The History of Toys Throughout the Ages

By Amanda Roland

Toys have come a long way. Just as our society advances, so do the toys and games that entertain our children. With Christmas coming, we took at look at the history of toys throughout the ages.

The Early Years 

The history of toys dates back centuries. In early civilizations, there were two main types of toys that children played with. Some were meant purely for fun, like balls or yo-yos. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “the earliest-known written historical mention of a toy comes from about 500 BC in a Greek reference to yo-yos made from wood, metal or painted terra-cotta.” Another stringed toy, the kite, appeared in China or Indonesia between 400 BC and 1000 BC, according to National Geographic. Not only were kites considered toys, but they would also later serve as military tools and lead to the discovery of aircrafts! 

On the other hand, some toys were meant to replicate tools, weapons or living things. When children had time to play, which was rare, they would mimic the things they saw their parents doing in everyday life. Different styles of baby dolls and wooden swords have been discovered by historians, and they were most likely made out of sticks, bones, stones and string. Also, many figurines made to look like different animals were discovered. 

The Indus-toy-al Revolution

From early civilization to the 18th century, the toy scene changed slightly as civilizations progressed around the world. A cousin of chess was created in India and playing cards were introduced in Asia. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that toys began to boom – thanks to the Industrial Revolution. 

The Industrial Revolution brought great gains to America. A boom in technology allowed for great inventions like the spinning jenny that helped the textile industry. The factory system was created, allowing for more efficient production of goods. And yes, these goods included toys! This is an important part of toy history, as toy production became quicker and cheaper, making toys more accessible to more children. Gone were the days of handmade toys. Hello to factory-made BB guns, puzzles and baby dolls! And at the end of the 1800s, we see the first plastic toys being made from something called celluloid. 

Plastic Makes Perfect 

Moving into the 1900s, we see many of the toys that we know and love today like Mattel, Inc.’s famous Barbie, model airplanes and the ever popular LEGO® set emerge, all thanks to an interesting compound referred to as plastic. This material was cheap (because it is made from oil), easy to produce and lightweight. Also, the moldability of plastic was perfect for mass production, as thousands of toys could be made from one mold. That is how model airplanes and LEGO® sets gained their popularity in the ‘40s. 

“With advancement in plastic and synthetic textiles, dolls hit their mass-market stride in 1959 when Mattel’s Barbie – an 11-inch incarnation of a ‘teenage fashion model’ – made her debut in a swimsuit, and a choice of two hair colors,” according to National Geographic. Barbie was accompanied by Ken in 1961, and then the (slightly more muscular) G.I. Joe came about in 1964. Barbie is still popular and is now available in many ethnicities, careers and sizes! According to Statista, Barbie products sold to the tune of 1.35 billion dollars in 2020! 

Tech Toy Uprising 

As we approach the end of the 20th century, we see a huge advancement in technology. The first personal computer was taking shape in 1974 followed by the release of the revolutionary Atari 2600 gaming console in 1977. We witness an early version of the internet in 1983, followed by the introduction of the eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (the NES) to the U.S. just two years later! Children (and adults alike) could play games like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda comfortably at home, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Nintendo followed the success of their original NES console with the release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1990), the Nintendo 64 (1996), Nintendo GameCube (2001), Nintendo Wii (2006) and currently with the versatile Nintendo Switch (2017). 

In addition to the Atari and Nintendo brands, we see the emergence of other popular gaming systems – from the early success of game designer Sega with their Master System (1986), Sega Genesis (1989), Sega Saturn (1995) and Sega Dreamcast (1999), followed by the more contemporary consoles from Sony named PlayStation (introducted in 1995) and just a few years later, Microsoft introduced their XBOX in 2001. 

The Future of Toys 

Toys will continue to evolve with changing times and lifestyles. According to the Toy Association, there are some toy trends we can expect to see on the horizon. 

Socially Conscious Toys 

Society is becoming increasingly focused on social responsibility and the toys of the future will too. A focus on eco-friendly toys and packaging, culturally diverse toys, endangered species stuffed animals, STEAM toys that showcase renewable energy sources, farm-to-table themed toys and items that acknowledge frontline workers are expected to hit the shelves. 

Family Play 

Many families rediscovered play between parents and children through additional time together during the pandemic. Connecting in this way was meaningful for many families and toymakers will provide new options that are entertaining for multiple generations. 

Wellness and Mental Health 

Toys that promote social and emotional learning and interaction within families will be big in helping children process their feelings. Fidget toys and toys that encourage mindfulness and self-care habits will be hot on the market with the increased awareness of the importance of mental health. 

Feel the Beat 

Music is popular across all generations and genres. Look for more toys that incorporate creative ways to connect with music, including screen-free audio players, music related to social media platforms and traditional musical toys and instruments. 

Artificial Intelligence 

According to CNBC, toys featuring artificial intelligence will continue to grow in the market. While these toys have amazing potential as interactive objects, some families have concerns about the data collected. Research any toys of interest and decide what is right for your family. 

Every new decade brings the next best toys. Looking forward, we can expect children’s toys to advance as technology advances. Look out for toys that incorporate Virtual Reality, Smart gadgets and lots of electronics. But, let’s not forget about these old reliable toys that helped us get here. Yo-yos, kites and baby dolls can still put a smile on our kiddos’ faces, and that’s all that matters. 

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