Large or small, complicated or simple, colourful or plain, toys made from wood have been popular with children of all ages since ancient times.
These toys are a small selection of the many objects collected by local toy maker Cyril Hobbins. Cyril’s collection grew from a great interest in, and love of, wooden toys. He was also concerned that with the growth of plastic and electronic toys, the humble wooden toy might vanish altogether.
Wood has always been a cheap material to make toys from. It is strong and hard, but also light, and can be shaped easily.
The Ancient Egyptians made paddle dolls, which were simple female figures cut from flat boards and brightly decorated. In Europe, until the 18th century, most dolls were simple ‘stump dolls’ or ‘Bartholomew Babies’. These were pieces of wood, carved into a basic human shape.
Simple toys were often home-made by imaginative children or skilled members of their family. Some of the designs of toys from the past are still popular today, such as whip and tops, spinning tops, wooden balls, building blocks, skittles and catch toys. Although simple, the toys are fun and encourage physical activity, hand-eye coordination, imagination and creativity in children.
Toy at war
During World War II (1939-45) very few toys were made for sale, as materials were needed to help the war effort. Children had to make toys from whatever they could find. With some imagination, and often the help of an adult, they made models of the familiar tanks and ships from scraps of wood, card and bottle caps.
Children might also be given toys by the POWs (Prisoners of War) who worked on farms as labourers. This pecking-bird toy is an example of the sort of toy made as gifts from scraps of wood and string.
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Wooden toys are not always simple and plain. Skilled craftsmen can make highly decorated or detailed hand-carved toys. Some of these toys have clever joints or moving parts, others balance or move on wheels.
Children control the toys by pulling, pushing, lifting or squeezing them. Often the toys move in surprising ways.
Some toys are carefully made to mimic real animals, like the large cobra and the shiny fish. These are pieces of wood joined in a flexible way, or ‘articulated’, to look like scales and move fluidly from side to side.
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Toys like us
There are examples of human shaped objects in most cultures, past and present. Some may have been used as grave goods, fertility symbols or souvenirs, as well as toys for children.
We can tell a lot about people from the dolls and figures they made, as these show the faces, fashions and customs of the society and the people who made them.
The woman holding a tray with bread and a bowl of salt is showing a traditional Eastern European welcoming ceremony.
The two wooden African Ashanti dolls are modern replicas for the tourist market made c2000-2005. Ashanti fertility dolls represent fertility and youth and are believed to induce pregnancy and safe delivery. After a successful birth the doll would be given to the child as a toy.
Toy huntsman and fox hunting set, c.1909-1921. This poseable fox hunting set includes a huntsman, horse, fox and three hounds. The huntsman is painted in a red coat called ‘hunting pink’. The toy represents a pastime that until recently would have been a common sight in the English countryside.
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Although small, some of these wooden toys are quite complicated, with high levels of detail.
Their scale and level of detail are the reason why these toys are loved by children – toy soldiers, trains, puzzles and miniature Noah’s Arks full of tiny animals.
The small wooden model toy train, with engine and five carriages, was made between c.1880 and 1920.
A tiny tea set hidden in a large wooden apple, made c.1950-1960.
Small Noah’s Ark, made between c.1870 and 1901. The lid of the ark lifts off to reveal a space for the tiny model animals.
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