Toys and Games
TOYS AND GAMES
Gary S. Cross
Toys and games are the tools of play, and play is a large part of social life. Playthings have helped the small and powerless child overcome the frustrations and conflicts of adult life through imagination. Still, toys and games have never been exclusively for children. Playthings also convey messages from the older generation to the younger. Changes in toys and other playthings thus can reveal much about changes in the experience and meaning of childhood and how the broader cultural and material world has shaped youth. Because the historical record concerning toys is richer than that of games, the former will be stressed and the term "games" will refer to play objects rather than organized activities.
Before modern industrialization, childhood was brief and play not encouraged by parents. Especially for children of peasants and craftspeople, toys were rare. Adults gave them to children during festival times, and the young made toys for themselves in moments of freedom from control or work out of gourds, bits of wood, or animal parts.
Play was not especially associated with childhood and neither were toys and games. The word "toy" was associated with a child's plaything only at the end of the sixteenth century. Still, in Shakespeare's time, "toy" continued to mean anything frivolous or even simply a funny story. Adult and children's play-things were often not sharply distinguished until the eighteenth century. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether an object is a toy or an adult ritual object. Wide-ranging groups (including Hopi Indians and the medieval Japanese) passed on devotional images to their children for play after religious use. And in medieval Europe adult novelties were given later to children almost as an afterthought.
The French anthropologist Roger Caillois suggests that playthings vent four distinct needs: mimicry, vertigo (or giddiness), competition, and the excitement of chance. The toy has often allowed the individual to imitate the powerful and grown-up while also expressing the thrill of abandoning oneself (as in riding a roller coaster). Board games have rewarded personal skill in competition while requiring that players accept luck and thus the unpredictability of life. Cultures can be distinguished by their relative stress on competition or vertigo, for example, in their games and toys. Playthings have taught the young and reminded the old of the values and customs of their culture.
But in modern times, Europeans abandoned certain elements of play. They gradually gave up mimicking the gods with masks and dolls. For the most part, dolls have passed to children. Doll historians may exaggerate when they equate children's dolls with modern civilization, but clearly a mark of modernity is the turning of adult idols into children's play figures. Modern adults also gradually rejected vertigo—the ecstatic worship so common in ancient cultures that gave people the feeling of participating in a supernatural world. Instead, adult play slowly came to stress competition and chance in games of calculation and rules. Most modern adults have ceased toying with the dangerous and ecstatic and passed the objects they associated with this play to the young in harmless forms. This has been a long process involving basic changes in material and cultural life, affecting adult and child alike.
PLAYTHINGS IN EARLY MODERN EUROPE
Most early modern Europeans viewed play as a periodic catharsis, often associated with fairs or feast days but not specifically with childhood. Many modern playthings have origins in Mardi Gras or other quasi-religious festivals that were shared by adults and children alike. Some children's toys had origins as miniature souvenirs of late medieval religious pageantry. Churches displayed life-size manger scenes at Christmas to delight and edify the congregation. Following a general cultural trend away from the community spectacle in the sixteenth century, these images were brought into the family circle when Italian and German craftspeople sold miniatures of these scenes for home display. From about 1470, engravings of secular scenes including battles and animals in natural settings were mounted on pasteboard for the amusement and edification of families. In the eighteenth century such miniature scenes were used as backdrops for home peep shows or toy theaters in Germany, Britain, and France. Toy theaters introduced the idea of the toy as a form of storytelling. Still, these miniatures were not children's toys as such, but festive and edifying household decorations.
However, miniature scenes eventually became children's play sets. Perhaps the earliest of these was the wooden Noah's Ark. This late-sixteenth-century German innovation offered religious training while allowing children to play with toy animals in a self-contained setting. Another example is the jumping jack, which had origins in the fourteenth century as a mechanical wooden figure that struck bells in church towers. By the sixteenth century, the jack of communal pleasure was miniaturized into a string-pulled jumping jack and was sold widely as a toy in central European fairs. Again, the jumping jack was a novelty as pleasing to adults at festive times as to children.
Some modern toys originated as diversions of adult aristocrats. Wealthy men had long been fascinated with mechanical movement. Automata, mechanical figures or animals powered by water and even steam, dated from the ancient world. By 1672 skilled craftspeople constructed automata powered by clockworks for Louis XIV of France. The eighteenth-century French artisans Jacques de Vaucanson and Pierre Jaquet-Droz made mechanical angels, pecking birds, and even models of children capable of writing. In the nineteenth century, with mass production, these novelties trickled down to children as toys. By 1836 walking dolls were perfected in Paris toy shops and survive today in remote control robots. Toy soldiers may have begun as pendants used by adults as charms rather than as children's playthings. The doll historian Karl Grober notes that miniature soldiers served as children's toys only from 1578 and that this was very rare. Kings and aristocrats collected handcrafted metal or wood soldiers to "play" war. Toys had little to do with the "innocence" of childhood. Amusements celebrating the macabre also have found expression as playthings. Toy guillotines were sold during the French Revolution, one of which was reportedly bought by the cultivated Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Similarly, fashion dolls originated as an effective way of displaying adult women's clothing. In 1309 the French royal court sent the English queen a miniature female mannequin dressed in the latest French style. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries clothing designers used these dolls to advertise Parisian fashion throughout Europe. They were a major reason for French success in dominating women's fashion. Mothers gave these dolls to their girls when no longer useful for displaying clothes. The history of dollhouses follows a similar course. First made in the form of a cabinet to include miniature furniture, dollhouses date from 1558 in Bavaria. But these replicas of exquisite domestic furnishings were models commissioned by wealthy women for their amusement and to display their taste and wealth. They were very expensive pieces of furniture, not toys for children. Aristocratic English women similarly collected dolls and doll furnishings in the eighteenth century. Only at the end of the eighteenth century did manufacturers build dollhouses specifically as toys designed to instruct girls in the arts of housekeeping. And even in Victorian England, dollhouses were commissioned objects d'art. Sometimes miniature upholstered chairs and doll dresses were made by adult members of the family to display craft skill. When the first hot air balloon ascended in 1783, French adults bought miniatures for souvenirs. Only later did the balloon become a child's toy. And hoops, tops, and ball games, which had traditionally been enjoyed by all ages, were only gradually abandoned by adults as childish.
Playthings were often miniatures of symbols of elite prestige and power. Thus most of the toys before the eighteenth century that have survived were made for the children of the aristocracy or wealthy merchants. In 1572 the king of Saxony gave his son a wooden play set depicting a hunting scene (complete with hounds, stags, wild boars, foxes, wolves, and hares) that allowed him to create minidramas of the leisure that he would enjoy when he grew up. By contrast, the princess received a doll's kitchen complete with 71 dishes, 40 meat plates, 36 spoons, and doll's furniture. Many toys were novelties that displayed wealth and taste.
Poor children, of course, enjoyed roughly made rag-and-straw stuffed dolls, and animal wastes provided materials for balls and knucklebones. Children made their own playthings. They improvised, creating fantasy worlds with whittled sticks and castaway bits of cloth. Traditional toys like hoops (from discarded wheels) pushed along the street with a stick survived until the end of the nineteenth century. And, of course, children played without toys or board or card games in a wide variety of chasing, racing, hiding, and role-playing activities in unsupervised groups.
MATERIAL CHANGES IN PLAYTHINGS, c. 1700–1850
The technological and economic revolutions that transformed general material conditions of European society also revolutionized the toy box. The modern European toy industry has its roots in Germany, where specialized craft production of playthings appeared in the sixteenth century. A key to their success was that they imitated both aristocratic and folk styles. In and around the small towns of Sonneberg, Erzebirge, and Berchtesgaden, as well as in Oberammergau in the Groeden Valley in South Tirol, families carved wooden animals and dolls in their cottages during the winter months, often to replicate local wildlife and people. From 1578 craftspeople from Nürnberg produced toy animals from tin. Later, about 1760, Andreas Hilpert of Nürnberg offered middle-class parents cheap tin adaptations of expensive silver or lead toy armies. Thereafter, Nürnberg set the standard for toy soldiers in Europe. This town also became famous for the Nürnberg Kitchen, a standardized play set for training girls in the essentials of domestic work in the nineteenth century. Gradually, German toy-making became a well-organized business. At first, peddlers sold handcrafted toys at fairs and door-to-door. Later, merchants centered in Nürnberg gained control over these traveling salesmen and forced village artisans to adopt uniform designs and to specialize.
In the nineteenth century especially, European toy makers also found new, cheaper materials. By 1850 papier-mâché, India rubber, and simple molding machines cheapened the cost of dolls. Porcelain doll heads were mass-produced from the 1840s and bisque (unglazed porcelain) from 1870. Simple mechanical contrivances also made dolls more lifelike. As early as 1823, dolls could say "mamma" when children squeezed simple bellows implanted in the doll's body. Technical improvements, including weight-activated eyes and ball-jointed limbs in dolls, became common by 1850. Paper dolls appeared in England and Germany in the 1790s, offering a cheap version of the three-dimensional fashion doll. In the 1840s and 1850s paper dolls featured the likenesses of celebrities (royalty but also ballerinas and famous singers like Jenny Lind). New materials were introduced to make dollhouses cheaper, including lithographed paper on wood and tin to simulate fancy wall coverings, doors, and other furnishings.
New manufacturing technologies also made play-things cheaper. By the eighteenth century simple wooden toys were fashioned from a ring of pinewood, turned on a lathe to form the outline of a figure or animal along the length of the ring, and then sliced into multiple flat figures. About five thousand molds for casting lead figures were used around Nürnberg by 1840. By the 1890s chromolithography allowed mechanical printing to replace much hand painting on tin-plated toys. Cheap spring-work (windup) toys supplanted expensive clockworks, and hollow-cast toy soldiers put war toys in the hands of a broad middle class. Composition (a mixture mostly of wood fiber, bran, and glue) began to replace china and other clay materials for dolls' heads in 1895. These innovations not only introduced more playthings into a wider group of European children's lives, but they made it possible for manufacturers to produce more variety and to change their lines of toys and games, thus turning playthings into a fashion industry.
Deep into the nineteenth century, craft methods prevailed and families still made toys at home or in small shops. Children's goods were often mixed with adult trinkets in the packs of peddlers and in general stores. Toy manufacturing was often a sideline of "serious" industry (for example, common woodworkers made miniatures of carpenter and garden tools and toy horses and coaches with scraps, and cabinet makers produced dollhouses on special order). The Brio toy company of Sweden, for example, had its roots in basket making in the 1880s. Machines and factories were introduced only at the end of the nineteenth century.
Toy makers could be found throughout nineteenth-century Europe. By 1800, for example, small-scale English manufacturers from the Black Country were producing a variety of tin and wood drums, trumpets, whistles, soldiers, and farm and exotic animals. Paris became a center for high-quality handcrafted automata and porcelain dolls in the nineteenth century. But after 1860 larger, more sophisticated German toy manufacturers like Bing and later Maerklin and Lehmann offered distinct trademarked windup and military toys. German manufacturers bested British and French competitors with aggressive marketing that targeted regional cultural differences and appealed to a broad middle class. For example, Bing manufactured tin English battleships complete with English flags. By 1900 Germany was by far the world's greatest producer of toys, producing two-thirds of the dolls for Europe and exporting 75 percent of its output.
PLAYTHINGS AND CHANGING MEANINGS OF CHILDHOOD, c. 1700–1900
From the late seventeenth century, changes in the meaning and experience of childhood were reflected in new toy and game concepts. Historians of childhood stress the role of the Enlightenment on new attitudes about child rearing and playthings. John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) asserted that play was not the "devil's workshop" but essential for the child's rational and occupational development. Children should have a variety of toys (but not all at once). In play children revealed those aptitudes that parents ought to encourage. Locke's ideas were passed on to nineteenth-century parents via popular child-rearing manuals. These books encouraged parents to protect their children from harmful influences and to find games and toys to guide the child's "progress" or training. The eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stressed how parents should encourage spontaneity in their young children and provide an education that rewarded individual expression and personal development. Children were no longer seen as miniature adults; they were to go through developmental stages rather than be prematurely introduced to adult life.
These Enlightenment figures were hardly promoting permissive parenting. Advocates of children's toys and games throughout the nineteenth century stressed not undirected play and imagination but moral and intellectual training. The historian John Brewer argues that toys in the late eighteenth century were to teach children to value and care for property. A key figure in toys for learning was the German educator Friedrich Froebel, who founded the first kindergarten in 1837. Like other reformers of this period, he denounced rote memorization and argued that play should become a central part of early learning. According to these reformers, play was the young child's work and mode of learning. But it should not be left to chance. Froebel had a detailed program of play that prescribed step-by-step the child's activities. While later generations of kindergarten teachers would abandon Froebel's mystical views and rigid program, they stuck to the idea of managed play.
Accompanying this intellectual revolution in education was the transformation of the social context of childhood, especially for the middle classes. With the gradual removal of production from the home and from the training of children, toys and games became substitutes for preparing the young for adult roles. Moreover, play gradually replaced shared domestic work to create family loyalties and to train the child in the values of honesty and competition. In the home increasingly bereft of productive tasks and sometimes even baby siblings, toys became a way to imitate adult roles. They also served to help middle-class and socially aspiring parents isolate their young from an often unruly "child society" that might teach values inappropriate for upstanding families or social advancement. Toys then could protect the child in the sheltered environment of the bourgeois home while also providing antidotes for loneliness. Children were expected to learn the rational culture of self-control in the isolation of the nursery. Yet, with greater affluence in the course of the nineteenth century, the young were increasingly encouraged to enjoy spontaneity and the pleasures of their freedom from work and responsibility. Playthings were both vehicles to introduce the "real world" and fantasy objects that shut the child off from that world in a "secret garden." This contradiction became more evident as the century wore on and toys designed to please parents gave way to child-centered playthings.
NINETEENTH-CENTURY TOYS AND GAMES
Early-nineteenth-century toys were made mostly for the very young. Rattles, for example, were as much for the benefit of parents as children (and were sometimes called "child quieters"). The few toys available for older children were to distract them in that brief time before they could be put to work. Adults brought out miniatures only on special holidays. Into the nineteenth century, religious parents allowed their young to play with Noah's Arks only on Sundays or holidays. Didactic toys had roots in the seventeenth century. As early as 1656, we find the Scholers Praticall Cards, a teaching game for English children. Paralleling the publication of children's books in the mid-eighteenth century were a variety of information cards that taught geography, zoology, and even grammar. In the early nineteenth century French children learned about the prefectures of France and Austrians about exotic animals with card games. Moralistic themes predominated in English board games. For example, in the early Victorian Mansion of Happiness, children advanced a piece on a board by way of squares marked with character traits (Piety and Honesty, for example), moving toward the goal of Happiness. Landing, however, on Passion meant that you lost a turn.
The classic educational toy was, of course, the unadorned building block. It dates back to the time of John Locke in the late seventeenth century but was manufactured widely for the middle-class nursery in the mid-nineteenth century. A related, but predominately female, item was the sewing cards that appeared about 1880, often with improving mottos like "Waste Not, Want Not." Other improving toys were less moralistic, but they too were to be "worked on." Froebel's kindergarten play objects (called "gifts") were to awaken the mind and imagination of the child. The set was contained in six boxes and each successive box would be opened only as the child progressed in self-understanding. The first, for example, was filled with colored worsted balls. They were to teach the principle of "unity." Later the child would advance to more complex objects like cubes and cylinders and eventually a three-inch cube, divided to form twenty-seven solid oblongs, of which three were divided into halves to form four-sided prisms, and six into halves to form square half-cubes. Fourteen "occupations" activities prescribed proper use of the gifts, including paper folding, drawing, sewing, paper weaving, stringing peas, and clay modeling. A similar, if less abstract, ethos produced the notion that children should construct their own playthings. In 1859 and 1860 Ebenezer Landells published two primers on the construction of "useful things" like kites, bows and arrows, and cardboard fox-hunting scenes for boys and homemade cutouts of dancing dolls and paper bookmarks for girls. The former were to prepare boys for inventing and the latter to instruct girls on domestic crafts and benevolence. So-called scientific toys emerged in the 1830s that taught children principles of optics, for example, with toy-sized magic lanterns.
Toys reflected conventional gendered work roles and the tools that went with them. A toy catalog from Nürnberg in about 1860 featured toy storefronts appealing to boys and tin dollhouses designed for girls. Military miniatures in tin plate, mostly produced by Bing and Maerklin, were common in the two generations before World War I, keeping boys up-to-date on the latest battleship in the European arms race and familiar with the armies of potential enemies.
Girls' playthings were mostly dolls, often semimanufactured, to be finished or assembled later. Thus dolls were sold in parts (heads, bodies, legs, and arms), and the customer was expected to make or purchase separately the clothes, doll furniture, and dollhouses. Handmade extras made toys affordable to many parents and allowed them and other relatives to contribute personally to the child's play. Doll accessories abounded. They included an amazing array of toy household tools, including washing boards, coal hods and shovels, and irons. Natural looking bisque-headed dolls, highly realistic with glass eyes, human hair, and ball joints, were made in Paris. Dolls manufactured by Jumeau were especially successful on the international market. Between 1860 and 1900 fashionably dressed "lady dolls" became a central part of the middle-class girl's life. Newly affluent mothers increasingly encouraged their daughters to play out the rituals of high society (from tea parties to funerals) with their dolls. The fashion doll also developed a girl's skill at identifying quality fabric and appropriate dress. These talents were very important in a new age where middle-class women were expected to create a decorous home and become knowledgeable consumers. Dolls were used to instruct girls on the "proper" handling of objects and on the exercise of self-control.
Although these toys were utilitarian or (as in the case of porcelain dolls) for display, toys gradually became more playful and childlike, especially for younger children. Illustrative of this change is how didactic tales gave way to children's fantasy. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) abandons the dull world of adults for the comic literalness of Unbirthday Parties and Queens of Hearts while subtly parodying adult hypocrisies. Escapism from industrial society was projected onto children in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1894). And J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan (1904) treats the Darling siblings to Neverland, where nobody ever grows up, and spares Wendy of the fate of having to vacate the nursery until she is finally ready. As important, parents embraced these fantasies and the idea of purposeless play that they expressed. Late-nineteenth-century indulgence of children is shown in clothing, furniture, and medicines made especially for the young. The transformation of the communal festival of Christmas into a day featuring gifts for children is also part of this process. The Bon Marché in Liverpool, for example, introduced the first Christmas fairyland (toy department) in the 1870s, and by the 1890s Father Christmas was a regular visitor in December in British department stores. The late-Victorian poor may not have been able to afford toys at birthdays, but they saved and spent as lavishly as possible on their children at Christmas.
Toys derived from popular characters in children's fiction became common after 1900. These playthings expressed parental indulgence for childish play while drawing on new and faddish elements from the wider popular culture. The British Golliwog, derived from a child's short story, became a fad doll from 1900. The Golliwog was a version of the black dandy and minstrel, dressed in blue swallow-tail coat and red bow tie—but with paws, not feet and hands, and with exaggerated eyes and lips. "Exotic" racial images were nearly as common in Europe as in the United States. Other popular dolls were the Katzenjammer Kids, who in comics endlessly played pranks on grown-ups, even if they got thrashed for it. These were images of a gentle rebellion from adult authority, a rebellion tolerated by parents, even embraced in the innocence of a plaything. Similarly, German windup toys often featured whimsical adult characters in ridiculous situations in the 1900s.
Even more expressive of a new indulgence of childhood was the doll reform movement. Shortly after 1900, artists in Munich and Berlin designed dolls in the image of children. In opposition to the adult fashion doll with its detailed and realistic facial features and body, the doll reformers asked children what they wanted in a doll. This led to soft figures, sometimes with "unbreakable heads," that a child could hug and play with. Early examples of the doll reform were simple folk designs with abstract facial features and childlike in their construction. Most important, these dolls were to evoke the emotions of the child rather than to teach adult roles. The fact that most of these dolls looked like the child who played with them suggested that they were intended to be companions in childish play. The new doll's image also implied a growing toleration for the foibles of children. Some, for example, had impish looks on their faces with eyes askance. Common also was the wholesome and energetic look of the "Dutch boy" doll. Other doll reformers like Kaethe Kruse designed realistic baby dolls (often with the face and body of a newborn) with the hope of arousing maternal feeling in the child.
Another part of this trend toward more child-centered play was the plush or stuffed toy animal and figure. Unlike the wood or even cloth toy, these soft-centered toys with raised nap exteriors were ideal for young children seeking security and warmth. The German toy maker Margarete Steiff, who made stuffed elephants from 1880, claimed to have invented the soft and furry teddy bear (named for the American president Theodore Roosevelt) in 1902. Her company shifted production from cottage craftspeople to a modern factory in 1905, shortly after she gained access to an international network of buyers and had perfected her jointed plush doll design. The stuffed bear swept the "civilized" world in 1906–1907 (and was as popular in Europe as it was in the United States. Steiff sold one million in 1907 alone. So successful were Steiff's bears that other toy makers quickly copied them. In an effort to create an emblem of "authenticity," Steiff sewed a "button in the ear" of each plush bear that the company manufactured, thus creating a distinctive trademark. By 1911 Steiff was making cartoon characters and caricature dolls and advertising them through colorful postcards. These toys conveyed the message that children had the right to self-expression and fantasy. But they also attracted adults with the opportunity to join their offspring in a nostalgia for a "timeless" childhood free from the competition and change of the modern world.
The Victorian training toy had hardly disappeared. For older boys, it survived in the lead soldier that was given in complete and often expensive sets by parents as a rite of passage into robust boyhood. Electric trains offered a more positive image of growing up. They dated from 1884 in Germany, and Maerklin exported them by 1898. Electric trains combined accurate detail of the latest technology with a play setting that allowed boys to imagine themselves as powerful participants in an adult world of commerce and transportation. Construction toys, like Frank Hornby's Meccano of Britain, delivered boys to worlds of technological progress and business success. More than perforated metal strips that could be bolted together, Meccano showed boys how to construct the "world's mechanical wonders" as models. According to a popular biography, Hornby, as a boy, had dreamed of building a "perpetual motion machine," and his work on bridges inspired his Meccano toy. Hornby himself was to be a model for boys to emulate just as his toys were to prepare them to be engineers, scientists, and businessmen.
By contrast, early-twentieth-century girls' play included few miniatures of modern technology. Pet's Toy Grocery Stores, an English invention of 1909, was an update of the grocer's store play set common in the nineteenth century except that it included miniature trademark brands of packaged goods, teaching the girl "modern" shopping. But the doll remained central to girls' play. With it, girls learned to play expected roles by making their dolls into actors in domestic dramas of modern caregiving, conviviality, and consumption. The increasing tendency of dolls in the early twentieth century to look like children or babies may have reflected a trend toward smaller families. When girls lacked siblings to play with or babies to care for, they substituted dolls. As mothers bore fewer children, they took on more nurturing responsibilities. These mothers would rather have their young daughters play with baby dolls than risk their caring for their baby siblings. And baby dolls were intended to train girls into a maternal instinct that many social conservatives saw in decline early in the twentieth century.
AMERICANIZATION OF PLAYTHINGS IN EUROPE
Toys and games remained relatively static after 1920 in Europe. As in many areas of popular culture, American toy innovations penetrated European childhood. German toys lost their dominance in the United States during World War I, and after Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, military priorities further weakened the German playthings industry. Radical change came from Walt Disney's aggressive marketing of character licenses to doll and toy makers in 1935. Mickey Mouse was as popular in Europe as in the United States, and Disney films like the feature-length Snow White introduced a new way of making story characters into playthings. The Americanization of toys meant a shift of play away from an adult world of training and toward an international culture of childhood created by linking children's movies and other media to toys.
Of course, older forms of toys survived after World War II. British Meccano and Hornby electric trains enjoyed a revival, and the Lesney "Matchbox" cars updated a tradition of play based on realistic miniatures of adult life. The Swedish Brio company perpetuated high-quality nonrepresentational wooden toys (simple trains, cars, animals, and blocks) and promoted them as an educational alternative to licensed character toys. Their "open-ended toys" were expensive, but they stimulated imagination and were advertised as a good investment in a child's development. Brio appealed to the relatively affluent parent who was eager for playthings that met a child's developmental needs. The German Playmobil company thrived by offering sturdy plastic updates of traditional wooden play sets. German toy makers abandoned war toys and specialized in electric trains and fine character dolls.
Nevertheless, despite the relative absence of TV advertising in Europe for children (as compared with the United States), European toy companies survived by imitating or becoming subsidiaries of aggressive American toy makers. In 1962 the venerable Lines Brothers of Britain made an obvious copy of Mattel's Barbie doll called Sindy. In 1966 Britain's Palitoy became the distributor for Hasbro's G. I. Joe (called Action Man in Europe). Even Brio distributed Mattel and Hasbro toys in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1985 the American warehouse retailer Toys "R" Us arrived in Britain and soon thereafter on the Continent, selling Barbie dolls and action figures similar to those offered in the United States.
The Americanization of toys was more than an economic fact. It also meant a new kind of plaything and experience of play that Europeans were unable to match. Especially from the 1960s, American toys were sold directly to children via TV ads on Saturday morning cartoon shows, bypassing the parent's values and memories of play. Intense competition made for rapid change and an emphasis upon "blockbuster" hit toys. This plus the close integration of toy makers with an aggressive children's entertainment industry (comic books, movies, and TV cartoons) led to toy lines that served as props for playing a fantasy narrative. When American toy giants licensed the images of Star Wars characters for toys in 1977, European companies could not compete. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the independent British toy industry long used to a stable product line, nearly disappeared.
The most dramatic exception was Lego. In the 1970s and early 1980s, this Danish company built a toy empire against the trend toward action-figure fantasy. Instead, it perpetuated the construction-toy tradition with its interlocking blocks. Lego used museum and mall displays and its Legoland theme park to retain a reputation for quality and creativity. By the late 1980s, however, Lego compromised with the American fantasy-toy industry by introducing kits, or "systems," designed to construct a single model. While Lego did not provide a violent "back story," many of these systems came with exotic weaponry. Lego's construction-toy tradition adapted to many of the marketing techniques of the novelty makers.
Niche markets remained for educational and construction toys. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s Early Learning Centres in Britain sold Meccano, Brio, and other quality toys to parents of young children who opposed the commercialization of the young by international fashion toy makers. But the older child has become part of a global consumer culture through satellite TV, movies, comics, and, after 1991 especially, video games. By the 1980s the toy in Europe had become part of a global play culture. Toys are increasingly designed and marketed through American and Japanese companies and manufactured in south China adjacent to the international commercial center of Hong Kong. European parents, like affluent parents elsewhere, look to their children for emotional gratification and buy toys to please their offspring. Reduced family size and divorce probably have also accelerated this trend. The growth of satellite TV and privatization of the mass media have eroded the European's isolation from the power of the United States and the global children's fashion and fantasy industry.
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