The Victorian Age

The Victorian Age began in 1837 when Queen Victoria ascended the British throne and lasted up to her death in 1901. It was an era of rapid industrial development and social changes, and you can see this by studying the toys of the period. There is a good bit of progressive difference between toys made at the start of Victoria’s reign, in the middle of her sovereignty and in the last part of her rule.

Children in the Victorian Age:
Much like in the present age, the kind of childhood you had in Victorian times depended on the kind of family you had and its social and financial standing.

Children of rich and aristocratic parents invariably had it good, with spacious, well-furnished bedrooms and play areas, plenty of toys and food, and governesses, tutors, nursery maids, riding masters and other servants in attendance. Boys usually later went to a boarding school, where they got the softness beaten out of them and became tough enough to shoulder the responsibilities of ‘the Empire’. Girls mostly studied at home and learnt home-making skills. Both attended dance parties and other social gatherings, and often traveled to popular tourist resorts around the UK or abroad with their families.

Middle-class children attended day schools and, although less privileged than the rich children, led reasonably comfortable lives.

Things could be comparatively tough for the children of the poor and many had to work for a living from a very young age, but life was not as bleak as is often made out. Kenneth Douglas Brown, in his book ‘The British Toy Business: A History Since 1700’, states that “Only 2 per cent of boys and even fewer girls between the ages of five and nine were at work by 1851. For those between ten and fourteen, the percentages of those classified as being gainfully employed were 36.6 for boys and 19.9 for girls. In other words, the overwhelming majority of children up to the age of 14 did have the time to enjoy toys.”

Toys in the Victorian Age:
Toys usually reflect the culture in which they were manufactured and Victorian toys are no exception. They were for most part meant to ‘edify’ rather than just ‘entertain’ and show the prevailing attitudes which keeled towards well-demarcated roles for girls and boys. Girls, expected to stay home and take care of the family, were nudged towards domesticity with an array of beautiful porcelain and wax dolls in silk and lace dresses, cozy and incredibly detailed doll houses and miniature china tea sets. Boys, expected to go out and take charge in a difficult, turbulent world, had sets of tin soldiers, toy guns, bows and arrows, tool sets, marbles, tops, yo-yos, kites, model cars, model trains, cricket bats, fishing tackle and other such sporting paraphernalia. Both girls and boys played with mechanical banks, rocking horses, musical instruments, blocks, chess and checkers.

Of course, only the rich and, to a growing extent, the middle-class children had such toys. Children from poor families had to be content with cheap or home-made toys fashioned from wood, cloth pegs, rags and other materials – unless they had rich neighbors who liked to donate their old, expensive toys at Christmas time.

Recommended Reading –
The British Toy Business: A History since 1700
by Kenneth D. Brown

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