Friday, August 12, 2011

Toys through Time

This week the letter T takes its turn in the alphabet cycle and we’re going to take a trip through time with Toys. Toys come in many forms and their function is often thought of as purely entertainment, but in reality toys are an important tool in the development of our cultures.  Social skills develop from interaction with others while playing games such as dominoes or marbles.  Toys which aid in teaching a skill or lesson are educational, and yet other toys serve to stimulate creativity and independent thought. 

Toys in the archaeological record generally represent a group that is often left out of the historic record, and barely evidenced in prehistory.  Children constitute this silent group.  This week we are going to examine a few of the toys in our collection and look at how those toys aid and influence childhood development.

As previously stated the presence of children in the prehistoric record is often difficult to identify.  Early cultures were likely very nurturing of their children due to high infant mortality rates, but anthropologists believe that children who survived infancy were assigned chores at an early age.  Our first example is a small clay pinch pot made by a child, possibly a girl learning to make clay pottery.  Archaeologists often refer to these as “toy pots” because of their crude construction and childlike qualities. Women were likely responsible for making clay pots for cooking and storage, as men assumed the role of hunters who would travel seasonally large distances from the village.  If women were making pottery and caring for young children, it is likely that involvement in the task of making pottery developed at an early age.  While this could be considered an educational toy, it also lends itself to creative thought.

pinch pots / toy pots 36La3 Strickler Site

Our next example is a toy, but also a skill builder.  The cup and pin game taught patience and hand-eye coordination.  Accuracy and mental alertness were important skills for hunting and fishing and the social interaction was important in building trust, all necessary tools for survival. The elements of this game are simple and were readily available on prehistoric sites.  Animal bones, usually deer or caribou toe bones were hollowed out and strung on cordage with a bone or wood pin at the other end.  A piece of leather or fur at the other end of the cordage provided weight.  Holding the pin the player would swing the bones up and try to insert the pin through the center of the hollowed bones.  Points were scored based on which bone was caught on the pin.  This traditional game is still played in various forms by Native peoples today.

pin and cup game - ethnographic collection State Museum of PA

Marbles are another example of a simple element which requires accuracy, practice and skill. While our previous blog traced the changes over time in the marble form, our focus here is on the social play and skill developed from the game. Marbles did not require an organized team with uniforms and special playing fields. It was a “pick-up” game something easily transported and readily played amongst a group on any flat surface. To state that it is a simple game might not be accurate if you are a gamer, proficient in the lingo and spot on with a shooter. The nature of the game allowed for play at an early age, but did not limit itself to youth as archaeologically marbles have been found in concentrations in industrial settings as well. Marbles have evolved from merely a social game into marble collecting and of course, to a modern hand held version for your iphone.

Late 19th/20th Century marbles from 36Er241, Fuhrman House Site excavated for the Lake View Landfill Project by Wilbur Smith Associates.

Some toys are often identified as gender specific, an example of this is a doll.  Anthropologists have studied the social interaction of children with toys for decades and the debate lingers as to what is learned behavior based on influences from society and what is actually biological choice in what a child plays with.  The maternal or paternal instinct that is derived from playing with dolls is an example of a toy that is also a teaching tool.  Our society often taboos boys playing with dolls as child rearing is traditionally viewed as a role performed by women. However, our society is changing. As more women enter the workplace and more men either by choice or necessity are responsible for child care, the doll has evolved from a fairly simple toy for learning nurturing skills to a learning tool for anything from infant CPR to a pregnancy prevention tool.

Realworks baby doll

Dolls are also a form of creative play and children play with dressing dolls in various clothes or fashioning the doll’s hair in new styles.  The clothes that dolls are dressed in are a reflection of the culture surrounding them.  Children are often presented with dolls in native costumes representing various foreign countries. This is often a child’s first exposure to foreign cultures.  These cornhusk dolls are dressed in traditional native dress and are examples of dolls dressed to represent various cultures.  Obviously the doll is a learning tool, but instead of its focus on nurturing, it is now functioning to make society more accepting of diversity.

Seneca Corn husk dolls in traditional post-contact dress

Children’s dishes and toy tableware are often recovered on archaeological sites. During the Victorian Era manufactured toys are more prevalent and toys become more finished and reformed, often losing some of the creative play elements necessary with early toys. This was especially true of fancy table wares produced in miniature for children to replicate adult tableware of the era. Wealthy families could purchase these elaborate table wares for their children, while the poorer children of this era played with wooden blocks and cloth dolls. It is during the late 19th and 20th centuries that elaborate table settings are manufactured and the etiquette of table manners develops. So while these children’s sets were for enjoyment, they were subtly teaching table manners and etiquette to children.

Pearlware teapot from Metropolitan Detention Center Excavations, Philadelphia

Increased productivity in manufacturing allowed for more children to play with these miniature sets of table ware, but also decreased the size and quality of the toy.

enamel toy pitcher from Leetsdale excavations 36Al 480

minature porcelain pitcher from Furhman House 36Er241

Moving thru the 21st century in our journey thru toys brings the introduction of a new material for manufactured toys- plastic. With the development of plastic, toy manufacturing explodes and a multi-billion dollar industry is born. Toys evolve from simple forms often hand crafted from available products, to massively produced toys attainable in any number of ways. Toys become inserts in cereal and Cracker Jack boxes, treats at the dentist for good oral hygiene and give-a-ways at bank and shopping center promotions.

"offical" Jack Webb Dragnet police whistle from Eckley Miners' Village 36Lu298

Books and comics based on fictionalized characters provided manufacturers yet another avenue of marketing for toys.  Movies based on these characters added to the demand for whistles, glasses, toy guns, cars, planes and the list goes on.   This mass distribution of toys allows for a greater influence on society by toy manufacturers and a broader populous.  Secondary to this mass production is the desire to collect toys for monetary or sentimental reasons. The popularity of mass produced toys amongst adults and children will make our jobs more difficult in the future as archaeologists search for evidence of children in the archaeological record of a site.  We hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through toy time and just maybe for a fleeting moment we've stirred a favorite childhood memory of your very own.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .


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