Although you might not realise it, toys have been around for centuries, even as far back as Roman times. Greeks and Roman excavations have discovered that children used to play with items like spinning tops, dolls, balls, and hoops. Ball games were played with pig bladders that had been inflated. Egyptian civilisations have been found to have made toy dolls that had detachable wigs and moving arms and legs. In Greek cultures, it was even customary for a little girl to offer her dolls to the Gods before she married, indicating the passage from childhood to adulthood. Later on, in the Dark ages and Middle Ages, tools and weapons were often used as toys, as well as simple, easy-to-find items such as hoops from barrels, animal bones and stones. More rarely, there were some hand-made toys like dolls and horses.
Not much changed in the design of toys over the centuries. Every now and then a new design was developed, like yo-yos, or cup and balls, but many children just didn’t have time to play. This was either because they were at school, or working long hours. Toys from centuries ago were often just made for children by their parents. There was not a market for the mass production of toys. In the sixteenth century, wooden dolls were produced called Bartholomew babies, as they were available to buy from London’s St Bartholomew’s fair.
The Industrial Revolution saw the first change in the manufacturing of toys. Factories were cropping up all over the country and toys were cheaper to make. The very first jigsaw to be produced was a map that was cut into pieces. It was designed by John Spilsbury in the late seventeen hundreds with the intention of teaching children about geography. However, the idea caught on.
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that someone realised there was a market for toys. Items began to be mass produced, which were purchased by rich families. At first, these toys were mainly educational or religious in some way. Parents bought board games, books, puzzles and cards for their little ones.
It was in the nineteenth century that toys took on a different role. Children had more time on their hands, and adults were working fewer hours and making more money. Leisure time became an important part of life. More technical toys were developed, which were mainly sold by opticians. These were building blocks, magic lanterns, steam trains, and visual toys like the zoetrope or the kaleidoscope. As it was the height of the Victorian era, religious toys depicting biblical stories, like Noah’s Ark were also available. This was particularly popular on Sundays, when most children weren’t allowed to play with their non-religious toys.
Many of the now-famous toy brands started out in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century. Some of the most popular toys that were mass produced around this time were zoos, farmyard sets, toy soldiers, and cowboys and Indians. Hornby was one of the most popular companies, which produced intricate electric and clockwork train sets and Meccano. Teddy bears and other soft toys were introduced in the early twentieth century, along with Plasticine, which was invented in 1897.
However, as World War Two got underway, most toy companies ceased their production and trading. During this time, home-made toys became increasingly popular, with many mother’s knitting dolls and animals for their children.
After the war, toys started being mass produced in plastic and metal. They were cheaper to produce in these materials, and could be a lot more colourful and durable. One of the most popular toys to ever be invented was Lego in the fifties, and a few years later the first Barbie doll was available to buy.
One of the biggest influences on toys during the twentieth century was the increase in popularity of films and TV shows. Many TV shows began putting their name and brand to toys that were made in the likeness of the characters, such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, and My Little Pony.
During the seventies and eighties, electronic and computer-based toys became popular, and yet again changed the market for toys all over the world. By the eighties and nineties, the computer game industry had taken over the toy market. Most houses had a games console, and as technology has developed, so has the style of game.
Nowadays, there is an abundance of toys available on the market, with hundreds of toy companies competing against each other for new and exciting designs. Computerised toys are popular, as are dolls and board games.
Toys are so popular these days that they often become faddish. There has always been a playground fashion, but often the toys were relatively cheap. These days, popular toys can cost in excess of a few hundred pounds. If a child doesn’t own the latest, most fashionable toy, it’s considered social death in the playground. Recent fads have included the Tamagotchi in the mid-nineties, and the Furby in the late-nineties. It was practically impossible for parents to get their child one of these toys for Christmas. Nowadays, there is a list of ten or more toys that will sell out over the festive season due to the nature of toy fashions.
Despite the changes in fashions of toys, the basic principle often remains the same. Dolls have been in existence for centuries, but have just been slightly adapted with the advent of new technologies. Dolls have gone from being a simple wooden likeness of a human, to a beautiful and intricate replica, to being able to talk, to the most modern versions which have voice recognition qualities and respond in a number of ways. Rather than being powered by a pulled string as they would have been fifty years ago, toys are now powered by batteries and computers.
There has also been a return to classic toys in recent years, with retro designs becoming more popular. Nowadays, many toys are made from wood, and old styles of games like spinning tops and marbles are coming back in fashion.