Toys: A Parade From The American Past

The beauty of a good toy is that it picks out the really important things: Oarsmen who actually row, for instance, or the steamer’s great walking beam, or a good loud bell on the train. Imagination does the rest. Any boy knows that. A toy is very like a primitive painting, a crude imitation of life; yet for all that a very shrewd glimpse at it too, for the collection we exhibit here is a kind of push-pull pageant of American history.

Here was a bonanza for the wildly fortune few; toys were scarcer then, and expected to last. For action, we have a tin-horse hoop, and for good shattering noise, a drum. Among the toys of peace there is a jack-in-the-box, ideal for scaring sisters, and a panorama show to be cranked past eyes unused to television. One might tire early of the “Exprefs” company wagon. or the too-trickly marble game, or even the wind-up dancers, but the peddler’s cart, hung with all those doodads, would last for years.

Proud, maternal Emma Clark, doll in hand, was painted by an unknown artist. Year? About 1830. Girls have loved dolls since civilization began; Queen Victoria had some, unlikely as it seems, and so did the Egyptians. They turn up in tombs. Americans have made them out of everything: rag, chicken bones, wood, wax, even corncobs. Sometimes they come in instructive groups; see the one-room schoolhouse. Do right and fear nothing! say the mottoes, in three languages.

Let’s pretend, says the child to himself, and all the rest follows. The toy can be superb, of course, like this French mechanical clown, who bends and twists and balances, a circus all by himself. More likely, however, it is simple, and just turns, like the little tin merry-go-round above. But to the child it is the Thing That Moves by Itself, full of all the magic and excitement with which the young mind clothes the great world outside.