By Vicky Crewe, Project Co-Investigator, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University
Objects made specifically for children, such as toys and games, reveal insights into adults’ expectations and ambitions for children. From the second quarter of the 19th century the ‘cult of domesticity’ became widespread at all levels of society, setting up idealised notions of childhood as a distinct and special phase of life. This paralleled a boom in cheap, mass manufacturing; together, these circumstances encouraged and enabled adults at all social levels to purchase toys, games and other objects especially for youngsters.
On the surface these objects were just playthings, but they also carried cultural messages. Girls were typically expected to care for dolls and host toy tea parties, while boys played with soldiers and were trained as ‘little capitalists’ through games based on loss and accumulation. During the 19th century, children also acted as agents for political and social movements, such as the temperance movement. Children were encouraged to take the temperance pledge at a young age and, in turn, use their innocence and purity to inspire a similar way of life in the adults around them.
The use of toys to train children is seen particularly clearly in the years surrounding the Second African War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War) of 1899-1902. The historian Paula Krebs has written of a ‘frenzy of jingoism’ inspired by the war, which had, at least to start with, a huge amount of public support. The transmission of this militaristic enthusiasm to children is seen in what Kenneth Brown has called a ‘toy soldier craze’, which extended right up to the First World War; Brown estimates that some 10 or 11 million toy soldiers were being produced annually in Britain by 1914. These toy soldiers were accompanied by periodicals for child readers which focused on military themes, and movements such as school cadet corps, the Boys’ Brigade and the boy scout movement (the latter established by Baden Powell, a veteran of the South African War). Here we witness the training of children and young people – especially boys – as future defenders of Empire.
In this case study I’ll look at other types of toys produced at this time and explore a wider range of objects. In particular, I’ll consider what types of toys were being given to girls while boys were playing with their soldiers – bearing in mind, of course, that just because a toy is marketed at one gender, that doesn’t mean others don’t play with it. What messages did adults send to girls about their futures? What parts were they expected to play in protecting Britain’s interests as they grew up?
The Anglo-Boer War is also interesting for the Agents of Future Promise project because of the conditions in which many children and women were kept in the British concentration camps in South Africa. The unsanitary and unhealthy conditions of these camps roused much concern among the British public as the war developed. By the end of the war, Paula Krebs tells us, around 28,000 white Boer women and children and 14,000 black African adults and children had died in British prisoner of war camps. Incarcerating children as prisoners of war makes a powerful statement about their perceived political role; this case study will consider whether and how the suffering of ‘enemy’ children was communicated to British children.
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