Recently opened at Southend Museum is the exhibition ‘Toys and Games’ which I curated alongside my fellow Volunteer Sophie. This exhibition coincides with the loan of an exquisite Japanese Shogi board from Horniman Museum. Shogi is thought to be the ancient precursor of chess, one of the most popular games played worldwide. The loan inspired us to look within Southend Museum’s own archive to draw out the history of toys in an exciting new exhibition.
There are numerous treasures that will be recognisable to many and we hope it will be a fun place for both young and old to delight in the story of toys.
Teaching naughty children
There is much research on how we learn through play and in the 1800s these ideas were
gaining momentum. The German theorist Froebels was at the forefront of this movement and created the concept of ‘Kindergarten’. We have on show a late 19th century set of wooden building blocks. If you look closely at the lid box you can see the name ‘Frobels’. Froebels would have promoted toys like these as they allowed children to develop through practical learning.
Froebels work was not isolated, many toys not only entertained children but taught them skills such as good behaviour and morals. Snakes and Ladders in fact developed from the 17th century Indian table game, Gyan Chaupar, a moralistic game where players would climb the ladders to reach Moksha, a place of spiritual enlightenment.
The colourful set we currently have on show may at first seem distant from these spiritualist foundations but if you take a closer look at the squares, they reveal a critique on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. One square sees a little boy cheating in an exam only to fall down a snake to be punished by a rather stern headmaster.
Merchandising makes money
Of course, making toys is not just about ‘improving’ naughty children but about making money. Starting in the 20th century profit-driven brands created collectable games for children, who in turn became walking advertisements for their products. In fact, with the 1937 release of Snow White Walt Disney licensed her image to ensure he would profit from the widespread merchandising. We even have a set of Snow White picture blocks made at this time, although they are probably unauthorised, as they lack the Disney trademark but are telling of how pervasive the Disney brand had become.
Not all merchandising was by film companies, ordinary household brands created novelty toys too to promote their products. Within the exhibition, you can see a pack of cards produced by the 1930s British firm Cosmos Lamps. They created the card game ‘Brighter Families’, a take on Happy families. Players had to collect sets of the (slightly alarming) half-human half-lightbulb families. The loser would be whoever collected Mr and Mrs D. Pression, who lived dark and miserable as they did not purchase Cosmos Lamps.
Remembering forgotten toys
Whilst the efforts of Cosmos Lamps are now consigned to the past, card games in general are still popular pastimes. But for many toys popularity wanes and they can become forgotten. One such ‘forgotten’ toy are paper theatres. We have on show a beautifully printed set of backdrops and characters for a late 19th century toy theatre. These sheets were intended to be cut out by a child who could then create small-scale performances to gathered family members or friends.
This set was made by Benjamin Pollock, a London publisher who started business in the 1870s, after inheriting many designs from his father-in-law. The first maker of the printed toy theatre was William West, a stationer in 1811. Before this peepshows had existed but these were more for adults to stage performances. Toy theatres enabled children a chance to re-enact the popular pantomimes and plays of the day.
Pollock toy theatres continued production in Hoxton until the late 1940s but by then business had all but halted as toy theatres were no longer captivating children. This seems particularly poignant now in an era of increasingly isolating technological toys and it is important to be reminded of the imaginative world of toy theatres.
The curious case of Charles Willet
Looking at toy theatres provides us with insights into how children used to play but more specific histories can also be found within toys themselves. One such toy in the exhibition provides us with a direct link to its previous owner.
It is a miniature pack of cards owned by a 13 year old Welsh boy ‘Charles Willet’, who in 1904 wrote onto these cards various personal musings, including his address, nursery rhymes and the verdict of a murder trial in Birmingham (very random!) Their small size would have been perfect to conceal in a pocket and for Willet they probably held secret talismanic properties. Willet was so fearful his precious cards would be lost he made sure to leave instructions to return the cards to his home in Prestatyn if found.
Willet’s cards show how toys can take on important meanings to past owners. In fact
many adults will confess to still owning a childhood toy, due to the nostalgia it holds for them .I hope that you are able too are able to enjoy in the very personal stories of toys through this exhibition and have as much fun as I have in helping to create this exhibition. All these toys are part of the Southend Museum archive and many were donated by Southend residents, they would surely be proud to see their once well-loved toys continuing to captivate and delight.