Tag Archive: play

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.

Girl playing with a doll (source)

Boys playing with hoops (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.

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

V0038815 A young boy lies in bed with an army of toy soldiers on the
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
A young boy lies in bed with an army of toy soldiers on the counterpane. Process print after Jessie Wilcox-Smith.
1906 Published: 1906
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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.

Join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #children2015 – we’d love to hear from you.

Read other blog posts about Agents of future Promise.