A brief history of toys

Seeing this store in Palo Alto’s main strip got me thinking about toys. What are toys? When were they invented and what exactly does this store sell?

I have decided that toys are manufactured items that either represent tools of adults or creatures (real or imaginary) that serve the purpose of helping children in their very natural activity of play.

It is worth noting that, unrefined –non-manufactured– items could also be considered toys. Since the invention of the spear and before, young children have undoubtedly emulated the adult hunt using raw, naturally sourced sticks.

Toys are rare in the archaeological record in great part because they are not critical tools which their manufacturers intend to last long. Toys are secondary or tertiary to all manufactured goods –tools, clothing, religious objects, dildos and even shiny stones are more important.

Children playing with sticks. Source

I know that when we moved to our new house in Muncie, Indiana in 1995, we asked one of our new neighbors Harry H. if he had any weapons etc. With excitement he replied yes, and took us to his large backyard where we wound up looking for sticks as swords. As we looked behind bushes and under trees I began to get disappointed. A child of the 1990s I wanted something made by Mattel that was painted with high lead content paint.

For most of history, toys have been crude representations of things in a child’s natural world: animals, weapons, other children (dolls). A lot of the toys were probably discarded adult tools. More than one Athenian was probably ostracized by a vote using an ostracon which at one point had been a hand-me-down toy from his mothers/servants kitchen. It is worth mentioning that the first smart-toys were probably ethically sourced slaves employed to entertain rich children.

Sand, stones, sticks, broken pottery, polished stones (marbles), inflated animal bladders, and the shrunken heads of Tupi warriors number among traditional toys. These toys were toys because the users, children, where able to imagine past the crudeness of the tool and see themselves as the real person plying whatever trade. Makes me wonder what the children of Portuguese slave traders pretended to be.

I should mention that sports occupy an interesting space somewhat separate from normal emulative games. This is because sport is a game where the game has gained a life of its own and becomes a small cultural item onto itself. Sometimes sports along with their indumenta and toy-like tools become so important as to require the ritual sacrifice of half the players, as many Aztec Ōllamaliztli players and Manchester United fans have learned.

Rich children probably enjoyed better toys which integrated the latest advancements in technology: wheels, blue dye, iron. But in a world where most children had no need for imagination to pretend to do adult tasks, toys where probably scarce. Since the dawn of time, as soon as children developed the motor skills necessary to pick out edible grain from the chaff, to scrape semi-rotten carcasses, to pluck chickens, these children were hard-at-work not pretending to stay alive alongside their parents.

Then as part of the great social change of the 18th c., and in many places and times since, industrious industrialists put children to work in industry moving forward the industrial revolution, industrially.


Thus for millennia toys have been enjoyed mostly, only by the rich. For the rich, toys often serve the purpose of teaching children the social skills they would need to compete against each other later in life. I don’t doubt that sons of Ottoman sultans used toy daggers to practice killing each other off.

Toys also probably served to distract rich children in idle moments when they were not being tutored or abused by some monarch. Education being as mentally taxing as it is exclusive to the rich, children needed an activity to relax without annoying their parents, servants, slaves, etc.

This store, it might be argued sells three things. The first is a means to calm the guilt and fear of the modern parent. The second is social-class appropriate tools to keep children docile.

The third is “a point of entry into adult life.”The crude stick-as-spear and the the hand sewn doll serve(d) as means to emulate adult behavior. These “toys” allow children to imagine and wonder about adult situations while taking lower risks. However, if emulation is to be helpful, it must come to an end, or perhaps evolve into more serious and risky stuff.

A shiny toy with instructions and moving plastic parts is less a toy and more a practice tool to learn adult skills and concepts. Yet, one defining characteristic of childhood is absolute ignorance. Children are, in terms of how well they can accomplish adult tasks, complete screw-ups. Children require guidance and intelligent stimulus.


Like the hunter who takes his son on a hunt and teaches him how to stab a Howler monkey to death, for “Brain Toys” to be effective an Electrical Engineer needs to show his child how to properly use a breadboard. The secret to toys-as-tools to practice adult skills is that children need to emulate adults and thus need to see them. How exactly children “discover” principles of physics or chemistry by not reading the wordy instructions and losing the choking hazard parts that can be found inside these toy boxes is a mystery to me.
While in 19th c. factories the children that survived spinning cogs and steam blasts had spent 15 years observing adults doing their jobs, today’s children of engineers spend their days at school. In short, brain toys are only as effective as the teacher that may use it to teach a concept. The fancy “discovery” toys that Audi-driving parents buy for their children are often serve no more purpose than to help the consumer economy along and to affirm their social standing as the sort of people who shop at such a pretentious store.

If you want to teach your children about science may I suggest the use of a ladder, a Casio F-91W-1DG wristwatch and a Whole Foods organic, fairly sourced Kazakhki apple. Your child will learn about terminal velocity, gravity, and the power of marketing to sell “Kazakhki apples.”


The store claims to sell unique toys. That is not likely unless they have a few fair-trade Latin American woodworkers slaving away in the basement, which would not be out-of-character for Bay Area business.


Mann, T. (1975). The Child at Play [Abridged] How Toys Began.


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