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History of Toys and Games

Felicity Austins engaging, lively and inclusive talk on the history of toys and games included a wonderful array from the last 100 years. It is such a huge topic that, of necessity, it focussed on Western and British examples but an underlying theme was how social changes are reflected in the toys and games which were popular in any particular period.

The game of “fag” cards, popular 60 years ago, involved propping cigarette cards against a wall and using other cards to try to knock them over but with the changes in smoking and the way products are promoted these cards are now collectors items rather than playthings.

However, older games and toys have survived from ancient times and versions of snakes and ladders, ludo and draughts have been found in pre-Christian civilisations. “Snobs” or “stones, involving 5 small cubes, was popular  in the 1950s and 1960s but versions have been found among Roman artefacts.


Other social changes, such as new housing developments, particularly in the last 50 years, have seen many street games disappear: hop-scotch and hide-and-seek were very popular in the days before widespread car ownership when streets were play areas rather than routes for vehicles. Skipping, especially using a long rope held by two people, involving a group of children and often associated with chanted rhymes, was common but is now rare.  


In many cases historical records tend to show what was available to children of the wealthy since few toys or games of the poor survived or were recorded. For poorer families many were home-made or were common items used as substitutes, such as sticks for swords.


Major social changes came with the Victorians. Development of mass-produced products meant many toys were cheap and available to a greater population and the creativity of the toy industry exploded. This, combined with increasing wealth and leisure, made increasing numbers of new products available.


In parallel with the availability of cheap toys the tradition of hand-made toys persisted. Certainly until the Second World War, and often into the 1950s, many boys had pocket-knives which were used to make toys such as bows and arrows, pea-shooters and cricket bats. Nowadays knife carrying is  unacceptable.


Despite the huge increase and popularity of electronic games the fact that some of the traditional toys and games are still sold would suggest that they will still be available if the electronic games suffer the same fate as “fag” cards.


More information can be found on the Society’s website or Facebook page:        


Eric Whelan

Issue 403
June 2018

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