18th Century Toys for Time Travelers

November 2, 2014 in Creating The 18th Century, Uncategorized by M C

No mistletoe required.. even if it is 18th century authentic!

In an age of radio controlled helicopters, bears that read, and, of course, the necessary cell phone loaded with amusements, it’s a surprise to realize how many 18th century toys still engage us, and our children.

The action figure (really), puzzles, tops, marbles, pickup sticks, rocking horses, dolls, jump ropes, and the bilboquet, all are toys carried forward from the 18th century.  We still play 18th century board games: chess, checkers, nine man morris, and fox and geese.  Kids flew kites then as now, went skating, played blind man’s bluff, jumped rope, rode see saws.. and when they were older engaged in ball games which became so riotous they are mentioned in the historic record. Usually with fines involved.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo Madonna of the Goldfinch c. 1760 depicts the baby with noticeably red hair!

Thomas Robert Malthus would be so pleased.. I have an 18th century indifference to Christmas day, born out of decades of industriously working in the tourism industry.  Adam Smith would be equally happy, I have a child’s delight in toys. Ironically, my job is to sell fun and play, and in the 18th century both ignoring Christmas day for commerce, and celebrating it with games, were common, depending on the community you were in at the time.

For example, pity poor Philip Fithian a Presbyterian missionary in the western counties of Virginia, who spent a holiday among the Scotch and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians only a year after he’d experienced one of the finest of Virginia Christmases at the residence of Robert Carter, Nomini Hall. He wrote in his diary entry on December 25, 1775:

“Christmas Morning–Not A Gun is heard–Not a Shout–No company or Cabal assembled–To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate– People go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry.” (1)

You can almost hear him saying “bummer!”

But in much of colonial America the holiday days passed with dancing, games, and the singing of carols in the company of musicians and friends.  A holiday meal of goose, ham, and any delicacy the larder could produce was served to family, friends, servants, and in some cases poor members of the community.  Small gifts, a holdover from the English tradition of “Boxing Day” would be passed out to servants (and slaves).. today we call them “Christmas bonuses.”

Since the stores are already trumpeting the necessities, from glittery silver plastic trees to strings of energy efficient lights, necessary to celebrating the 21st century Christmas, it isn’t too early to start making your plans for an 18th century, Outlander appropriate, holiday.

Unfortunately the recognizable difference between then and now, at least for your beleaguered children deprived as they have been by your nurturing love as you devour the series scene by scene, is the lack of presents.

Children did have toys, they just didn’t get them as Christmas presents. By the time we get to the Revolutionary War period toys too are benefitting from mass production and international trade.  The wealth of the middle class means leisure time for some children, as well as the resources to buy them beautiful and complex toys.  Dolls, for example, can be simple rag dolls, or they can be multilayered and beautiful fashion dolls.  I love that in the latest book in the series (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) there’s an doll with bright red hair..  which may have to try and pass herself off as an 18th century fashion doll.

Many 18th century toys and games were designed to build specific skill sets.  Some skill sets are more desirable than others, of course. For example, in Voyager there’s a bilboquet. This toy teaches hand eye coordination and dexterity, important to pickpockets and soldiers alike, but it was also used in drinking games, with participants gaining a point for each successful catch, and passing the game on to the next player when they missed.  Low point player takes a drink.  Skill at one of these toys could be all kinds of useful.

Louis Monzies Die Bilboquet-Spieler.. note the marvelous red heels on the gentleman with his back to us!

You can still find these toys at craft shows, produced in some splendor by woodworkers, and on Amazon.. where one buyer notes he bought the toy for his children, but it sits on the coffee table, where adults pick it up and play with it.  He doesn’t mention if they play drinking games.. perhaps they haven’t thought of it.

Popular board games taught strategy and concentration, and could be enjoyed across generations.  One of my favorite old games is Fox and Geese a game which can be played by two, or involve the whole family, which, like the bilboquet, is still popular enough to be sold today as a wooden toy.. or, you can make the board game yourself by downloading this surprisingly attractive .Pdf document from Exeter.gov.uk: Fox and Geese

The 18th century action figure was the tin soldier.  In the 1730s Germany perfected the mass production of tin soldiers, and although the earliest figures were two dimensional, almost flat, the toy improved and was wildly popular in the 18th century, with soldiers sold by the barrel.  The little figures became quite elaborate as the century progressed, and, of course, irresistibly collectible… as proper warfare requires platoons and opposing armies. Plastic is the new tin soldier, and while the little figures are modern they, like their 18th century counterpart, are meant to be carefully painted.  I had no idea.  I thought they were all supposed to be generically tan.  But no, sets like this (Revolutionary War Soldiers ) are designed to be painted. Hours of quiet, painstaking, fun… then and now.

For girls there were dolls.  Doll making has become an adult hobby and art form unto itself.. there’s even an artist who has created a set of incredibly realistic Outlander dolls.  But unlike her brother decorating his soldiers and building their forts a little girl was expected to learn sewing skills.  Creating a doll, and clothes for it, out of scraps, made learning fun.  Certainly, in my opinion, a whole lot more fun than stitching samplers filled with alphabets and dull texts.  There are literally hundreds of doll patterns online, but this is mine.  It uses techniques learned from Waldorf doll making to set the eyes, linen fabric, which would have been available during the period, and a simple pattern to create the doll.  I’ve set up stitching lines for joints, should you wish your doll to bend a bit.  Tape your pattern together, matching letters, to cut out your doll.

The commodification (there’s a word!) of childhood and Christmas mean today people take their children to the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory to build bears,  and don’t get me wrong.. they’re very nice bears.  But bears like this teach our children that good toys are manufactured toys, uniform and perfect.  A child of the 18th century would have agreed.. a fashion doll with tiny shoes and petticoats was a wonderful thing.

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin c. 1735 Boy With a TopAnd yet, like my modern snowshoes, something important is lost when play is commodified and defined by advertising executives, salesmen, and market imperatives.  This winter I am going to take out my grandmother’s old shoes, give them a fresh coat of varnish.. and send my little feet off into the woods, on a path that hasn’t yet been traveled.

Put down your book, and join me.  It will be an outlandish way to spend the holiday…

Further Reading:

Snowshoes, Morality and Perversity: a walk in the 18th Century..

(1)The Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter, vol. 16, no. 4, winter 1995-96.

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