Friday, December 9, 2016

A New Christmas Tradition: Toys for Good Little Girls and Boys

A mid-19th c. doll from the Alice’s collection
“‘Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” The link between Christmas and presents, made in the famous first line of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, seems like an obvious one. But when Alcott published Little Women in 1868, this idea was still relatively new. The practice of giving children presents—and specifically, toys—was, like many of our other Christmas customs, a product of the early 19th century. It came out of shifts in the way Christmas was celebrated, along with changes in how childhood was viewed, in Europe and North America.

This subject first came to my attention through a post on the blog JSTOR Daily, which references a recent article by historian Joseph Wachelder. He examined issues of the London daily newspaper The Morning Chronicle from 1800 to 1827, and found a steady increase in advertisements for presents suitable for giving to children at Christmas. Many of these were toys with educational components, such as chemistry sets, “dissected maps” (geography puzzles), and games based on history and current events.

A scene of Christmas revelry from 1791
So what had happened to cause this development? First, how Christmas was being celebrated was starting to change. As Wachelder describes, in the 18th century, “Christmas was a public feast, characterized by revelry, wassailing, and abundant eating and drinking.” When gifts were given, they went from people of higher status to those lower on the social scale—from masters to servants, for example. December was a period of relative leisure, as the harvest was completed and food was still abundant. Christmas was also a time of sanctioned social inversion, when workers, servants, and peasants could demand special privileges from their superiors.

But gradually, over the course of the 19th century, Christmas became a domestic, family-oriented holiday. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum has argued (in his book The Battle for Christmas) that this change can be traced to the spread of wage labor and capitalist modes of production. For some urban workers, Christmas was just another day of work (think Bob Cratchit). For others, winter might well be a time of unemployment, as water-powered factories shut down until the spring thaw. “December’s leisure thus meant not relatively plenty but forced unemployment and want. The Christmas season, with its carnival traditions of wassail, misrule, and callithumpian ‘street theater,’ could easily become a vehicle of social protest, an instrument to express powerful ethnic or class resentments.”

A child-centered Victorian Christmas
To forestall this possibility, elites adopted new Christmas customs that moved celebrations inside the family circle. It was during this period that many of our current Christmas traditions were introduced: decorated trees, Christmas cards, Santa Claus—and presents for children. As it happened, understandings of childhood and the role of play were also changing during this period. Of course, playthings of various kinds—dolls, tops, marbles, and the like—had existed for centuries, but the idea that playing with toys was an essential part of a child’s development was a product of the late 18th century.

Portrait of the Edgeworth family by Adam Buck, 1787.
As the second oldest of a family of 22(!), Maria
had plenty of experience with children.
Joseph Wachelder points to the book Practical Education by Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, published in 1798, as a key moment in the history of toys and childhood. Edgeworth brought together two strands of thought on the nature of childhood: John Locke’s view of children as “blank slates” who could be shaped and guided by their parents, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s belief that children should be able to develop their natural character through self-directed experiences and play. Maria Edgeworth suggested that toys were the ideal medium through which parents could steer the education of their children. She argued that children “require to have things which exercise their senses of their imagination, their imitative and inventive powers.” Toys should not be expensive or too precious to be used, but should “invite play and discovery,” and if they were broken in the process, at least children would learn something about what was inside and how they worked.

A Chinese Puzzle, one of the toys advertised
in the Morning Chronicle, 1817
Wachelder’s study of the Morning Chronicle suggests that publishers and booksellers were some of the first businesses to jump on the Christmas toy bandwagon. Books, of course, were ideal Christmas presents, being both entertaining and educational, but publishers also soon began producing a variety of games and puzzles. Some of these, like “The Battle of Waterloo,” introduced in 1816, were clearly designed to capitalize on current events, while others tapped into the popular sciences of chemistry and astronomy (“Accum’s Chemical Amusement” promised that its experiments were “easily performed and unattended by danger”). Toys that produced optical illusions, such as kaleidoscopes and thaumatropes, were also very popular.

Over time, more and more toys would be available for purchase, thanks to technological developments and the continuing sentimentalization of childhood. By the second half of the 19th century, it was difficult for many people to imagine a Christmas that didn’t include toys. So as you’re out searching for Hatchimals this holiday season, remember that you are participating in a tradition that stretches back 200 years!


Joseph Wachelder, “Toys, Christmas Gifts, and Consumption Culture in London’s Morning Chronicle, 1800-1827,” Icon Vol. 19, Special Issue Playing with Technology: Sports and Leisure (2013), pp. 13-32

Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday (Vintage, 1997)

Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Practical Education (First American edition, 1801)


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