Toys of Yesteryear

        “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo March famously, in the opening sentence of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.   Statistics say that the average child in the developed world owns over 200 toys but only plays with 12 of them on an average day, and only 3% of the world’s children live in the US but they own 40% of the world’s toys.    Certainly we have become a nation of excessive consumption of toys as well as every thing else, but it wasn’t always this way.   Last summer while visiting a local library branch I snapped some pictures of a museum display on Early Toys which I found quite interesting and would like to share….if only to give you pause to think before you buy someone yet another stuffed animal.  (Guilty as charged – but those Panda Bears are so cute).        

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Early toys simply reflected everyday life and activities.   It was generally accepted that children were attracted to toys along gender lines.  

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Dolls were always popular and were often homemade.

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Toyland

My mother grew up in the during the 1930’s Depression when times were hard.   Her few dolls were cheap versions with stuffed bodies and porcelain heads and she never had a really nice one, although some of the richer kids in town did.   One of her friends never even had a doll.   She remembers getting a toy tea set one year and they would always receive an orange (which they never had any other time of year), a popcorn ball, some hard candy and candy canes which would be placed on a chair on Christmas morning.   Her brother got a baseball and bat or a hockey stick and puck, and one year a steel car (my dad had the same model so it was probably the Hot Wheels car of the time).    They never had a Christmas tree until the 1940’s – just once in her childhood and then they had nothing to put on it except red crepe paper and a string of popcorn.   I know this sounds like Little House on the Prairie, but there were no Christmas lights until later.     

If you didn’t have money for a real doll there were paper dolls, and I remember playing with these a bit in the 1960’s.    It was fun to change their clothes about but then we played with our Barbie dolls until we were ten or older as most of the fun was in the fashion, including sewing their little outfits. 

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Toys for boys gave them skills needed for adult life such as building things.    

Toyland

Toyland

Toyland

When my older brother was about ten he got a train set for Christmas.  My dad had nailed the track to a big sheet of plywood and after the supper was cleared it was placed on the long dining room table and all the guys in the family, including the adults, had great fun watching that little train chugging round and round the track, the engine breathing a plume of smoke.  

Books were popular for both boys and girls, and were always one of my favorite childhood Christmas presents.    I was thrilled to get a new Trixie Belden (girl detective) or a classic like Little Women, and could usually be found reading it on Christmas night while everyone was playing euchre and card games with my grandparents and eating Pot of Gold chocolates and chips and drinking Coke.  We never had those (junk food) treats other than on holidays or occasionally on Saturday nights when Hockey Night in Canada was on.   Toyland

Toyland

Even if you didn’t grow up in the Depression era like my parents, children didn’t have as many toys back then because they had to help out with the chores both inside and outside the house.   

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My dad said when he was growing up, Christmas was just a big meal and going to church.  It was not about presents, because people couldn’t afford them.   His best present was a pair of ice skates he got when he was 13.  He had saved towards the $5 to buy them.   This was in 1939 when the Depression was ending, which was also the first time he saw a movie,  A Christmas Carol, with his brother and sister.   He said they were scared to death, and I remember finding the Ghost of Christmas Past quite frightening when I was a child.   It was always on Christmas Eve and I would go to bed before the scary part came on.   I don’t think his skates looked like this ancient pair – I don’t know how they were attached but my mother says her roller skates had straps to fit over the shoes.

Toyland skates

Skates were always a favorite in Canada, but compare this rusty pair with today’s modern technology of molded boots and super sharp blades which could easily cost several hundred dollars.   While we may have fond memories of skating on outdoor ponds when we were children, will today’s kids have the same fond memories of their video games and electronic gadgets?   They may still have story hour at the library, but I have noticed even the tiniest 4 or 5 year olds are eager to get their allotted time on the children’s computer.

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But what if you have no toys?   It is a sad fact that half the world is living in poverty.

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My dad recalled making mud pies in the Depression…..and I remember my younger brother and I lining up the chestnuts we had gathered at Thanksgiving as fields and fences for his farm animal set.   My dad made him a wooden barn one year –  it was painted white with a green retractable roof.  I crept down to the basement a few nights before Christmas while Santa was at work sawing the wood – fortunately the paint was dry by Christmas morning.   Playing is instinctual in a young child, and children are ingenious for inventing games out of what is at hand, which is why you see children in refugee camps playing games with improvised materials such as a pile of rags wound tightly to make a soccer ball.    (see link to last years blog on The Good Samaritan Shoebox Project which sends toys to impoverished countries).   

Who can forget the excitement of lying awake on Christmas Eve and wondering what Santa would bring.   We all have our favorite presents that we remember as a child….and sometimes the worst, like those bunny suit pajamas poor Ralphie got in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. 

Xmas presents (3)

I don’t remember making a Christmas list as a child.   Our parents just bought us things they thought we would like, but can that really be a toy ironing set in that box, as ironing is now my absolutely most hated household chore?    My best ever present was my Skipper doll when I was nine and had to go in hospital after Christmas to get my tonsils out….looking back it was probably a bribe of sorts.   Skipper was Barbie’s younger sister and she had bendable knees.   She came with at least twelve different accessorized outfits which I credit with my ability to coordinate any outfit today (see skills needed in later life).   I can still remember the thrill I felt when I opened that stack of individual boxes of tiny clothes and accessories.   I already had Midge (Barbie’s best friend), who my mother had convinced me was far superior to my older sisters Barbie, in the same way that Chatty Cathy (she talked when you pulled the string on her back), was superior to her boring ballerina doll who never said a word, (lesson learned, it is better to be different and unique and to speak out than to just look pretty).    While money was not as plentiful then, especially compared to today’s standards, and we never got toys other times of the year, my parents always made sure we had a good Christmas, (although I have never quite forgiven my mother for those pixie haircuts her French hairdresser talked her into when all the other girls in the class had long hair and curls).  

How many toys are too many toys?  Can a child really appreciate anything if they have such an excess of stuff.    I once spent a Christmas in a house where the entire living room floor was covered with so many presents it took the better part of the day to unwrap them all and a ten year old whined because they didn’t get the one present they wanted.   It was sold out by mid-November, every parent’s nightmare, a sad phenomena which started with the Cabbage Patch Kids in the eighties and recently those $80 Hatchimals which this year are gathering dust on the store shelves.   It is far better to give a child the one toy they really want than a pile of stuff they don’t, but perhaps that is a teachable moment too?  

 I long for the days when toy shopping was as easy as buying a playdoh set (which is fun for grownups too), but I haven’t toy shopped in years.   This year as I have some little ones to buy for (as in younger than two and more likely to play with the box), I discovered to my disappointment that Tickle Me Elmo does not laugh as much as he used to…..two laughs and that’s it?   He used to laugh so long and hard it made you laugh….we had one in the ER department for prn use if a child was crying inconsolably.   No doubt they have modified this feature for the sake of the parents sanity, but as he was on sale for half price ($20) I bought him anyway….plus some books….you can’t go wrong with books.   If you think a child might have too much and doesn’t need more of the same, a small present to open and money for the education fund might be appreciated……someday.     

Sometimes it is fun to buy toys for the grownups too, as Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carol, “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”  Last year I started someone on an animated Christmas village with an ice rink, thinking she could use it in her waiting room, (I remember the fish aquarium which kept me entertained as a child while waiting to see the doctor), but I don’t believe it ever made it to her office. Toyland

This year I have been on the hunt for a musical carousel, with no luck, as they are all too big or like this one some of the horses are going backwards? Toyland

The Facebook blog where I happened upon the statistic about the number of toys children own, was encouraging parents to buy experiences, family outings, lessons etc instead of things which is a great idea as long as it is something the child really wants as opposed to the parents wanting to re-live or replace something they missed in their own childhood.    Hopefully in the end what a child will remember most is not the toys so much, but the time spent with family.

So whether your Christmas morning is a sea of wrapping paper or a more modest affair like the Cratchits, we should be reminded of the rest of the opening scene of Little Women, because that is what Christmas is all about. 

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

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My mother’s Christmas Angel Doll

PS.  What was your favorite Christmas present growing up?