This brief history of toys highlights some of the key toys and developments in toy production.
The word ‘toy’ dates from the 16th century. At that time it was applied to tawdry objects such as buttons and buckles as well as playthings. Many toys as we know them today were more likely to have originated as playthings and amusements for adults.
Among the earliest known toys are small stone and clay balls or marbles. Marbles were found in a child’s grave in Nagada, Egypt and date from 4000 BC.
Medieval toys were made of wood and included yo-yos, cup and ball toys and tops.
Early dolls in England were made of wood. The body and head were turned out of one piece of wood.
Most toys have their origins in the late 18th century. These include dolls, hobbyhorses, stick horses, kites and puzzles.
Technological advances meant that printing on paper became widespread.
Jigsaw puzzles were made from printed paper which was glued onto wood and cut into shapes.
Puzzles were first seen as an educational pastime, often featuring historic figures such as kings and queens of England.
Dominoes, playing cards, counters and teetotums were all used to play games in the 19th century but were more popular with adults than with children. These were often ornate, and made of bone and ivory.
Teetotums are spinning tops with numbers on each side and were used instead of dice, which were thought to encourage gambling.
With the rapid growth of the rail networks in the 1840s, toy trains soon appeared.
Changing policies in education in the 1870s meant that more equipment was produced to educate schoolchildren. Abacuses are one example.
As the industrial revolution developed so did mass-produced toys. Toy designs were often influenced by industry.
Hollow cast lead was a technique used in the mass production of lead soldiers. The main manufacturer of these in England was WH Britain. He also used this technique when making more complex toys, adding fabric and clockwork mechanisms.
Early 20th Century
In the 20th century more elaborate toys were produced and, as the motorcar was seen on roads for the first time, the toy car was also created.
Animals had long been an inspiration for toy makers and in the first decade of the 20th century a new toy bear was produced by the German maker Steiff which had jointed arms and legs. Thanks to the American President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt the toy was given the name ‘Teddy’; this was the result of a cartoon published by an American newspaper, which told the story of how the President had refused to shoot a baby bear while on a hunting expedition.
‘Teddy Bears’ where soon produced as toys in America and the name became synonymous with toy bears worldwide.
World War One
During World War One the toy industry was quick to produce an array of toys reflecting the conflict.
They included a range of toy soldiers depicting a military field hospital, which were produced by Elastolin and Lineol.
1920s and 30s
In the 1920s and 1930s cartoon characters such as Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse had worldwide appeal.
These toy figures were produced as merchandising.
Mid 20th Century
World War Two
During World War Two toy making came to a standstill. Factories and materials were used to make weapons instead. Cheaper toys were made from card or paper such as cut out paper dolls.
In the 1950s television became a focus of family entertainment. This included programmes aimed at children, such as Muffin the Mule and Sooty.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 saw the purchase of 100,000 extra television sets, so that people could watch the televised event at home. Leading up to the event Britains Ltd produced a Coronation coach as a souvenir toy.
In the 1960s The Magic Roundabout was another popular television programme. With colourful characters, surreal storylines, and a psychedelic vibe, it soon gained a cult status.
In 1969 another huge televised event took place as Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. A variety of space age toys were soon available. Dinky Toys produced a lunar space buggy for a society intrigued by the idea of space travel.
Late 20th Century
In the 1970s the ‘Binatone TV Master’ was produced. It was one of the first interactive TV games. The games used simple black and white graphics, and featured ten different ball games including ‘Pong’, an adaptation of ping pong. These developments in technology would change toys forever.
The Star Wars film The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980. The AT-AT (All Terrain Armoured Transport), which featured in this film, was released the following year, and was the most expensive toy sold at the time.
In the 1990s the portable video game system Gameboy was produced by Nintendo Co Ltd.
Souvenir toys were produced for the millennium such as the Beanie Baby bear which has ‘2000’ embroidered on its chest.
Electronic toys continue to be popular, such as virtual pet tamagotchis and micropets.
This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website. It has been republished here in order to reach a wider audience.