Toy story: A short history of awesome playthings (2023)

FOR AS LONG as people have been around, so too has play. There's even a scientific definition for it: repeated, pleasurable behaviour done for its own sake that's similar, but not identical to, other behaviours – and to this end it cascades into the animal kingdom, too. Studies have observed play in creatures from crocodiles, to chimps, to wasps.

As to why species of all kinds play, there is a raft of theories,from test-runs for adulthood, to developing motor skills and physical intelligence, to enhancing communication skills. And simply having good old, entirely non-useful but mentally uplifting fun. “For me, one of the most salient qualities of play is that it doesn’t strictly have a purpose at all—that’s what differentiates a playful action from one that looks virtually identical,” says Christopher Bensch, Vice President for Collections and Chief Curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. "I love to garden and consider that a form of play but, if someone ordered me to dig 100 holes, that would be work, or duty.

“Play is restorative and engaging,” he adds.“In its most immersive form, it takes us deep into a flow state where we lose track of time and ourselves.”

The natural accompaniment to the two kinds of human play – imitative, and instructive– is the toy. And while some have evolved, some remain remarkably consistent with some of the earliest known toys in the history of human civilisation – from sticks grasped to use as walking staffs, to the natural curiosity with rolling objects that led to the ball. And from throwaway bits of the natural environment to treasured reminders of happy times passed through generations, toys have grown in parallel with human civilisation to one of its true cornerstones. Here are a few notable examples of toys that, in their own way, changed the way we play.

(Related: see before and after photos of dog toys.)

Early play

Given the very first toys were likely to have been natural objects recruited from the ground, evidence is in short supply, but it’s speculated they were likely to have been sticks and stones, bones, twine or combinations of these. These were possibly used in imitation of adults using weapons to hunt – and used as a kind of proto-training aid for self-preservation necessary to survive adulthood.

A child bends down to pick up a stick in woodland. Behaviours of children with 'found' toys like this today likely mirrors the very earliest human children.

Photograph by StockSnap, Pixabay

“Play is restorative and engaging... In its most immersive form, it takes us deep into a flow state where we lose track of time and ourselves.”

Christopher Bensch, National Museum of Play

Balls crafted for play are likely to have been amongst the very first purpose-built toys. Semi-precious stones shaped like marbles believed to date to 3000-4000 B.C. have been unearthed in a child’s grave in Egypt, and throughout that country’s civilisation a highly developed recreational culture grewthat included primitive dolls, sports using balls made of papyrus and stuffed with cloth or hay, and board games such as senet. Games such as the modern jacks derived from knucklebones – which in ancient times, was exactly what was used.

Toys on a string

Long a symbol of childlikejoy,it is unknown when the first kite appeared– though it was almost certainly inChina or possibly Indonesia, between 400BC and 1000BC. They appear to have been put to many uses, from fishing tools, to communication devices and measuring aids – the latter two useful in battle – but also as tributes, and as toys. We don’t know much about ancient models, as kites aren’t conducive to preservation over thousands of years;but the earliest were probably made from paper or silk, withlater incarnations designed or accessorised with mythology in mind.

In adult hands, the kite would transcend military purposes to become an ever-more elaborate scientific tool, triggering humans’ fascination with the aerodynamics of flight –and eventually giving rise, in the most literal sense, to aircraft. But the simple design (if not the materials) of the first kites endure in toys to this day.

'Making the Kite,' a lithograph of an1869 painting, shows a young American boy constructing a hexagonal kite. The basic design of kites to this day are likely remarkably similar to the earliest kites of ancient China – though the first were not simply used as toys.

Photograph by Library of Congress

Similarly, the yo-yo likely came from China, and spread widely both to the east and west. They were certainly being played with in Ancient Greece in at least 1000BC, with discs made from stone and later wood and terracotta. The yo-yo has been called various things throughout its history, including the bandalore, whirligig and in France the l’emigrette– the latter meaning‘to leave the country’, a sinister connotation referencing the toy's popularity with the French aristocracyfleeing the French Revolution. It regained'yo-yo' in the U.S. in 1916, when name-checked inan article in Scientific American on toys from the Philippines.Some sources suppose 'yo-yo' means ‘come-come’ in the Tagalog language.

The mighty doll

Dolls as playthings are amongst the oldest and most culturally universal toys.Miniature imitations of humans are powerful symbols, and have been employed since the earliest times in everything from art to worship, astalismans and for so-called black magic.Wooden carved ‘paddle dolls’ have been excavated from Egyptian tombs dating to around 2000BC; and in 2017 a carved soapstone doll with striking eyebrows and cheekbones was unearthed from the grave of a small child in Siberia dating to the Bronze Age, around 4,500 years ago. Dolls even cross over into the animal kingdom, with young female Ugandan chimps displaying nurturing tendencies towards small sticks, which research has suggested not only gives insight into play behaviour, but also reveals gender-based toy preferencesin our primate relatives.

'Bisque' dolls - named for their biscuit porcelain construction, which gave their skin tone a realistic matt finish – were hugely popular in Europe in the 19th century. The ability of manufacturers to augment the dolls with accessories, outfits and doll houses spawned an expandable business model that would later inform the idea of the train set.

Photograph by DPA Picture Alliance, Alamy

Human dolls have since taken many forms: from corn-husk, paper, clay and peg dolls, to Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, Japanese Daruma Dolls, and Iranian Layli dolls. In the mid-19thcentury, ‘China dolls’ with heads of porcelain and bodies made of textiles such as cloth and leather became very popular in Europe, with Germany and France theleading producers. Many were initially made to look like adult women; around 1850, more and more began resembling children, often with customisable outfits and accessories, as well as elaborate houses. ‘Bisque’ dolls – so called for the ‘biscuit’ porcelain that gave their features a realistic matte finish –became popular in the second half of the 1800s,with premium models sometimes finished with real human hair.

Dolls evolved into less-fragile composition materials – a mixture of resins, glue and sawdust – and moreelaborate design in the early 20thCentury,examples being the cherubic Kewpie, and the Bye-Lo dollwhich had glass eyes that closed when reclined. With advancement in plastic and synthetic textiles, dolls hit their mass-market stride in 1959 when Mattel'sBarbie – an 11 inch incarnation of a 'Teen-age fashion model’ – made her debut in a swimsuit, and a choice of two hair colours.

Short for Barbara Millicent Roberts, the doll was and remains acultural phenomenon: Barbie has since sold over a billion units,and the doll's diverse range of identities haveenjoyed over 200 careers.

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