Games and Toys, Children's

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Play as a positive good was a novel idea in the early Republic. In the late-eighteenth-century era of revolution, childhood was redefined as a natural state, and the child became a symbol of freedom for Americans wishing to cast off the patriarchal power of monarchy. After the Revolution, for example, boys, particularly in New England, would instantiate the political principles of that event by seizing control of a schoolhouse and "barring out" the schoolmaster until he acquiesced to their demands for more rights and freedoms in the forms of less homework, more recess, and a withholding of the switch. Generally speaking, though, toys, the artifacts of play, and games, the activities that were bound by rules and limited by time and space, reflected cultural, if gendered, emphases on virtue, skill, work, and luck.

children's playthings

The same philosophers who influenced Anglo-Americans' Revolutionary political thought also underwrote Americans' shifting definition of childhood as a distinct life stage throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding (1690) and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) influenced Americans' concepts of childhood and child rearing, as did Jean-Jacques Rousseau's popular novel Émile or, On Education (1762). Although the two philosophers differed on several principles, both agreed, as did their followers and imitators in North America, that the child was malleable. Education and "playing as learning" were thus keys to creating responsible and compassionate adults in a republic; toys and games were lessons in this (extra) curriculum.

Perhaps all children everywhere throughout history consider all of the world's things as toys, all social interactions as games, without consideration of gender, race, and class. Parents, on the other hand, adapt social prescriptions of gender and class in their child-rearing habits. Portraits, as social conventions, provide abundant evidence of this thinking and reflect well the prescriptions of advice writers for child rearing. Before 1750, the rare portrait of a child or children even more rarely showed playthings, evidence of the assumption that the life stage now termed "childhood" was neither distinct from nor defined against adulthood. Increasingly after 1750, and especially after 1770, children were portrayed with toys. Girls with parents of means held adult female fashion dolls made of wax or carved of wood. Girls dressed dolls, fussed over miniature furniture and tea sets, and even furnished dollhouses, all efforts to achieve the skills of womanhood. In 1759 and 1760 George Washington ordered from the London toy maker Unwin and Wigglesworth dolls and doll furniture for his stepdaughter, Patsy Custis. Girls with parents of lesser means enjoyed dolls made of rags or corn husks. In Children in the House (1992), the historian Karin Calvert notes that even "girls' imaginary games centered on imitating the activities of adult women" and included imitative spinning and knitting yarn and the other chores of keeping house.

Portraits depict boys with balls and whips, rolling hoops, miniature wagons and sleds, toy horses, and tin soldiers. Boys sledded and steered and rode in wheelbarrows, collected and shot taw (clay marbles), spun wooden tops, and fashioned bows and arrows. They perched and skedaddled on stilts, elevating themselves as they balanced and disciplined their bodies. Mastery over the elements was evinced by successful kite flying. Other toys that tested and improved skills included whirligigs and bilbo-catchers (cups and balls attached by a string), hobbyhorses, and toy drums. Boys' skills were also tested against luck in several games of chance, including chuck-farthing (penny pitching) and taw (marbles), which were means of socializing boys for their adult roles in the marketplace.

Slave children, particularly in the South, experienced many more limits to their play. Like their white counterparts, slave boys hunted, fished, swam, climbed trees, and shot marbles and played ball, while slave girls played with rag dolls and imitated domestic chores. Although several historians have pointed to such games as hide the switch and rap jacked—in which players are beaten—as indicative of slavery's brutality, the historians Lawrence W. Levine and Bernard Mergen point out that these games have earlier English origins. What seems clear, however, is that white children did not play these games.

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children's games

Boys more than girls played games of physical exertion, though some games engaged both sexes. Ball games seem to have been, through much of the era, the province of boys; stool-ball, cricket, fives (handball), and several early forms of what would become the national pastime were played. Public forms of team play such as bowling and field hockey also were played. Other games, such as battledore and shuttlecock (badminton), thread the needle, tag, leapfrog, and hopscotch could be, and often were, played with members of both sexes. Given that the median age of the Revolutionary generation was sixteen, games provided a means through which sexual mores could be tested and learned. Charades, hide-and-seek, and blindman's bluff were popular heterosocial activities, but they were given moral intent by popular advice writers. John Newbery's A Little Pretty Pocket-Book: Intended for the Instruction and Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly, first published in London in 1744, explained thirty-two games. Newbery appended a moral lesson to each game, and the book was reprinted numerous times through the rest of the century. By the first decades of the nineteenth century, physical activity for girls was condoned, and activities traditionally accorded to boys, such as jumping rope, became girls' fun.

family games

Board games were enjoyed by child and adult, male and female alike. Chess, draughts (checkers), and pachisi (later Parcheesi) were centuries old when North America was being settled. Other board games, such as the English game Goose, were found in Virginia taverns. Dated to 1597, Goose featured a board painted with a circular track of sixty-three numbered small circles. Within the circles were pictures of a boat, tavern, church, maze, skeleton, horse, and chair. Geese were featured in every ninth circle. A similar game was created in France and appeared in English in 1790. Called The New Game of Human Life, it made its way into American family homes. The game offered a pathway through the seven periods of life. Players "traveled" the path in the hope of reaching a safe and happy old age, negotiating along the way penalties and rewards. (This board game anticipated the 1843 game, The Mansion of Happiness, and the 1860 game, The Checkered Game of Life, by Milton Bradley.)

The increasing popularity of children's cabinets of curiosities in the early decades of the nineteenth century spoke to a fascination with natural history. Yet this trend also pointed to American parents' reactions to increasing industrialization, a process that would, after 1830—and with an increased emphasis on Christmas—bring into American middle-class homes a seemingly endless variety of manufactured toys and games. New England, that erstwhile bastion of Puritanism, would prove to be the center of toy making in the United States.

See alsoChildhood and Adolescence; Children's Literature; Education .


Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600–1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Earle, Alice Morse. Child Life in Colonial Days. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

Hewitt, Karen, and Louise Roomet. Educational Toys in America: 1800 to the Present. Burlington: Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 1979.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

McClintock, Inez, and Marshall McClintock. Toys in America. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1961.

Mergen, Bernard. Play and Playthings: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982.

O'Brien, Richard. The Story of American Toys: From the Puritans to the Present. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775–1850. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Wajda, Shirley Teresa. "'And a Little Child Shall Lead Them': American Children's Cabinets of Curiosities." In Acts of Possession: Essays on Collecting in America. Edited by Leah Dilworth. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Shirley Teresa Wajda