Having Fun with Toys or Becoming a Miniature Adult: Victorian Era Children’s Toys

By Sarah P., Summer Student

I have always been fascinated with artefacts from a young age. Now that I am surrounded by them at the Oshawa Museum, I thought it would be valuable to highlight objects that have intrigued me. On my first day on the job, I was shown a portion of the museum’s collection of toys from the Victorian Era. These incredible artefacts led me on a journey to explore children’s toys of this time.  My intention was to gain some perspective of what it was like to be a child during this era. During the Victorian Period, which was from 1837 to 1901, young adolescents were finally being acknowledged as individuals who had to be properly considered, unlike previous generations. Even with greater recognition from society concerning youth, there was still the widely held expectation that children would labour on family farms and conduct chores in their home. Unlike today, where most youth have time for playing, Victorian Era children did not experience a substantial amount of time for levity. In the Victorian Era, society began to recognize the importance of fostering both the mental and physical success of youth, and they realized that could be achieved through playing with toys.

Sepia photograph of a young girl holding a doll. She is standing behind a chair, and there is another doll placed on the chair
Sepia photograph of Edith Lura Sudgen, holding a doll while another doll is placed in a chair, c. 1895. Oshawa Museum archival collection, A971.32.53

The toys that were in the possession of these children were created with the intention of molding them into adults. This sense of preparation through play was evident in the gendered nature of these playthings. The toys aimed towards young females included dollhouses and dolls. These helped girls practice the skills of mothering by playing house using their dollhouse and caring for their doll as if it was a baby. They also played with items that replicated domestic objects, such as miniature sewing machines and irons. Young girls were playing with these objects for fun, not understanding they reinforced their future roles of wife and mother.

Toys for young boys were focused on cultivating traits of leadership, imagination, and inquisitiveness. There was an expectation placed upon young males to be adept in science and engineering. These playthings reinforced these subjects so that they would pursue these fields when they grew up. Some of the objects that were commonly endorsed for boys to play with were toy soldiers and trains. Toy soldiers in particular were intended to inspire young boys to be interested in the military, learn to follow orders, and to be intrigued in becoming a soldier later in life. Just like young girls, society was influencing these boys through their toys to foster traits that were perceived as the male ideal.

I believe children inherently want to play, and the Victorian Era brought forth the vast variety of toys that we have to this day. One Victorian Era toy that particularly caught my interest was the stereoscope, which reminded me of the viewfinder that I had when I was young. The stereoscope uses a card with two almost identical images that, when viewed by the stereoscope, allows the viewer to see an almost 3D image of the picture. I remember being so fascinated by the images I saw in my viewfinder when I was young. I think it is amazing that I shared this sense of wonder with young children from the Victorian Era who looked at images on their stereoscope. If you want to see a stereoscope, feel free to come to Oshawa Museum where we have one on display in Henry House!

Stereoscope made of wood and metal. The metal components are where the viewer's eyes would be, and the wooden components are where the stereoview card would sit, and the handle for holding the stereoscope.
Stereoscope made out of wood and metal; Oshawa Museum collection, 963.14.1abc

Sources Consulted:

Oshawa Museum Facebook Livestream – January 2022 Sunday Funday LIVE: Toys: https://fb.watch/eA6UmP1mac/

Boston Children’s Museum Article: https://bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about/collections/victorian-era-play-1837-1901

Boston Children’s Museum Photo, Dollhouse furniture, Late Empire c.1875: https://bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about/collections/victorian-era-play-1837-1901

Egham Museum Photo, Victorian toy soldiers: http://eghammuseum.org/toy-soldiers-just-childs-play/

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