Children’s toys are amongst the most well-known collectibles and have been ubiquitous in societies across the world for thousands of years. Widespread toy collecting is, by contrast, a relatively recent phenomenon amongst adults having followed the mass-production of toys from the 19th century. Over the years, the style and fashions of toys and dolls have seen both continuity and change, as much as any antique or collectible.
Toys and Board Games
While plastics have dominated toy-making in recent decades, other materials such as tin-plate have arguably had a bigger impact on the history of toys, certainly from a collector’s point of view. The introduction of tin-plate toys allowed for mass production and paved the way for the diecast toys by companies like Dinky that are so popular with collectors today. The 19th century tinplate industry was dominated by Germany which had a long history of producing all kinds of wooden toy and novelty products from wood. The US mass-production toy industry was also born in the 19th century and railways and canals allowed for cheaper distribution across the country. Board games have followed a similar trajectory with the earliest examples dating to the mid-18th century and mass-production transforming their prospects from the 1870s. The early 20th century in the US saw many of the most popular modern-day board games including Monopoly and Clue (Cluedo).
Teddy Bears and Soft Toys
Like tinplate toys, soft toys of the 20th century were changed by the trend towards depicting known characters from children’s books and comic strips such as “Peter Rabbit”, “Paddington Bear” and “Winnie-the-Pooh”. Soft toys, including teddy bears, became popular in the late-19th century, however, and Steiff is rightly the most well-known name having been established in 1877. While Germany led the soft toy market as it had done with almost all others, other companies such as Chad Valley in the UK were also big in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, in the US, the Ideal Novelty & Toy Co. was responsible for the first “Teddy’s bear” – named after the incumbent president, Theodore Roosevelt.
Dolls and Automata
The 19th century brought new materials to doll-making, as it had done with many other toys. Where examples had previously been almost exclusively wood, the introduction of wax, china, papier-mâché, and bisque allowed for new production methods and created the modern style of doll we know today. Plastics and celluloid were introduced in the 20th century, allowing more affordable dolls to be produced although these now have less appeal to collectors. The manufacture of dolls in decades past, however, was more complex than today. The faces of dolls are generally seen as their most crucial feature, but their heads are also used to categorise dolls by type as their bodies were usually made by a different manufacturer.
Rarer and more expensive at the time, some 19th and early 20th century companies manufactured complex wind-up moving pieces known as automata. Often with charming or comical actions, these more sophisticated toys derived from German novelty clocks and often had audible accompaniments. That many of these automata still work today is testament to the quality of workmanship employed in making them and other collectible toys.