Whether it be vinyl records, Polaroid cameras, pinball machines or mid-century furniture, ‘retro’ is most certainly experiencing a renaissance, and traditional toys—particularly handmade ones—are playing an ever more important part in people’s pursuit of all things old-school.
“There is certainly a shift away from commercialised products, and a growing demand for bespoke ones,” says Kristy Sherley, founder of boutique soft toy and homeware label Florence & Neville, who makes all her pieces by hand. “A lot of handmade toys are now using upcycled materials which adds even more character to them. I think while we have more consumer choice than ever before, there’s something special about having something that’s uniquely yours.”
Kristy reveals her favourite toy as a kid was a Raggedy Ann doll: “We shared a lot: stories, adventures, even my medicine when I was sick!” The doll remained in the family for over 30 years and was home-knitted. “I come from a very resourceful family,” continues Kristy. “Growing up I spent a lot of time with my nana and she inspired my creativity. I was making porcelain dolls at a relatively young age and have always tinkered with sewing and crafts, and once we had our own children I began making toys for them.”
Toymaking for Kristy is a form of relaxation, she adds, “an escape from the rush of daily life”.
Kevin Jones of Struan Toys, who specialise in wooden items, says that there is little more rewarding than witnessing “a length of timber turned into something that a child can play with and enjoy for many years” and “knowing they will be handed down through generations”.
Wooden toys are especially popular, in part thanks to the recent anti-plastic push.
“We have many grandparents return to purchase items they had for their own children,” says Kevin, whose father handmade toys for him. “They are strong and robust and last a long time. Wood also alters over time, each piece is unique, and it changes with the weather.”
In her book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America, Amy F Ogata explores the social significance of traditional toys, and, most notably, the role of timber. “Among the educated middle and upper-middle classes,” writes Ogata, “wood became the material symbol of timelessness, authenticity and refinement in the modern educational toy.” Ogata refers to philosopher Roland Barthes who described plastic as “graceless” and wood as a “familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from the close contact with the tree, the table, the floor”.
According to Australian toymakers Miss Molly’s Dolls & Toys, wooden toys, “by the very nature of their simplicity allow children to develop their own imaginative world”. While plastic toys relegate kids to “passive participants”, wooden ones enable them “to be the constructors of play” where they can “dream up the details, the story and use the simple structure of the toy as a basic framework”.
Soft toys are also easily stitched for instance, and wood is easily fixed. “Early childhood centres are recognising the importance of sustainable equipment that will not be going to the landfill,” says Kevin. “If by chance something does break, it can be repaired and not thrown away like plastic toys. Wood just feels good, looks good, and will stand the test of time.”
A Brief History of Play
No one knows for sure, but some speculate that the word ‘toy’ originates from the phrase ‘tawdry items’ used to describe playthings as well as buttons and buckles. Many early toys evolved from adult knick-knacks and possibly even weapons.
Kids in antiquity used to amuse themselves with marbles. Stone and clay balls were discovered in a six-thousand-year-old child’s grave in Egypt.
It was during the Middle Ages that wood first became a popular toymaking material, used to whittle spinning tops, cups and balls, and yo-yos.
In 18th-century Britain, dolls were also made from wood—often carved from one piece—while hobby horses, kites and puzzles also became popular.
Thanks to printed paper that could be glued to wood, the early Victorian era saw the development of jigsaws, dominoes and playing cards. Children from wealthier families had toys carved from ivory.
With the Industrial Revolution came an advancement of toy technology too, most notably the electric train set.
The early 20th century saw more automobiles on the roads and it wasn’t long before the toy car also took off. In Germany, a newly created cuddly bear was named after US president, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt.
Miniature toy soldiers were made to mimic real ones during the first world war, but during the second one, toymaking ground to a halt as factories needed all materials and equipment to make supplies and weaponry.
The interwar period saw the appearance of iconic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse which gave rise to mass merchandising.
Slinkys and Magic 8 Balls were thought-up during the 1940s and in 1950 English inventor Edgar Ellington accidently created the water balloon while attempting to make a waterproof sock. Noticing a leak, Ellington threw the sock in a fit of anger, it burst, and the ‘water grenade’ was launched.
The final half of the 20th century saw the development of superstar items and iconic toy brands such as the Frisbee, Barbie, Rubik’s Cube, My Little Pony, Etch A Sketch and Cabbage Patch Dolls. Lego, founded in 1949, remains the biggest selling toy of all time, and still tops many an end-of-year list for units sold. In 2015, the Danish toy giant even ousted Ferrari as Brand Finance’s ‘world most powerful brand’.