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Children's Games in the 20th Century

By Nathalie Lampron

Whether they realize it or not, adults naturally tend to choose toys for their children that reflect their own values as well as dominant social trends. Throughout much of the 20th century, boys were given toy cars, building sets and space ships, while girls were offered dolls and miniature kitchen appliances. Toys were a way to accustom children to the roles they would assume in the adult world.

Over the past 30 years the gender distinctions reflected in toys have begun to change. Starting in the 1960s the women's movement argued that girls were growing up with limited career ambitions because of the toys they played with as children. Likewise, as they see their fathers taking an increasingly active role in childcare, little boys tend to be more interested in "playing house." Ultimately, children themselves have always insisted on keeping their play options open, and today's marketing mavens have responded enthusiastically by packaging toys and games of all kinds for both sexes.

Popular games

Certain toys reproduce the real world in miniature, encouraging children to try out different social roles, consciously or unconsciously. For example, some toys from the early 1900s allowed youngsters to play at being a choir boy, altar boy or priest, tasks that only males were allowed to perform in the Catholic Church.

Teddy bears
The first teddy bears, cuddly and realistic looking creatures, were made in Germany around the turn of the 20th century. They took their name from Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1858-1919), president of the United States, who one day refused to shoot a bear he was offered during a hunt.

Crayons were invented by Edwin Binney and Harold Smith, who owned a paint company in New York City. They combined paraffin wax with different pigments to create inexpensive art supplies. First marketed as Crayola crayons in 1903, they were an instant success!

Children's books
The content and availability of children's books have changed enormously over the past one hundred years. In the early 20th century books with religious themes were often the only printed material available in the home, perhaps along with a few textbooks and volumes imported from Europe or the United States. By the 1940s there was a proliferation of titles aimed at children -- biographies of saints, heroes and model children; conservative and rather moralistic tales and novels; and, later, adventure series.
After a slump in the early 1970s, children's literature truly took off. Books ran the gamut from highly colourful storybooks to realistic, fantasy and humorous novels and books based on children's favourite television shows.

Barbie fashion dolls, created by Ruth Handler, an American, arrived in stores in 1959. These dolls, with their highly curvaceous figures, were aimed at the pre-teen set and gave girls lots to dream about. Barbie had all sorts of jobs and came with accessories of all kinds, from furniture, to vans, cars, swimming pools and bicycles. The personification of the perfect consumer! And then there were Barbie's little sister, all her friends and her boyfriend, Ken.

A play space in the home

In the early 1900s, children generally slept in the same room as their parents or shared a bedroom (and bed) with their siblings. When the economy boomed after the Second World War, many families were able to invest in improving their lives and moved into larger houses, sometimes with a room for each child. For children, this new era of prosperity meant that they could stay in school longer and did not have to go out and work like children who came before them.

In the second half of the century, more and more space within the home was given over to children. The "family room" appeared, a room in the house where family members congregated. Family rooms were mostly a suburban phenomenon, but they reflected a new and evolving way of viewing family relationships: family life now revolved around children's instead of parents' activities.

From the 1950s on, radio and television and later the Internet brought the world right into children's homes. More and more goods designed specially for children became available, and because times were good, people could afford them. Young people were fascinated by the new technologies, and programs and games were increasingly designed especially for them. Children had become a select clientele, a special target market.

Source: "Growing Up in Montreal" Exhibition Texts, 2004-2007


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