The popularization of new, middle-class conceptions of childhood as a period of life largely free of adult responsibilities helped create a consumer market for toys in the United States by the late 19th century. Urban department stores and specialty retailers met the growing demand for toys by stocking the latest imported and domestically-manufactured playthings. Some amusements—such as Milton Bradley’s enormously successful board game The Checkered Game of Life (1860), which encouraged players to avoid temptations like idleness and intemperance on their path to wealth and success—carried strong moral lessons; others were designed purely for fun. Animated clockwork toys from Germany—whose subjects included running animals, oarsmen rowing boats, boys riding velocipedes, and, later, automated suffragettes—joined simple, less-expensive, offerings from American manufactures such as dolls, wood blocks, and vehicles or figures cast in iron or tin. Despite the popularity of animated toys, however, some observers warned these toys risked robbing children of the chance to exercise their own imaginations. Popular children’s novelist Kate Wiggin, for example, argued that the “more imagination and cleverness the inventor has put into the toy, the less room there is for the child’s imagination and cleverness and genius.”

The American toy industry remained small throughout the nineteenth century, but its fortunes brightened considerably in subsequent decades as increasing prosperity and a general trend to more indulgent parenting styles helped foster year-round demand for toys. Manufacturers maintained close ties with retailers to gauge changing consumer tastes, advertising budgets swelled, and toy makers adopted modern production methods. These developments, coupled with boycotts of German-made goods during the First World War, allowed the U.S. toy industry to expand some 1,300 percent between 1905 and 1920.

In the early decades of the 20th century, toys reflected a widespread public fascination for science and technology, while at the same time reinforced social norms concerning genderappropriate play. Girls, for example, received dolls, kitchen sets, and other child-sized domestic technologies to socialize them as future homemakers, while boys got construction toys, tools chests, and scientific-oriented offerings like chemistry outfits, toy microscopes, and wireless radio sets. An entire category of ‘career-oriented’ toys promised to train young minds and hands for the modern world. The success of Erector (pictured abaove right), created by the A.C. Gilbert Co. in 1913, placed Connecticut—which was also home to model train maker, the Ives Company—at the center of the American toy industry, and, more significantly, helped spur innovations in child-centered advertising. Inspiring boys to aspire to engineering careers remained constant. In the wake of Charles A. Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight in 1927, the American Boy magazine established the Airplane Model League of America—a nationwide club for boys sponsored, in part, by the Ford Motor Co.—to encourage boys’ dreams of aviation industry careers. Similarly, the Fisher Body Company sponsored an annual model-making contest from 1930 onward for teenage boys with an eye on training future generations of car designers. During the Cold War, the popularity of model rocketry clubs nationwide fueled young visions of exploring space.

Innovations in modern computing crept into toy design in the 1970s. In 1972, for example, Magnavox released ‘Odyssey,’ the first home video game system and a precursor to more advanced systems by Atari, Nintendo, and X-box, and in 1978, Texas Instruments developed the first toy to utilize a computer chip, the Speak and Spell, a learning toy replete with a speech synthesizer. Interestingly, the development of the multi-billion dollar video game industry— as well as efforts to incorporate wearable computing, like those from Valve (pictured right) and Google glasses—has only renewed debates about the player’s passivity and lack of creativity that first arose in the 19th century.


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  1. The Eli Whitney Museum's Gilbert Project contains photographs, images, and other materials relating to the history of the A. C. Gilbert Co., maker of Erector and other educational toys.
  2. "Mobilizing Minds: Teaching Math and Science in the Age of Sputnik," online exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History marking the 50th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik.
  3. British historian Ralph Harrington provides a thought-provoking look at the model railroad hobby in Great Britain. <pdf>