Coming of Age: Toys in Early America

American toys actually predate recorded history. American Indian children played with the smaller versions of their parents’ items, right down to scaled-down bows and arrows. Before the American Indian slowly migrated across North and South America, sometime after the last Ice Age, Eskimo children in the far north hoisted tiny harpoons imitating the hunters of their villages. While it is unknown whether the earliest cultures produced gender-specific items, evidence suggests Indian girls played with dolls and little cooking utensils.

A drawing of a largely unclothed Indian girl with her new doll.

A drawing of a largely unclothed Indian girl with her new doll.

We know ancient Egyptians possessed articles that are probably toys, and we also know Greek and Roman children enjoyed a wide variety of things specifically designed as playthings. As Western civilization evolved, so did toys, and existed as a part of European life for hundreds of years. It was only natural that the emigrating Europeans bring toys with them to the New World. They served a twofold purpose: the expected function as diversions for the younger immigrants, but also and perhaps more importantly, as trade items to appease the native population. John White, one of the original colonists on Roanoke Island in North Carolina, recorded such an instance in 1585. His drawing of a largely unclothed Indian girl with her new doll leaves no question in the matter. The doll is of Elizabethan style, with standard European clothing of the era.

William Penn brought a doll to the New World in 1699, and it is one of the earliest surviving toys from the dawn of our country. It is of wood, and has slanted eyes in an oval face. This was long before Penn’s Woods was more than an outpost in the wilderness. Where Penn got the doll is not documented, but from another famous American we know shops sold toys. When Benjamin Franklin was in Boston in 1713, he chanced upon one, and bought a whistle there. If the shopkeeper hadn’t cheated young Ben (he later calculated be paid about four times the usual price), this piece of knowledge would probably be forgotten.

Our best information tells us most of these early articles were not American made, but was almost always imported from Europe. As early as 1695, the Reverend John Higginson advised his brother to ship some toys over, since he felt they had a very good chance of selling in the fledgling colonies. Fifty years later advertisements for toys proudly stated their origin of manufacture was the Netherlands and England.

An early German doll maker depicted at his trade in a 1491 woodcut.

An early German doll maker depicted at his trade in a 1491 woodcut.

Another illustration showing a 15th century German doll maker.

Another illustration showing a 15th century German doll maker.

The lack of toy manufacturers in the colonies was easy to understand in the 17th century. Many of the founders of early American cities practiced religions that frowned upon any playtime activities. Colonial children in this century were schooled early in catechism and reading, often by the age of 2. Sunday laws proliferated, forbidding any commercial activity on the docks, travels, recreational walks, and even cooking, sweeping and making beds. Any activity deemed frivolous by the theocracy in the 1600s was viewed as unwelcome, sinful, and in some cases, illegal.

As time passed, and later generations eschewed the radical, zealous worship practices of the first settlers, conditions slowly changed, and toys gained wider acceptance. The hard work of a hundred years also started to bear fruit, and the colonies entered a period of greater prosperity. By the late 17 century, about the time William Penn arrived on the scene, visitors and new immigrants from Europe were surprised to find a level of wealth and comfort unavailable to them in the Old World. As the harsh physical aspect of colonization waned, the general attitudes of the populace softened.

By the early 1700s, religion ceased to be the only acceptable activity for children, and toys appeared in earnest as diversions. Balls, stilts, dolls, whistles and a host of other gadgets became available. By the late 1700s, music teachers and dance instructors counted many children among their pupils. In this century advertisements for toys ballooned, as the colonies grew and prospered. The general population possessed more money to spend on entertainment, and their toys for adults and children increased. In Philadelphia, a man named Plunkett Fleeson ran an ad in the “Pennsylvania Gazette” for toy drums. In the ad he explained the use of “spare wood, nail kegs, vatted skins and cord.”

Although children in the southern colonies endured a less strict religious regimen, the climate in the South was more favorable for outside activity, and the people there felt a lesser desire for toys as indoor pursuits. The early American toys we know, some of the first made in this country, came from New England. A surviving example is a dollhouse, bearing the date of fabrication, 1744. Farther west in Mannheim, Pa., Henry Stiegel started making glass toys in 1768. By 1785, William Long was making rocking horses in the same state.

Toy making, however, was not prolific enough to even be considered a cottage industry. Producers of the various toys available were few and far between, and since almost every toy was hand made, there was a scarcity of any but the most simple items. Left to their own devices, most parents and many children could fashion a plaything that served, but the demand was always there for articles with a higher level of execution. During the 18th century and into the 1800s, imported toys from Europe continued to be of better quality, as the toy industries on that continent capitalized on their experience and systems they already had in place for hundreds of years.

In the early 19th century, having established itself as a new country conducting one of the grandest experiments in the history of human politics, the United States experienced the same changes prevalent in the rest of the rapidly developing industrial world. The introduction of the steamship in the first decade, the canal system utilized throughout the eastern part of the country, and the growth of the railroads all contributed to the accelerated market supply and demand for toys. As an interesting side, the word “toy” first became a generic expression to describe children’s playthings around 1800. The celebration of Christmas as a gift-giving occasion also favorably influenced the toy industry.

A tin paddle-wheel steamboat.

A tin paddle-wheel steamboat.

By 1850, there were at least 50 toy makers in the United States. As machinery was developed enabling toy makers to produce more toys of better quality, the stage was set for the kind of production we know today. No other group influenced the mass production of toys as much as the tin toy manufacturers. The bulk of this group operated in and around Connecticut, but a notable exception was the firm of Francis, Field, & Framis of Philadelphia. Also known as the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory, this organization is the first toy manufacturer of record in America, and was making toys as a business at least as early as 1838.

The “tin” toys were actually made from very thin tin-plated sheet steel. Once the parts were cut and shaped under pressure, the toys could either be soldered together or assembled by leaving tabs at joining points. When the assembly was complete, they were painted. Early toys feature details painted freehand, while later stencils were used to speed the process. The process itself was not unique, but for some reason European manufacturers did not use it. As a result, the United States is where mass produced tin toys began, opening the floodgates for an industry alive and well today.

From the American Antiquities Journal

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