By Tim Lambert

Early Toys

Before the 20th century children had few toys and those they did have were precious. Furthermore children did not have much time to play. Only a minority went to school but most children were expected to help their parents doing simple jobs around the house or in the fields. Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today. They also played with toys like dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, ball, marbles, spinning tops and knuckle bones (which were thrown like dice).

In Ancient Greece when boys were not at school and girls were not working they played ball games with inflated pig's bladders. They also played with knuckle bones. Children also played with toys like spinning tops, dolls, model horses with wheels, hoops and rocking horses.

Roman children played with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. They also played ball games and board games. They also played with animal knuckle bones.

Toys changed little through the centuries. In the 16th century children still played with wooden dolls. (They were called Bartholomew babies because they were sold at St Bartholomew's fair in London). They also played cup and ball (a wooden ball with a wooden cup on the end of handle. You had to swing the handle and try and catch the ball in the cup).

The first dolls house was made in Germany in 1558.

Toys In The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution allowed toys to be mass produced and the gradually became cheaper.

John Spilsbury made the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767. He intended to teach geography by cutting maps into pieces but soon people began making jigsaws for entertainment. The Kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by David Brewster. In 1693 the philosopher John Locke said that 'dice and playthings' with letters on them would help children to learn the alphabet. In 1882 Adeline Whitney patented alphabet blocks.

In the 19th century middle class girls played with wood or porcelain dolls. They also had dolls houses, model shops and skipping ropes. Boys played with toys like marbles and toy soldiers as well as toy trains. (Some toy trains had working engines fueled by methylated spirits). They also played with toy boats. However poor children had few toys and often had to make their own.

In a well off 19th century family children played with rocking horses and clockwork toys like moving animals. Clockwork trains were also popular. So was the jack-in-the-box.

Simple toys like spinning tops were also popular. So were hoops and games like knuckle bones and pick up sticks in which you had to pick up colored sticks from a pile without disturbing the others.

On Sundays children often played with toys with a religious themes like Noah's arks with wooden animals. Children also loved magic lantern (slide) shows and puppet shows.

Life in the 19th Century

Toys In The 20th Century

Many new toys were invented in the 20th century. Plasticine was invented in 1897 by William Harbutt. It was first made commercially in 1900. Also in 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called meccano. Other popular toys in the early 20th century were tin cars. In the 1920s train sets became very popular. Soft toys also became common in the early 20th century including teddy bears.

During World War II most toy factories were turned over to war production. However in the late 20th century with the arrival of an affluent society plastic and metal toys became much cheaper and much more common. In the 1950s Lego became a popular toy. Mr Potato Head was invented in 1952. Skateboards were first sold in 1958. Barbie dolls were invented in 1959 and Action Man went on sale, in Britain in 1966. In the early 1970s space hoppers and clackers were popular toys. At the end of the 20th century computer games became very popular.

Among modern toys the tamagotchi was invented in 1996 and the furby went on sale in 1998.

A brief history of children

A brief history of games

A brief history of sport

A brief history of musical instruments

A brief history of holidays

A brief history of education


Last revised 2019