A History of Toys

By Tim Lambert

Early Toys

Before the 20th century, children had few toys and those they did have were precious. Furthermore, children did not have much time to play. Only a minority went to school but most children were expected to help their parents by doing simple jobs around the house or in the fields. Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today.

They also played with toys like dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles, spinning tops, and knucklebones (which were thrown like dice).

In Ancient Greece when boys were not at school and girls were not working they played ball games with inflated pig’s bladders. They also played with knucklebones. Children also played with toys like spinning tops, dolls, model horses with wheels, hoops, and rocking horses.

Roman children played with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. They also played ball games and board games. And they played with animal knucklebones.

Toys changed little through the centuries. In the 16th century, children still played with wooden dolls. (They were called Bartholomew babies because they were sold at St Bartholomew’s fair in London). They also played cup and ball (a wooden ball with a wooden cup on the end of a handle. You had to swing the handle and try and catch the ball in the cup).

The first doll house was made in Germany in 1558.

Toys In The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution allowed toys to be mass-produced and they gradually became cheaper.

John Spilsbury made the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767. He intended to teach geography by cutting maps into pieces but soon people began making jigsaws for entertainment. The Kaleidoscope was invented in 1816 by David Brewster. In 1882 Adeline Whitney patented alphabet blocks.

In the 19th century, middle-class girls played with wood or porcelain dolls. They also had doll houses, model shops, and skipping ropes. Boys played with toys like marbles and toy soldiers as well as toy trains. (Some toy trains had working engines fueled by methylated spirits). They also played with toy boats. However poor children had few toys and often had to make their own.

In a well-off 19th century family children played with rocking horses and clockwork toys like moving animals. Clockwork trains were also popular. So was the jack-in-the-box.

Simple toys like spinning tops were also popular. So were hoops and games like knucklebones and pick-up sticks in which you had to pick up colored sticks from a pile without disturbing the others.

On Sundays, children often played with toys with religious themes like Noah’s arks with wooden animals. Children also loved magic lanterns (slide) shows and puppet shows.

Toys In The 20th Century

Many new toys were invented in the 20th century. Plasticine was invented in 1897 by William Harbutt. It was first made commercially in 1900. Also in 1900, Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano. Edwin Binney and Harold Smith invented crayons in 1903. Boys have played with marbles for centuries but in 1915 Martin F Christensen invented a machine that enabled them to be mass-produced.


Also at the beginning of the 20th century pedal cars for children were introduced. Also, popular toys in the early 20th century were small tin cars. In the 1920s train sets became very popular. Soft toys also became common in the early 20th century including teddy bears.

During World War II most toy factories were turned over to war production. Nevertheless, James Wright invented silly putty in 1943. The slinky was invented by Richard T. James in 1943.

The View Master was invented in 1939 by two men, William Gruber, and Harold Graves. It soon became a popular toy.

In the late 20th century with the arrival of an affluent society plastic and metal toys became much cheaper and much more common. In the 1950s Lego became a popular toy. Mr Potato Head was invented in 1952. Play-Doh was invented in 1955 by Joseph and Noah McVicker. Skateboards were first sold in 1958 and Barbie dolls were invented in 1959. In Britain, Action Man went on sale in 1966. In the early 1970s space hoppers and clackers were popular toys.

At the end of the 20th century, computer games became very popular.

Among modern toys, the Tamagotchi was invented in 1996 and the Furby went on sale in 1998.

Last revised 2024