In the nineteenth century, toys were produced for children in factories. Most toys, although they were made in factories, were handmade. This meant that they were much more expensive than the toys we buy today because of the craftsmanship involved. They were often made from metal or wood, and intricately designed.
By the latter part of the century, people were working fewer hours and were gaining a better wage. This meant they had more money to spend on their leisure time, so toys became much more popular.
The demand was much more prominent among the middle and upper classes, who could afford to buy more expensive toys. Clockwork toys and toys made from tin were marketed and became popular, but the classic Victorian toys were rocking horses, train sets, dolls, toy shops, and toys soldiers. There were also puzzle toys, including jigsaws. You could also get sailing boats and alphabet bricks, as well as religious toys depicting biblical stories, like Noah’s Ark. This was particularly popular on Sundays, when most children weren’t allowed to play with their non-religious toys.
Very young children from richer homes often had nurseries all to themselves that were filled with beautiful toys. A rocking horse, often intricately carved and painted, was a staple item for any nursery. Girls often had an array of dolls. The dolls made in the Victorian era were often incredibly fine. The head would be made from porcelain or wax, and the soft bodies would be stuffed with wood chips. The clothes were often made from expensive materials like lace, taffeta, or satin, and the dresses were as detailed as those for adults. The dolls hair was often human, and the eyes would be made from glass. They often had extra detailed items such as bonnets or baskets.
Little girls also had the luxury of playing with incredibly intricate doll’s houses. All different sizes were available, and the furniture on sale was incredibly detailed and crafted. The idea was to have an exact replica of an adult house, and little girls could spend hours playing make-believe with little dolls. They are now fascinating items to look at, as they provide such an insight into the homes of the upper classes during this period. Girls also spent a lot of their time sewing. Letters and scenes would be embroidered onto scraps of material, known as samplers.
Tin soldiers were very popular among boys, and were relatively easy to be mass produced in factories. Some of them were hand painted and most made of metal. Because of their sturdiness and durability of the materials, many of these toys still exist today and can be seen in museums. As real railways expanded all across the country, so did the popularity of train sets, particularly with little boys. The trains were clockwork, and would be intricately designed to be replicas of famous trains.
Mechanised toys were introduced during this century, and the animation made them popular among children. Wind-up clown toys could do tricks and flips, or pull-along toys would become animated during movement. Another massively popular toy was the kaleidoscope, which involved mirrors and changing patterns. Due to the invention of the clockwork toy, musical games and toys were soon introduced. These proved very fashionable with children, especially jewellery boxes and music boxes with dancing figurines.
Board games were also in style during this century. Draughts, Ludo, and card games would be played indoors on rainy days. In the middle of the century, the card game Happy Families was first introduced. Later on, games like Tiddlywinks and the still-popular snakes and ladders were invented.
Outdoor toys during this era included the hoop and stick. This was a simple game where the hoop was rolled along the floor, and kept moving using the stick. Other simple games were the cup and ball. A wooden ball was attached to the cup by a string. The aim was to get the ball to land in the cup when swinging it upwards. Another popular Victorian toy was the spinning top. Although this toy had been around for a while, they still proved to be fashionable. Marbles was also a game played in the streets. Sports also became very popular in the Victorian era. Shuttlecock, football, and croquet were some of the more fashionable ones.
A toy popular with older children was the toy theatre. This was a bigger project to undertake, and often more expensive. The theatre was purchased, made from cardboard and wood, with real-looking stage lights made from tin and oil burners. Then you could buy different characters and scenery for a penny each for plain, and two pennies for a coloured copy. Toy theatres were a great way of teaching children to be creative. They would have to invent storylines and plots, and then perform the show to their friends, so they also became a form of entertainment before film and TV.
Books were also popular, and a lot of Victorian children spent their time reading. Many of the books that were published during this century are still read by children today. However, if a child was born to a poorer home, they would not have been playing with toys like these. Anything they did play with would have had to have been very cheap or home made. Girls found dolls in the most unlikely of places, such as decorated pegs. Home-made rag dolls were also common. A simple length of rope might be used for skipping, or a stuffed bit of rag could be a toy animal. There were some very cheap ‘real’ toys available from penny stalls in markets.
Victorian toys are now hugely popular and collectible items. Due to the craftsmanship involved, many of the toys are still in very good condition, and fetch a high price. If you can find yourself a Victorian toy, it might be worth keeping it in the family as an heirloom. If you’re looking for one, take a trip to the local antique or vintage market, or to your nearest auction.