Children in the past played with many of the same toys children of today play with. The origin of many of these toys date back to ancient times. Toys were so important, they worked their way into the legends of the saints. One story about St. Elizabeth tells of her bringing glass playthings to poor children. She was riding up a hill with the toys folded in her cloak and hit a bump. All the toys fell onto the rocks, but none of them broke. Toys also served another purpose, to train boys and girls for their roles as adults.
Toys that make noise have always been popular with kids, if not with parents, from earliest times. Clay bowls and dried gourds were filled with pebbles and shook to make noise to amuse children and scare off evil spirits. The earliest of these appeared in Egypt in the New Kingdom. They were made of clay and shaped like animals. Sharp edges were covered with cloth to protect young fingers and mouths. Clay rattles remained popular even into the Middle Ages, although members of the higher classes had rattles of more costly material like ivory, shell or horn. Rattles for well born children were sometimes made of precious metals and could be quite elaborate. The line blurred between religious items and toys as many rattles were made containing cockle shells, which was the symbol for a pilgrim. This was an extension of the protective nature of rattles as these religious items would protect the child playing with them. Bells and whistles were also associated with pilgrimages, and ended up as children’s playthings.
Glowing toys also have been a crowd pleaser. These came from a seventeenth century Italian alchemist’s experiments. Vincenzo Cascariolo took barium sulfate and mixed it with coal dust and spread it over an iron bar. The bar did not become gold, but it did glow in the dark. He called the compound lapis solaris, and it was used to illuminate saint’s images, crucifixes and rosaries. From there, they moved to making glowing toys.
Young sons of nobles were expected to learn to become knights, and their toys reflected this. They played with blunted wooden swords and shields to learn combat skills. Young boys also had hobby horses with reins to imitate the adults riding horses. A woodcut from 1542 shows a young boy playing with a hobby horse that looks identical to ones children play with today. Boys also played with toy soldiers made to learn strategy. As with everything, poor children had soldiers made of clay and wealthier children had soldiers made of more precious metals. These had been around since Greek times, but were said to have come to England with William the Conqueror. Some of the soldiers had jointed limbs so they could be played with much like action figures of today. A popular figure was St. Martin, the soldier saint. Fighting saint action figures, collect them all!
Young girls played with dolls to prepare them for their roles as wife and mother. Originally, ancient people made idols to represent their gods and goddesses. It would have been anathema for a child to play with these sacred objects. However, in Egypt some dolls were made to represent mortals, which were acceptable for children to play with. These early dolls were never infants or children, but always full grown adults usually complete with genitalia and the females were buxom. The transition to child dolls was gradual. In Greece, baby dolls were made that fit in the arms of mother dolls. After this, infant or child dolls overshadowed adult dolls in popularity. In the Middle ages, painted wooden dolls called “Flanders babies” were popular as well as wooden dolls gotten from Bartholomew day fairs called “Bartholomew babies.” Rag dolls were also popular, but very few of these have survived to the present day. Dollhouses were popular in Greek and Roman times, but lost popularity until the Renaissance. Holland was the leader in creating doll houses, and they ranged from simple to quite elaborate.
So despite the fun and games, the toys were there to teach young children about their future roles as adults as well as having some fun.