter named Ole Kirk Christiansen, whose business had fallen on hard times, began production of simple birchwood playthings. Finding the toy business profitable, his facility expanded – taking delivery of the first plastic-injection moulding machine in 1947. In 1949, the company began producing a constructive play product called the ‘automatic binding brick.’ It also, by this point had a name – a compound of the Danish words leg godt, or ‘play well:’ LEGO.

Crossing over

With the advancement of cinematic and TV franchises, another genre of toy found had its moment: licensed merchandise. But the idea of merchandising had been around for a while already. “Brownies toys in the late 19th century ushered in the use of licensed characters on playthings, a pattern that has only continued to expand,” says The Strong's Christopher Bensch.

Based on the Scottish sprites of the same name, the Brownies were mischievous elf-like characters that started life as books created by Canadian author Palmer Cox – but then transcended into dolls, puzzles and games. 

An early example of licensed merchandise, Palmer Cox's Brownies began as pictorial books - but the name and aesthetic later found its way onto games, puzzles, a camera and merchandise such as these wooden lithographed nine-pin skittles made by the McLoughlin Bros. Such items are prized by collectors; this particular set reached $1,159 (£869) when sold in 2018 by Pennsylvania auctioneers Pook & Pook.   

Photograph by Pook & Pook Inc., Auctioneers And Appraisers

“If TV had been around in their time, there would have been an animated Brownie series to further monetise the characters in all their forms.” Bensch says. As it turned out, the Brownies would lend their image to a camera: Eastman Kodak's Brownie – "their cheapest, simplest camera that even a child could use,” adds Bensch – and while the drawings on the box were indisputably of Cox's Brownies, sources are unclear as to whether he ever received a licensing fee.  

The merchandise concept went truly interstellar in the 1970s when the Mego Corporation of New York began producing licenced figures depicting superhero characters from DC and Marvel comics, at a distinctive scale of 8 inches. From 1974 the company added motion picture licensees to its range, producing figures from Planet of the ApesStar Trek and the Wizard of Oz

Preserved in its box, an original 1977 Kenner 'R2D2' Star Wars toy. 

Photograph by Chris Willson, Alamy

In 1976 Mego began to produce smaller 3 ¾ inch figures called ‘micronauts,’ and were flying high on their success. The story goes they were out of town when a junior executive with a few production stills and sketches from a new film project was doing the rounds of toy manufacturers to enquire about merchandising rights. With Mego unavailable, he instead made his way to the office of the Kenner company – whose output was known for Easy-Bake ovens and the Spirograph – and laid out his pitch for an unreleased science fiction film which industry insiders were speculating would be a costly failure. It was called The Star Wars

George Lucas had been so sure of his film franchise idea and his vision of kids playing with the toy equivalents of his creations, he had sacrificed $500,000 of his directing fee to retain the merchandising rights. With these, he'd secured a manufacturing deal with Kenner, but even Lucas couldn’t have forseen the success that followed. In 1978 and 1979 Kenner’s sales of Star Wars toys reached $100 million, using the 3 ¾ inch scale. Bought by Hasbro in 1991, financial records showed that by 2007, Star Wars toys alone had created $9 billion in profits, and along the way raised a new benchmark for the way merchandise was created. 


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