June 30, 2010
This summer another Toy Story movie is playing in theaters, yet another animated ode to the nostalgia we associate with the playthings of our youth. It’s also prime flea market season and toys will migrate from old homes to new ones; although certain pieces may find their way to eBay where they’ll fetch a pretty penny, which was the case with an Atari video game that netted over 30 grand earlier this year.
But do toys mean more than money and memories? “Toys From the Attic,” a new display at the American History Museum, says they do. ”Toys reflect changes in our society and culture, as well as technology,” says Kathy Dirks who co-curated the show with Jennifer Stoebel. “In the last two hundred years,” Dirks says, “we have gone from toys that represented horse drawn wagons to automobiles, to rocket ships, and toys that sat on wheels and were pulled with a string to those powered by batteries and micro chips, just as items used in adult society have.”
In the 19th century, the American middle class was on the rise and more children were being sent to school instead of into the workforce. Playtime was no longer the stuff of the upper crust. This social shift prompted a collective “a-ha” moment and childhood began to be recognized as a special time of human development that demanded to be nurtured. This created a demand for toys to stimulate little kiddies’ minds and to prepare them for adult life—as evidenced by the toy vacuum cleaner, stove and tea set on display. And frankly, the color combinations of the home goods are a lot of fun. Wonder why Suzy Homemaker didn’t make ovens and what not for big people. Well, you know, ovens that didn’t use light bulbs to cook food.
“Toys reflect changes in men’s and women’s roles in society as seen in the evolution of dolls.” Dirks points out. “Where once they had no particular occupation, today dolls come dressed as doctors, astronauts, constructions workers and military figures.”
Now, we could have the “it’s not a doll, it’s an action figure” argument until the cows come home. But honestly, the difference between a girl toy like Barbie and a boy toy like Captain Action seems negligible when you consider each one’s terrific selection of saucy outfits. Moving on…
An educational medium and a mirror of trends in our popular culture, the sentimental value we invest in toys accounts for a large part of why they’re so much fun. “We wanted to create a feeling of nostalgia and warmth,” Dirks says. “We want visitors think back a generation or so, and consider their own childhoods, as well as those of their parents and grandparents.”
What toys defined your childhood? Tell us in the comments area below! And be sure to visit the American History Museum and check out “Toys From the Attic,” which will be on view until June 2011.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.