Hooks, wheels and rag dolls

Home-made toys

Children playing in Cardiff, c1892
A group of children, photographed around 1892 in Rowe Square, Cardiff, with one holding an iron hoop and two others sitting on what appears to be an upturned wheelbarrow.

In Wales, as in many parts of the world before the rise of factory-produced items, the toys of yesteryear consisted of unsophisticated, home-made objects, constructed from whichever raw materials were locally available. Wood was the main material used to make children's toys, as it could easily be shaped into a wide variety of objects such as dolls, spinning tops and rattles. Also popular were iron hooks and wheels and footballs made from pigs' bladders. These were commonplace at home and in schoolyards and would entertain children for hours. Being in possession of a ball opened the door to a host of exciting team games such as rounders, hand ball and football, especially for boys, while both boys and girls would roll wooden or iron hoops to their hearts' content, either on their own, or in competitions to see who could roll the fastest, the slowest or the furthest.

Treasured possessions

Cup and ball, whistle and rattle
Homemade toys such as these were played with in Wales before the rise of factory-made products. The cup and ball, whistle and rattle shown are modern replicas.

Folk toys describe playthings made either by the child, or by parents or craftspeople according to the child's wishes. In nineteenth-century Wales children from poor families where little money was available for life's essentials, let alone playthings, owned only the simplest of toys. These, however, would have been treasured possessions and a means of escaping the harshness of daily life. With poverty the reality for many families at this time, making one's own forms of entertainment and amusement was a necessity, and children were justifiably proud of fashioning their own toys out of nothing.

All that was needed for a paper kite, for example, was a light wooden frame and some paper, while even the youngest children could create a hobby horse from a stick and a considerable amount of imagination. For a see-saw, two wooden planks were often placed one over the other on a barrel. Two children would then sit either end, happily rocking up and down until they tired. Ropes could be used for skipping, or climbed by securing one end to a strong branch, leaving the other end free to be scaled by the brave and fearless. For boys, creating such objects as paper kites, toy boats or catapults was extremely satisfying, while girls could use their needlework skills to make rag dolls and dolls' house pieces, or play drapers' shops using little scraps of material.

Mass-produced toys

Toy steamroller made by Glamtoys Ltd
Toy steamroller, produced by Glamtoys Ltd at Treforest Industrial Estate, late 1950s

Until the early twentieth century, bought toys belonged almost exclusively to the wealthy. As methods of mass-production improved, however, more affordable toys were made available. These transformed the toy market in Wales and elsewhere. Toy factories were opened in great numbers, and as their marketing and advertising campaigns became increasingly high profile, they reached children of all social backgrounds. As a result the simple folk toy became surplus to the requirements of most youngsters, who stopped making their own toys and saved their pennies for the brightly-coloured, decorative and more fashionable shop-bought versions.

Although home-made folk toys are often regarded today as somewhat quaint and quirky, in recent years a growing number of craftsmen have begun to turn their hand to toy-making, perhaps in reaction to the large number of factory-made items shipped into Britain from elsewhere. Despite the continuing dominance of commercially-made toys, most people would agree that home-made objects possess a more enduring appeal, for who could deny the innocent and timeless charms of such items as a knitted finger-puppet or a painted peg-doll? The unique individuality of hand-crafted pieces and the care and patience that have gone into their creation undoubtedly tell us more about the maker than a mass-produced Barbie or computer game ever could.

Article Date: 16 December 2011

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