Friday, December 21, 2012

The Joys of Toys!

This week, in honor of the holiday season, we have put our archaeological tour by county of Pennsylvania on hold.  Instead we are focused on toys.  The toys featured this week are from the archaeological collections curated at The State Museum of Pennsylvania.  They were recovered from archaeological sites across the commonwealth and are the tangible evidence of the people who played with and enjoyed these objects.  These toys reflect upon the lives of the children or adults who made or used them, from prehistoric to historic times. We hope you will enjoy this glimpse at toys of yesteryear and that they will bring to mind memories of toys that you enjoyed in the past. 

Native American Toy Pots
Made from various materials, toys provide hours of enjoyment for children of all ages and of all world cultures. To be sure, native children in the 16th and 17th centuries, and possibly earlier who we know as the Susquehannock Indians played with toys made from stone, bone, clay and other more fragile materials. Many of these toys resemble the common objects that were made and used in the family household on a daily basis such as clay pots. Occasionally, examples of these wonderful objects are recovered during archaeological investigations of their habitation sites. In the Delaware and lower Susquehanna River valleys of Pennsylvania several village sites have revealed information on toy pottery vessels that actually mimicked conventional size pots that were used in the village. The decorations on one exceptional toy pot from Overpeck site located near Kitnerville, Pennsylvania that was found resembles a Schultz Incised pot of the 16th century 
Overpeck site toy pot

Two smaller toy pots from the Washington Boro village site located in the small town of Washington Boro, Pennsylvania are miniature examples of Washington Boro Incised, another Susquehannock pottery type that essentially succeeded in time, the Schultz Incised type 

Washington Boro site toy pots

Following that was the Strickler Period, named after the Strickler village site, located south of Washington Boro. Here, three, more or less similarly shaped toy pots, were found together suggesting a “set” perhaps made by and used by children at the Strickler site 

Strickler site toy pots

So, in this most unusual case, these small pots not only function as toys per se but also as food containers in a food consumption environment.

Fort Hunter Toy Tea Cup

Fort Hunter porcelain tea cup

This small porcelain tea cup, probably dating to the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century, was found at Fort Hunter in 2008 during our Archaeology Month excavations.  Prior to the industrial revolution when toy ceramic tea-sets were first mass produced and exported on a large scale, children’s tea-sets were predominately made of copper, pewter, precious metals such as gold and silver, tin-glaze earthenwares and porcelains. The earliest examples of children’s tea-sets in Western culture were produced by German toy craftsmen in the 16th century. Their expense limited their use predominately to families of wealth and prominence. During the industrial revolution, English porcelains were mass produced and lead the way for ceramic tea-sets to become a common child’s toy. (
toy cup compared to full-size mug or tankard

In 1870, Fort Hunter was owned by the Boas family and later passed to the daughter of Daniel Dick Boas, Helen Riley, and her husband, John Reily. The Reily’s, while childless, ran a successful Dairy on the property which they later left to their nine nieces and nephews. One can conclude from family photos that include many children and a menagerie of pets—pigs, dogs, and a macaque monkey to name a few—as well as, the numerous finds of child’s toys in the Mansion’s backyard—fragmentary porcelain dolls, marbles, and portions of toy tea-sets—that  the Reily’s were a doting Aunt and Uncle.  (

Transitioning from Native American toy pots to archaeological investigations of a nineteenth century American household, one can conclude that many toys for children resemble common household objects and the use of such types of toys continues over time and across cultures. Children learn how to function and live in the greater society by modeling behaviors of the adults around them.  The customs surrounding sharing food and beverages speak to the social animals that we all are, and the encouragement of child’s play to mimic the appropriate use of objects and as teaching tools to learn social etiquette continues today.

18th Century Toy Whizzer
This George II half-penny (1727-1760) has been modified to be used a toy whizzer.  A whizzer or whirligig, is a disc with two holes drilled through the middle which is then strung on a loop of string. Twisting the string and pulling the ends tight would allow the disc to spin, creating a buzzing or whirring noise. This piece is unusual due to the third hole in the center.

George II whizzer from Ephrata Cloiser
This whizzer was recovered from excavations at Ephrata Cloister (36La981), a German religious communal society established in 1732 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.   Excavations conducted in 1999 by the State Museum under the direction of Steve Warfel in an area identified as Zion’s Hill yielded evidence of use of this area by wounded and sick Revolutionary War soldiers during the winter of 1777/1778.  Whizzers are frequently found on military sites. These may have been used by the sick and wounded soldiers or by their children who frequently accompanied them. Whichever the case, this toy reflects upon the daily activities of soldiers.

Wind-up mechanical Beetle
mid-20th century mechanical toy beetle:  wind-up mechanism visible protruding from underbelly and large, now fragmentary, flapping wings on top

     The toy pictured above has admittedly seen better days. It may take a little bit of imagination and straining of the eyes to recognize that it is (or what’s left of) a wind-up toy beetle. A small remnant of blue paint on its body and a trusty internet search reveal this as the “walking ladybug” model, made in Japan in the years following WWII. Surely at some point in the past this mechanical critter offered a great deal of amusement to its owner. Click here to see a video of a very similar mechanical insect in proper working condition.  Our rather crusty specimen comes to us from the Joseph Lewis Site (36Ch859), a domestic farmstead excavated by CHRS, Inc. from 2003 – 2007 as part of improvements to the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Chester County. The site was recommended as eligible to the National Register of Historic Places in part due to the significance of the inhabitants’ unique socio-cultural identity within the surrounding region.  “The archaeological data indicated a strong reaffirmation of the occupants’ German identity during the nineteenth century and a continued emphasis on maintaining a Germanic identity in the early twentieth century. Unlike families that lived in areas dominated by Germanic communities, the occupants of the Joseph Lewis site (36Ch859) appear to have straddled a social divide, using cultural markers that reflected their ethnic heritage as well as other cultural markers that could be recognized by the non-German community members in the area where they lived.”(Basalik, et al. 2009)



Basalik, Kenneth J. ; Philip Ruth ; T. Lewis; S. Smith; M. Alfson. Phase I/II/III Archaeological Survey Joseph Lewis Site (36Ch859) S.R. 0029 Slip Ramps Project Charlestown, East Whiteland and Tredyffrin Twps. Chester County, PA  - unpublished manuscript on file at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology

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

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