In Toy Land: Glimpses of
A Great Industry

dropcap_one has to go very far back in the world’s history to arrive at the time when there were absolutely no toys. Indeed, one may feel tolerably certain that as soon as the children arrived, toys—rough, rude things, no doubt, but still playthings—began to appear upon the scene. It is curious, too, to notice how the same kinds have been the delight of childish hearts for hundreds and hundreds of years. Leather balls stuffed with wool have been found in the tombs of Egyptian mummies, side by side with jointed dolls and quaint little crocodiles that had not forgotten how to move their jaws. Down in the catacombs, among the resting-places of the early Christians, searchers have come across hoops, tops, marbles, and even the miniature furniture of a doll’s house. The youthful owners of these playthings lay buried close by. We know that the boys of ancient Greece and Rome had ninepins and rocking-horses; nor was our genial friend, the Jack-in-the-box, a stranger to them. Kites probably came to us from China, where kite-flying was a national amusement for young and old; while even grown-up people played at battledore and shuttlecock in the reign of James I., and Oxford students at marbles. But it was not until modern times that toy-making became a flourishing branch of industry. Toy-breaking, as we all know, goes on steadily in the nurseries of Europe; and to fill up the gaps, toys are being turned out yearly in almost incredible quantities. The small autocrats of nursery-land continually call for “more, more,” and in all sorts of out-of-the-way places, in the dark forests of Thuringia, or some distant Tyrolean village, children not much older are gravely helping to manufacture playthings. They begin as soon as their chubby fingers can grasp a knife; and they end—well, when quite old men and women, too blind perhaps to see whether the cow they are carving has three legs or four.

Original illustration of German toymakers as published in the original Victorian era publication. Click for a closer look.

There are whole regions where every single family is engaged in toymaking. In the summer months the men and women work on the farms, but the long dark winter finds them all with legions of wooden soldiers, fleets of Noah’s arks, whips, rattles, and dolls by the gross. You must not imagine that each toy is made by a single person; even one that you might buy for a penny at a German fair has probably passed through a dozen different hands. Here is one costing that noble sum; a neat little man wheeling a barrow of fruit. One workman turned the body, a second the arms and legs, a third put the barrow together, a fourth turned the wheel, a fifth put the spokes in, and a sixth the linch pin. A seventh turned the fruit, an eighth made the basket to put it in, while a ninth coloured it. Number ten painted the barrow, and passed it over to eleven, who glued the whole together, while twelve gave it a final varnish. It is this minute division of labour that makes it possible to buy a penny toy for a penny; a small price truly when one recollects that the completed articles have to be packed and conveyed hundreds of miles by rail and sea before they appear in the toy-shop. Even when you know all about it, you still wonder how it can possibly be done at the price. A large and flourishing tribe of toy-makers is to be found among the mountains of the Tyrol, in a most romantic and beautiful spot. The centre of the trade is the village of St. Ulrich, but wherever one wanders, one has a vision of toys. Even the girl selling apples and pears at a stall by the roadside, employs her spare minutes in putting little dabs of bright red paint on the cheeks of a pile of farthing dolls. To-morrow she will give them all black eyes, red shoes, and white stockings; and for this she gets a farthing a dozen, finding her own paint. If you enter into conversation with her, she will tell you with pride that her father carves horses; and that her brother can make a more life-like goat than any other youth in his workshop. Every description of animal is manufactured in and around St. Uhlrich, and it is very curious and interesting to watch the Tyrolese at work. They use no models, but follow what is familiarly known as the rule-of-thumb; and from long practice a Tyrolean thumb knows perfectly well what it is about. In a large workshop, such as is represented in our illustration, most of the lads have their special department. Some block out the animals roughly, others make the stands; one boy, more advanced, has a turn for camels and elephants, another can carve a most natural-looking cow, a third is a splendid hand at sheep. Hans sticks to the glue-pot, and little Peter has charge of the varnish. Painting and gilding is quite a distinct branch of the trade, and our young carvers have nothing at all to do with that. Formerly each family worked for itself, but now there are two important toy merchants in St. Ulrich, who purchase all the wares of the neighbourhood, and send them out into the world. It is mostly on Saturday that baskets of toys come streaming down the mountain paths, the result of the week’s labour; and a visit to one of the monster warehouses makes one gasp with astonishment. Your brain almost reels at the sight of so many toys-dolls by the billion, piled-up bins of quadrupeds, uncountable flocks of sheep, Noah and his family repeated again and again, horses by the million, heaps upon heaps of gaily-painted cocks, and so on through dozens of rooms. The dolls are carefully sorted, and you may seem them of every size, from one inch long to a yard. A doll that is very popular is one only a couple of inches in length; of this size the owner of the warehouse buys 30,000 every week. A quick worker can turn out twenty dozen a day, but division of labour steps in here too. You will find a family that devoted its undivided attention to dolls’ arms and legs; their neighbours across the road make dolls’ heads and bodies, and nothing else; a third family will gladly undertake to paint the whole batch for an extremely small sum. We are acquainted with this class of inexpensive lady under the name of “Dutch doll”—our great grandmothers called her a “Flanders baby”; this was because German toys were imported into England by way of Rotterdam. The pattern dolly, it is said, originally came from Japan, and the queer little old specimen is preserved as a curiosity in the museum at the Hague. The Dutch must be given credit for inventing the crying doll; but if you want a very superior, highly finished article, you must come to London for it. Cheap dolls are imported, but the best waxen beauties, with lovely blue eyes and real flaxen curls, are English to the last grain of sawdust in their bodies. Here in London you may find dolls’ head makers, dolls’ leg and arm makers, wig makers, and eye makers; doll stuffers and doll dressers. Dolls’ glass eyes are manufactured in most surprising quantities; the cheaper ones are simply small hollow beads made of white enamel, and coloured with black or blue; the better ones have a ring of color to represent the iris. There is a fashion in color as well as in other things, and it is stated that since Queen Victoria came to the throne dolls with blue eyes have been the most popular. It is interesting to know that England and America take more toys than any other countries. Most of the enormous packing cases, large enough for a cottage piano, to be seen in St. Ulrich will eventually find their way to one of these two shores. Some of them will be full of rocking-horses, for there is a manufacturer living close to the stream that dashes through the valley who turns out at least a thousand gallant steeds a year by the aid of machinery and water power. You cannot mistake his shop, for a white rocking horse is painted above it. Young England is partial to horses and dolls, but young Italy prefers little carts and wagons, and these must be gaily painted, too, to please his taste for bright colours. Belgian boys clamour for sturdy farm horses, but young Austrians care more for prancing, curvetting steeds, such as a soldier might ride. The national spirit peeps out even here. Metal toys mostly hail from Nuremburg, which produces miniature printing presses, magic lanterns, and all sorts of magnetic playthings, such as ducks and fish, running mice, and the like. Conjuring tricks in bewildering variety are made here, for this is the particular territory of Signor Hocus Pocus; also whole armies of the leaden soldiers that so delight German boys, and English ones, too, for that matter. Six miles away lies Furth, a town given up to Noah’s arks, dissected puzzles, boxes of bricks, and the like. Clockwork toys are made in Wurtemberg, and from Hesse Cassel come helmets, guns, and swords. It is really marvelous how many people are hard at work, year in year out, making playthings which are destined often to be broken and tossed away after a few hours. Perhaps our younger brothers and sisters would take better care of their poor ill-treated toys if they knew a little more of their interesting history.

By Sheila, Published in Young England, an Illustrated Magazine for Boys, 1897

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