The DAR Museum celebrates childhood of the past with a playful exhibition of late 19th- and early 20th - century toys. “Return to Toyland,” which runs from October 3, 2008 through February 28, 2009, features antique toys from the DAR Museum collection, remarkable precursors to the abundance of toy varieties we see today. On display are dolls and doll houses, military and vehicular toys, games and stuffed animals. The exhibition also gives a glimpse into the beginning of the commercialization of Christmas and how it played a role in the evolution and popularity of toys.
Today, dolls come in so many varieties that many encourage little girls to grow up to be whatever they want, whether it’s a rock star or an astronaut. Dolls during the turn of the century, however, were mostly geared toward giving little girls good practice for the childcare skills most of them would need as mothers. The exhibition features various cloth, porcelain, and papier-mâché dolls as well as paper dolls and their different wardrobe changes.
Boys also had toys assigned to them by social convention. Soldiers and weapons were favorites in the early part of the 20th century, and even before Thomas the Tank Engine, little boys loved toy trains and cars. On display are even toy carriages and horse-drawn carts, which were popular play items before other forms of transportation were invented.
For the most part, early toys were very gender-based, but little kids naturally liked many of the same things. A majority of the toys from the late 19th and early 20th centuries were miniatures of objects from the adult world. The exhibition features beautiful examples of doll houses as well as a miniature theater, fire station, barn and even an outhouse.
Early childhood games could also cross gender lines. Turn of the century optical toys like the zoetrope were precursors to movies and entertained boys and girls alike. A wide variety of board games, some based on current events and characters like Nellie Bly, started to become popular around this time.
Stuffed animals, that seem so ever-present today, were actually latecomers to the toy world. The Teddy Bear came on the scene in about 1903, soon after President Teddy Roosevelt famously spared a bear cub during one of his hunting trips. In addition to stuffed bears and monkeys, on display is a riding toy elephant circa 1904 affectionately named “Jumbo.”
Now, it is customary to see TV reports of lines outside Toys “R” Us and parents on their worst behavior at the start of Christmas season shopping. However, commercialization of Christmas began in the late 1800s, with store owners and toy manufacturers helping to convert a formerly modest celebration into a child-centered extravaganza of gift-giving. The exhibition takes a look at this phenomenon and displays antique ornaments and other Christmas paraphernalia.
While toys have certainly changed and multiplied dramatically in the past 100 years, their roots are evident in the toys of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors to “Return to Toyland,” old and young alike, can reminisce about the toys they once played with as well as marvel at the striking similarities and differences of these antique toys to the toys of today.