How did children play?, part 1

Have you ever wondered how children in the first half of the 20th century played? Are the basic ways children play any different today than back then? With all the technological changes in the 21st century, one would think that is a “Duh” question. Yet, I still wondered what the difference might be if I cruised through the decades of the 20th century for awhile. So, this is what I found out.

Much of the way children played depended on their country of origin. In the early 1900s immigration continued in full swing in spite of the restrictions put on the number of immigrants allowed in the US. From the late 1800s through the 1920s mass immigration had it greatest impact.

By 1960, the children of immigrants formed 20 percent of the potential electorate (U.S. Census Bureau 1965:8). They brought with them their faith whether Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant, family values, political views, and daily family life that evolved into the diverse American society we have today. The Statue of Liberty actually became the national symbol of a nation of immigrants.

The children of these immigrant families also brought their toys and ways of playing to our American neighborhoods. Toys were not only chosen on the basis of gender and family of origin, but were shared among the growing American population. Prior to the 1900s, children did not have many toys. Those few they had were precious to them and came in all shapes and sizes . . . such as ball and ball games such as Knurr and Spell, a distance ball hitting game. Another one was Battledore & Shuttlecock, an outdoor game played since the earliest American Settlements; and an ancestor to both modern badminton and table tennis. Then add rolling hoops, dolls, dominoes, and drums, just to mention a few that have followed us to today.

Many new toys were invented in the 20th century. Plasticine was invented in 1897 by William Harbutt. After patent of 1915, the Harbutt company promoted Plasticine as a children’s toy by producing modeling kits associated with popular children’s characters. Frank Hornby of the UK invented a toy called Meccano, a construction kit initially known as “Mechanics Made Easy.” In the United States, a competitive toy with a similar play pattern was launched in 1913 under the Erector Set brand, later purchased by the Meccano company.

Other popular toys in the early 20th century were tin cars, train sets, and soft toys such as teddy bears. Certain toys reflected the real world in miniature, encouraging children to create social roles. Teddy bears took their name from Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919), president of the United States, from a story that one day Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear he was offered during a hunt.

Then came the Crayons, invented by Edwin Binney and Harold Smith, who owned a paint company in New York City. Crayons were first marketed as Crayola crayons in 1903 and were an instant success. Then there were children’s books. In most homes in the early 20th century, only printed material with a religious theme were available in the home, along with a few textbooks and volumes. By the 1940s children book titles abounded with biographies of saints, heroes, model children, conservative tales, and novels with a moral to the story. Then came adventure series.

We need to keep in mind that in the early 1900s children generally slept in the same room as their parents or shared a bedroom (and bed) with their siblings. Children also worked with their families either on farms, factories, or doing a multiple number of tasks at home before and after school. Some even never went to school but were taught the basics at home. Some children as young as eight years old worked in coal mines. Yet, games played an important part in coal camp life during the 1920s and 30s. Most of these families were poor. Although they may have had a few “store-bought” games or toys, the children made the best of what they had with their imagination.

As the decades moved along and after World War II, many families’ lives improved financially and moved into larger houses, sometimes with a room for each child. Most all children stayed in school longer and didn’t work as much at home as in the first half of the 20th century.
So you can imagine when children of the early 20th century had a chance to play, they did so with gusto with the precious few toys they had in their possession. This is something to think about in the 21st century. How much room do your kids really need and how many toys do they say they “need” to fill their space and occupy their time?

How do all those toys enhance their imagination and social development? The next article will cover children’s play and toys of the second half of the 20th century. In the meantime, give this book a try . . . Children at Play, An American History by Howard P. Chudacoff.