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Why do we give toys to children? Part 1

By Vicky Crewe, Project Co-Investigator, School of History, Archaeology and Religion, Cardiff University








Why do adults give toys to children? What do we hope to achieve by providing children with playthings and games? On one hand, this seems an easy question to answer. We give toys and games to children to make them happy (or to stop them asking!), to keep them occupied, to develop their imaginations and social skills, to enable them to experiment and discover, and to enhance their coordination and motor skills.

But we should also remember that when we give a child a toy or game (in fact, any object we expect them to play or interact with) we may also be telling them something about what we, and the wider world, expect of them. Campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys and Pink Stinks have recognised this, challenging the often unspoken gendered assumptions made about what young girls and boys ‘should’ play with and wear.

The existence of (often unconscious) aspirations we have for children based on their gender, as well their class, is part of a much longer trend. In this post and my next, I want to step back from the narrowly-defined focus of my case study (which looks at toys given to children at the turn of the 20th century). Instead, I want to think more generally about what toys and games meant for working-class children throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In today’s post I want to look at how playthings helped to mould children into future workers, both for the family and the state. Next time, I’ll discuss how playthings transmitted messages about social and political movements to children.

        Don’t you know that the harder you are at work, the happier you are?’

Miss Monflathers to Little Nell, The Old Curiosity Shop (Dickens 1841, Chapter 31)

Collections of archaeological finds from 19th-century domestic sites in the western world frequently include the remains of toys, games and other objects specifically intended for children. Remarkably similar toys have been found at sites such as Five Points in New York (US), The Rocks in Sydney (Australia), and Manor Lodge in Sheffield (UK). These playthings often reflect gender norms of the period and they also helped children to develop the skills they would need for later life.

For example, caring for dolls and serving tea from miniature tea sets trained young girls as future homemakers and mothers. But more than that, the quality of the dolls and tea sets bought for (or by) children taught them about money and the quality of item they could expect to afford based on their family’s income. Some items were better quality, more decorative and expensive, while others were plainer and cheaper. As children grew up, they could apply the knowledge and skills they’d learnt through play into real life, helping around the house and looking after siblings. While these tasks might have been unpaid, they contributed to the family income, as they enabled parents and other older members of the household to carry out paid work, either in the workplace or at home (for instance by taking in lodgers, doing laundry for wealthier households, or carrying out ‘piecework’ for manufacturing). Crucially, the skills that children acquired by playing with these toys were also marketable; they too could earn a living in other people’s houses or their own as they got older, for example in domestic service.


Child_and_Doll Wikipedia Denver Public Lib

Late 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of children with their toys; the boys are playing with hoops in the street, while the girl is holding a doll (left-hand image source; right-hand image source).

Toys intended specifically for boys are sometimes harder to identify in the archaeological record compared to girls’ toys, although we find toy soldiers and guns, and other figurines which may well have been given to boys. While working-class girls are likely to have been more house-bound through their paid and unpaid employment, boys tended to have more freedom, wandering more widely in the streets and countryside surrounding their homes. We often find marbles and counters on 19th-century domestic sites, and it’s possible that boys played games with these outside the home. They would have been able to negotiate social relationships with other youngsters and gain experience of loss and gain, which would stand them in good stead when providing for a family later in life.[1]

What do these playthings and child-related objects tell us about expectations for working-class children in the 19th century? I would argue that these items didn’t just encourage play; they were about preparing children for their lives as economically productive members of the family unit, and society as a whole. This might sound overly cynical and I’m certainly not suggesting that adults, particularly parents and other relatives, gave children playthings purely for economic or cynical reasons. In fact, I would argue that adults were helping children by preparing them for the realities of their future lives. Yes, a child who could work and contribute to the family economy was undoubtedly a useful asset but, given the woeful nature of Victorian welfare, children from poorer homes were also being equipped with the essential skills they would need to work and survive in years to come.

Working-class families were doing a balancing act, juggling opportunities for play, the economic needs of the household, and the future welfare of its younger members. The very existence of child-related objects reveals that families were investing in childhood as a separate phase of life – a phase for play, as well as work and education. In households where exploitative wages often required every able-bodied family member to work, the pragmatic choice was to use play to prepare children early for the often hard and strenuous working life that lay ahead of them.

We can’t escape the fact that these families were living and working in a largely exploitative system, or that work could have a devastating impact on children’s health. But in spite of its constraints and disadvantages, work could also bring opportunities for children. They could challenge and change their work environment by taking part in strikes, for example. They could gain a sense of pride and fulfilment through work, by making a contribution to family finances and embracing their transition to ‘adulthood’. They also got the chance to escape, and experience adventure and independence in the big wide world.

[1] Because this post is about what adults give to children, I am of course ignoring one large category of object here – the varied and sometimes rather random range of objects that children themselves decide to play with and appropriate as toys.

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