Wooden toys have been a staple of childhoods throughout the history of mankind. The simplicity, versatility, and sheer variety of wood toys speak to the commonality of experience across people, nations, cultures, and civilizations.
In this article, we delve into the history of wooden toys and explore their development and use unto the present day. Over time, wood has endured as an adaptable medium for creativity and as it is accessible to all, it is no surprise that you will find intriguing examples of wooden playthings everywhere. We hope that like us you will come to understand just how interesting these toys have been over the ages and appreciate how little they have really changed.
Why is the history of wooden toys important?
Archaeological investigation and historical research have shown that wooden toys have been a part of man’s recreation since the beginning and finds toys like the ancient wooden yo-yo, thought to have originated in China, provide fascinating insights into the social structures and way of life in past times. Although we can never know exactly what life was like for previous generations, ancient toys not only give an idea of what children were up to but also the occupation and activities of their parents and the wider communities in which they lived.
World events like wars, famines, and changes of rulership also are reflected in the games and styles of play in which wooden toys have been used. And of course, the previous designs and styles of wooden toys have been distilled into the traditional toys we see today. Read on to learn more.
Across the world, every culture and civilization has used wood in play
Children can make a game of anything, so it is no surprise that sticks, and pieces of wood have found themselves being appropriated for play. As the understanding of the properties and capabilities of wood increased and the ability of man to shape and direct its use to specific purposes improved, toy making began to take on the beginnings of sophistication and craftsmanship.
As mankind spread across the earth and forged and established disparate nations and cultures, the toys that were developed and used remained markedly similar between people and are often familiar to us today.
Mesopotamian wood toys
In ancient Mesopotamia, often purported to be the cradle of mankind, wooden carts, and bird or monkey shaped objects have been unearthed which are thought to be some of the world’s oldest toys. These Indus Valley toys date back to earlier than 3000 BC and often combine wood with clay and stone objects such as domestic livestock like oxen and asses.
Ancient Egyptian wooden toys
Dolls were made from carved wood, complete with articulating limbs, and adorned with the wigs and fashions of their day. Objects such as carved crocodiles, birds, and spinning tops, dating back to 1100 BC have been found, which are remarkable in their detailing and functionality. As with many historical objects, their use as toys has been disputed as they were just as likely to be used as funerary objects or household gods.
Babylon’s toys made from wood
The expansive Babylonian empire that dates back to 1894 BC, has also yielded up some exciting examples of highly tooled and crafted wooden toys with all the sophistication of modern life recognizable in their use. Miniature furniture, plates, dolls, and animals appear to have been used for role-playing along with hoops and even skipping ropes being popular.
Toys of Media Persia
Toys were not just used for idling away the hours, but also known to be a key means of training and instilling discipline in children. A notable example are the classic Persian blocks, crafted and decorated in the ancient Farsi lettering and numerals. Persians, in particular, have been credited with the origins of classic strategy games like chess and backgammon.
On to Ancient Greece
Excavations have been able to locate some surprising examples of Greco-Roman wooden toys including horses and miniature weapons such as bows and arrows and swords. Dolls were also common along with carved wooden animals that were set on wheels and pulled along with the yarn.
Roman wooden toys
The desire for conquest definitely percolated into the playthings crafted for Roman children including mini chariots, shields, and sword and carved wooden boats. Dolls, pull toys, and wood and wax tablets for writing all featured as part of the Roman childhood with many fine examples preserved until this day.
More recent historical wooden toys
World history is clearly beyond the scope of this article but it is clear that there are distinct themes in the range of wooden toys that were used in antiquity that have followed through consistently to the present day, in particular:
- Carved and shaped animal toys,
- wheeled toys,
- and role-play items
As empires and kingdoms have risen and fallen, wooden toys remained a consistent feature of family life. In the middle ages, figurines like toy soldiers, swords, and shields were a reminder of the upheavals of conquest and battles that might have been at hand. Artisans and craftsmen also began to make and sell wooden toys and other items in volume and develop specific designs for educational purposes or the development of key skills.
The development of European carpentry techniques and their dispersal across the world as well as the observation and adoption of techniques and toy designs from Eastern Asia, Africa, and the Americas led to accelerated innovation in toy making with notable wooden toys and games such as:
- The jigsaw puzzle First designed in the 1760s by the cartographer John Spilsbury who created a puzzle map by mounting maps on sheets of hardwood and cutting them into pieces along national boundaries with a fretsaw.
- Peg dolls Popularized in Germany from the 17th through 19th centuries features lathe-turned heads and bodies which were painted, with limbs added. Clothing for these simple dolls could then be fashioned by children from fabric scraps.
- The doll’s house has been around since the 17th century with some extremely elaborate versions of these miniature dwellings created for aristocratic households. Though contemporary model houses and villages are mass-produced from synthetic materials, wooden framed houses with exceptional detailing and embellishments were the norm. A world-famous example is Queen Mary’s Dollhouse which is on display at Windsor Castle.
- Rocking horses were first designed for the children of wealthy families, who desired them to become accustomed to the movements of riding a horse. Designs ranged from life-like carvings to highly embellished and ornate wooden horses set on rockers.
- Toy trains became popular with the golden age of steam. By the 1860 wooden model trains were in a production complete with wooden tracks, carriages, and coaches.
The Industrial Revolution accelerated the mass production of wooden toys though over time advancements in plastic and metalworking meant that wood was superseded. Improvements in living standards also increased the disposable income available to many families to buy more sophisticated toys, which were often marketed through radio, television, and film.
Wooden toy making did not entirely disappear though, craftsmen and traditional groups like the Amish became known for the production of high quality traditional wooden toys which were often specifically sought after for their simplicity and innocence.
Fast-forwarding to today, a new generation of parents are rediscovering the beauty, quality, and great benefits of traditional wooden toys. This has definitely been capitalized on by the mass-production market but discerning and carefully crafted items like abacuses and tea sets are also in great demand.
People are also rediscovering the techniques and woodworking skills needed to make and finish their own wooden toys, drawing from other cultures and regions including African wooden toys such as the Mancala strategy game or the exquisitely carved and characterful Safari animals of Burkina Faso.
In conclusion: History of wooden toys
Despite the 20th century advancements in metal, plastic, and electronic toy production, wood has endured as a material of choice for toys. Perhaps part of the charm of wooden toys is the ease with which wood can be both shaped and handled and the ability to create objects from the world around or the imagination. Wood is now being recognized as having many health and developmental benefits when preferentially used for toy making, meaning that its popularity is likely to be secure for generations to come.