TOYS: Bringing All Sorts of Joys

Collection of Vintage Toys - photo by Hemswell Antique Centres

A Brief History of Toys and Games

Play and toys have always been integral to the development of children. This is true today as it was in the countless generations before us, perhaps as far back to the beginnings of known civilisation. For as long as there are children, there would be playing and, by extension, toys.

Assortment of toys – photo by Vanessa Bucceri | Unsplash

Toys, however, are not the exclusive province of children. Even as adults, people still find them fascinating, perhaps no longer as playthings but as tokens from childhood, nostalgia pieces, memorabilia, and even collectables. It is because of the last reason why the collectors’ market for toys, especially vintage toys, has become quite lucrative. In fact, toys from bygone days can command very hefty prices.

In this piece, we will look into the history of toys. We will explore which toys became popular in the past 200 years, which ones have stood the test of time, and which ones have become prized collector’s pieces. To start, we must first ask: What makes an item a toy?

What is a Toy?

A toy is an item that can be used for play. This definition can be a bit misleading because, if you think about it, any item used in play can be considered a toy whether it was created for such purpose or not. In all probability, the very first toy ever used (and still in use today) was probably a simple stick.

Ancient toy throwing stick from Egypt, Africa found by William Matthew Flinders Petrie – photo by Pitt Rivers Museum

The true origin of toys, however, are lost to us in prehistory, and we only know that they existed then because archaeologists have found in various archaeological sites dolls and simulations of tools that are too small to be used by adults. Even the origin of the word toy is not clearly known, although it could have originated from the old Dutch word which meant tool or utensil. If it is its true origin, then it is an apt word indeed as toys really are tools used for the development of a child into adulthood.

The first time the word toy was used to refer to playthings were probably during the 16th century, but not just to refer to playthings specifically. The word also alluded to tawdry objects like buttons and buckles and such other items. It was also probably during this period that the notion of toys as inexpensive and unimportant objects that are played with by children started.

Toys Throughout the Ages

The following is a rough timeline of when some toys of note appeared, certain events that happened throughout history, and how they changed or evolved toys into what we know as toys today. We shall also point out certain types of toys and their makers that became popular during their time and those sought after by collectors and enthusiasts nowadays.

The Early Period

Toys have been a part of every civilisation that came to be, and a number of these toys survived up to the present day. They are still played with and enjoyed by today’s children now in one form or another. The following are some examples:

Ancient Egyptian marbles – photo by RMO Leiden | Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Babylonians were playing a board game that greatly resembled the game of chess or checkers as early as 4000 BC.

Around 3000 BC, ancient Egyptians were playing with marbles made of stone and dolls made from clay.

By 1000 BC, the Chinese already were flying kites. Two millennia later, they invented the precursor to the modern playing cards.

In 600 BC, the people of India were playing a board game which was a direct predecessor to the modern chess game.

Dice in one form or another has existed for thousands of years but became popular during the Roman Era.

The 1700s

Tarpley’s Store – photo by Dave Doody | The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

At this point, it is important to note that the concept of play as we understand it today is a fairly new concept. Before the 18th century, play and toys were mostly the exclusive privileges of the rich and elite. Children from low-income families did not have the luxury of play, as they also needed to earn a living. Even if they did have the time, they didn’t have the kind of toys that the rich people had.

This all changed, however, with the coming of the Age of Enlightenment. There was a change in how children were thought of and treated. While they were only considered as part of the household before, children were now thought of as individuals whose welfare and happiness were responsibilities of their parents. Children were now allowed and even encouraged to play. This led to more toys being produced, although not by much.

Wooden Doll, c. 1770–1775 – photo by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Toys during this era were handmade and often one-of-a-kind. Production was slow, and costs were so high that many didn’t even consider paying that much money for something that is considered as a bauble. The children still made do, often playing with things that they could get their hands on easily or, if they were lucky, a parent would make a toy for him or her. They still had to work though. That wouldn’t change for a while yet.

If you were to find antique toys from this era, most of them would be unique and handmade. The common toys during this period were dolls which were made of wood. The hobby horse also made its first appearance during this century. Stick horses were also fairly common. Most toys introduced in the 18th century would still be produced and played with into the 1800s and beyond.

The 1800s

The 19th century came with better production methods and materials for toys. While toys were being made mostly out of wood in the previous century, the 1800s saw the adding of tin plate, lead, and cast iron to mix. In the 1850s, toy manufacturing boomed. In the US alone, there were 47 toy companies registered with the census and many unregistered ones. Toys have become a viable and profitable commodity.

Toys From The 1800’s – photo by eBaum’s World

The most significant contribution of the 19th century to toy manufacturing and toys, however, was the industrial revolution. With the industry in full swing and new production methods implemented year after year, toys were finally mass-produced. Not only that, toymakers can now produce more complex toys, which they did.

Puzzles and Educational Toys

The jigsaw puzzle was first introduced in the late 1700s but became popular in the early 1800s. This was due to technological advances made in printing on paper that made the production of said toys more viable. Children and even adults at the time loved playing with the puzzles because, not only was it a fun pastime, it was also considered educational.

Zoetrope, c. 1900 – photo by LiveAuctioneers

By the 1870s, changes in the educational system would see more toys being used to educate schoolchildren. Abacuses were introduced into schools. Although not technically a toy, it can and does function as one.

The zoetrope also became quite popular at this time. The zoetrope was a device that used a sequence of drawings that, when viewed through the toy, would give the illusion of movement. It was, in its essence, a motion picture device that existed long before motion pictures became a thing. The toy version of the zoetrope was introduced in the 1860s by Milton Bradley.

Card, Tile and Board Games

The Mansion of Happiness (1843) – photo by Wikipedia

Several games were also produced during the early part of the 19th century. Modern playing cards, dominoes, and other such games were widely available, although they appealed more to adults than to children. However, a board game that was much more suited to children was much later in the century. It was called The Mansion of Happiness.

Toy Train and Railway Systems

With the crisscrossing of railways all over Europe and its rapid development in America, it was inevitable that the toy train would become popular in the mid-1800s. The very first toy trains that came out were quite crude. They mostly made from wood or cast iron and were just pull toys. As the years went by, the trains became more sophisticated. They added tracks for the trains and then automated the movement of the trains, first through clockwork and then later by electric motors.

General Motors EMD F7 HO scale diesel locomotive with original box by Marklin Trains – photo by Trains and Toy Soldiers

The German toy company Marklin used to specialise in the creation of accessories for dollhouses. It soon ventured into producing and selling model railways and became quite good at it. In some countries, the name Marklin is synonymous to toy railways. Marklin would create its own railway system and would dominate the toy train market well into the 20th century. It survives up to this day. In 2007, it acquired Lehmann Gross Bahn, which is another company that also creates toy trains.

In the US, another company will make toy train systems that became quite popular. The company’s name was Lionel, although this particular company began its operations in the 20th century.


While dolls have been around since pre-historic times, it was only in the 1800s that they became mass-produced commercially. As the century progressed, merchants and manufacturers began to see children not just as a part of the household they belong to, but as outright consumers themselves. The dolls that were produced during this time ranged from the very affordable paper dolls to the highly collectable and highly prized bisque dolls. Accessories for dolls were also a hit, with companies selling anything from clothing to fully furnished dollhouses.

Tinplate and Clockwork Toys

Rare Vintage Tinplate Toy Car, French Race Car Red – photo by Etsy

With the invention of the metal sheet stamping machines in the early 1800s, toys made from tinplate slowly replaced wooden toys. Tinplate toys were less labour-extensive and easier to make, so a lot made of them were produced in the 1800s and into the next century. The most common of these toys were probably tinplate cars, trains, boats and even figures. Some toymakers added springs and clockwork machinery in these toys, making them move by themselves.

Toy Guns

Mattel Shootin Shell .45 Cap Gun – photo by Vintage Toy Cap Guns

In America, the end of the civil war created some problems for several companies that were producing weapons and ammunition. With the war over, the demand for these products almost disappeared. To stay afloat, they retooled their machines and started creating toy guns instead. What they created was the cap gun. These toy guns used the same exploding caps that the real guns used, but they did not shoot projectiles. Instead, they just made a loud bang. By the late 1800s, the cap gun was a must-have for young boys. The cap guns came in various designs, from replicas of real guns to those that look nothing like real guns.

Another toy gun that became quite popular was the BB Gun, which shot small pellets. It was almost like a real gun because it did fire projectiles, albeit very small ones and at a low velocity.

The 1900s

When the 20th Century came along, the toy industry was on an all-time high. Mass production was in full swing, driving the cost of production down. And with it, the price of toys also went down.

The Depression and World War II

A collection of children’s toys from World War 2 – photo by NEN Gallery

This upswing did not last long, however. Certain events in the early half of the century threatened to derail and even shut down the industry. The first one was the Great Depression in the US. With the US economy in a freefall and multitudes of people unemployed, most had no money for food much fewer toys. The other event was the coming of World War II. With most of the raw materials, including those used in toy manufacture, being redirected to the war effort, most toy manufacturers quickly ran out of raw materials.

Post War Boom and the Introduction of Plastic

With the end of the Second World War, toy manufacturing went back to business. This time though, they had a new material to work with: Plastic. The material was introduced before the war, but it was only after that it was fully used in toy production. The material proved quite durable and its use would usher in a deluge of new toys made from it.

Video Games

Video Game Consoles – photo by RealGear

Within the last quarter of the century, a new kind of toy would make its appearance: the video game. When it first came out, it could only be played in arcades, then into people’s houses via home consoles, then later, in handheld devices. The coming of the video game again changed the way people played and it’s changing it still.

The Rise of Merchandising

Toy Lines Of The ’80s – photo by BuzzFeed

By the 1980s, another shift in the toy business occurred, and its name was merchandising. Merchandising was not a new concept in the 1980s. It started in the 1930s with Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat, two fictional characters which were so adored by their fans that selling toy versions of them became very profitable. In the 1980s, however, it would be so much bigger. The first thing that happened was Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back. While no connected merchandise was available during the first movie, there were toys available for the second one and the fans of the movies bought them up.

The second occurrence was a change in the broadcast laws in the US prohibiting the selling of merchandise connected to any show. When that happened, every Saturday morning cartoon became a commercial for a toy, and the children watching the shows also bought the associated toys.

Collectable and Playable

1000+ Magic the Gathering MTG Cards Vintage Mixed Lot with 100 Rares – photo by UltimateMTG

The 1990s saw the introduction of collectable card games, where players would gather and build decks and pit them against an opponent’s customised deck. Card games with names like Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, and Yu-Gi-Oh soon became a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Toys of the 20th Century

The Replica Toy

As with the train and railroad toys in the previous century, it was inevitable that a smaller version intended for children often followed technology innovations. The invention of the car brought about a toy version, the same with the airplane. When space exploration started in the latter half of the century, toy versions of the rockets also followed. These toys ranged from simplified versions to exact replicas that can move or even fly.

Building Blocks and Developmental Toys

Another kind of toy that was introduced in this century was the building toys. That is toys that are made up of various pieces that can be joined together to make another toy.

One of the best examples of this is Lincoln Logs, invented by the son of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is the precursor of all the other building block toys. Made up of small shaped wooden blocks, Lincoln Logs can be stacked together to create a replica of a log cabin.

A big pile of assorted Lego bricks – photo by Vox

The Erector Set had a similar concept to Lincoln Logs but allowed users to create more complex objects. The Erector Set was made of various metal beams that can be connected using nuts and bolts.

In 1932, the Danish company Lego introduced its distinctive multicoloured building blocks. Legos were plastic blocks of various shapes and sizes that interlock seamlessly. This toy is so versatile that you can, in theory, make anything you wish out of the blocks. Almost a century on, it remains a popular toy, not just for kids but for collectors as well.

Board Games

Vintage Monopoly Game, Early 1960s version – photo by Etsy

While board games first became popular in the previous century, there came a resurgence within the first half of the 1900s. The board game Monopoly was introduced during the Depression and soon became a hit.

Soon after, other board games emerged and became popular as well. They followed the success of Monopoly, although they did not quite exceed it. Collectors should watch out for vintage and limited-edition versions of board games. However, they need to be in good condition to fetch a good price.


Black & White Bathing Suit Barbie, the first Barbie doll – photo by Gemr

In 1956, the toy company Mattel introduced a new kind of lifelike doll, which was an instant success. While Barbies used to be quite uniform and only differed in terms of accessories, the past decade has seen newer, more diverse versions of these dolls. Barbie, and her male version Ken, often comes with a range of apparel and other themed accessories. Today, at least three Barbie dolls are sold each second around the world.

Action Figures

In 1965, toy manufacturer Hasbro tried an experiment to see if they can sell dolls to boys. They released the G.I. Joe toys, a line made up of dolls dressed up as military men. The young boys at the time loved the toys and thus began the creation of action figures for the young male market. Soon after, other toy companies would release their own lines of action figures, mostly of characters from cartoons, comics and movies that were popular at the time.

Vintage Style 12″ GI Joe Figures – photo by Sideshow Freaks

Not Just for Children

On an interesting note, the latter third of the 1900s saw a new kind of consumer for toys and toy-related products: the adult collector. While people did collect toys before, the toy market now actively markets to adult buyers. Plus, this century saw an increasing demand for antique and vintage toys. Toys are no longer just for kids anymore, and they aren’t just for play.