Toy Stories: Part 2

In last month’s post, I described my search for pictures of children and their toys in amongst my Scottish family photograph collection. I was surprised to discover there were not as many of these as I’d expected, surmising that the grown-ups who’d taken the photographs had most likely decided in advance how the children should be photographed. Possibly they did not want any toys to be a distraction. In contrast, the formal studio photographs often showed children with wooden or classic toys, which may have been given to them by the photographer to create a naturalistic setting or to relax the young sitters. 

I remember my father hadn’t been keen to encourage us to line up our dolls and stuffed toys for the rare times he had his camera ready, regarding it as a waste of good film, and I recall sneaking my ‘teddy-bear cat’ into family photographs. When he did give in to my demands for a portrait of my favourite toy, I proudly posed him on the back steps of the house for the occasion, dressed up in an outfit belonging to my younger sister.

Pussy Willow, c1970

Like many children, I adored my stuffed animal toys more then plastic renditions of babies or functional items such as building blocks and Lego sets. A soft item which can be cuddled obviously has a much greater chance of being loved and even improves with age as its battered parts are a reminder of all the hugs over the years. That’s possibly why my mother preferred Panda and George to her French bisque doll Margaret, who by dint of her antique status was only ever allowed to be played with under supervision, and never outdoors.

It is also the reason why I did not have many dolls myself, and those I did possess tended to be treated cruelly. The only doll I can really remember (and still have) was named Linda, after my mother’s much younger teenage cousin who seemed exciting and glamorous. Unfortunately, she (the doll) was often forced into doing the sort of activities that the cuddly stuffed animals would never have to endure.

Abseiling Linda Doll, c1971

So like many children, my dolls’ pram was actually full of a menagerie of animal toys, all tucked up safe inside, whatever the weather. While there are no photographs of that pram – I can barely remember it – one does survive of my mother with her own toy pram from around 1941. Almost bigger than my mother and charming in its old-fashioned style, it is not clear what toys (if any) the pram contains. My mother’s rare scowling face might indicate that she is having to share her beloved Panda and George with her baby cousin Alan who was staying, along with his mother, with the family at the time to escape the bombing raids of London (see Toy Stories: Part 1).

My mother with her doll’s pram, 1941

Another photograph from that period shows my mother and Alan with a cousin from an older sister of my grandmother’s. The doll my mother is holding was named ‘Robert’, after her favourite older cousin, indicating that not only did she have a surfeit of cousins, but that children’s naming patterns for their toys are almost as predictable as the ones previous generations used for naming their offspring. It would appear that many dolls and stuffed toys are named after the person who gave it to the child or a favourite relative. There is also the obvious names, such as Panda or Woof Woof, or in my case once even an amalgamation of both styles with the tongue twisting Mrs Holland’s Spotty Dog.

My mother with ‘Robert’ doll and two of her cousins, 1941

Yet in the larger working class families of the past, toys were most likely hand-me-downs, and a favourite teddy may end up being someone else’s within a few years. Although my grandmother told me about the metal hoops they would all chase in the street, courtesy of the neighbourhood’s brewers’ barrels and the Dumbiedykes ideal hilly situation, I never asked her about any soft toys she had – the kind she might reach for in the dark if having a nightmare. Perhaps this was because trying to imagine my grandparents as children was beyond me at the time, and to some extent still is. Frozen in sepia photographs, their old fashioned dress and hairstyles puts them beyond our reach, despite all the intellectual protestations to the contrary.

One of my favourite photographs from our family collection is of a younger brother of my grandmother’s. Although my mother and I cannot work out if it was Great Uncle Bob or Great Uncle Dave who was brought to the studio that day, we know from the boy’s clothes that it was most likely taken between 1915 and 1920. Yet his outfit seem to be rather informal for the occasion, lending the photograph its period charm. As Jayne Shrimpton points out in Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs: Casual sweaters had been common wear among poorer children since at least the beginning of the century; however, only in the 1910s do studio photographs begin to portray small boys from ‘respectable’ families wearing the soft, comfortable jersey and shorts set, with socks and shoes or boots.

My great uncle with wooden horse, c1915

What interests me particularly about the image is the wooden pull-along horse on which my great uncle is resting his foot. To me it looks like a studio prop that was used to give the boy a more natural-looking pose in the same way that books and flowers and furniture were used with adult sitters. I doubt such a toy would have been brought along to the studio, given the need to negotiate Edinburgh’s busy streets on foot and public transport. I often wonder if my great uncle had not wanted to keep this wooden horse after his photograph had been taken. After all, most children crave the ‘forbidden toy’ by dint of the fact that they are not allowed to play with it, whether it be an antique or belonging to someone else.

Stuffed animals and dolls are noticeably absent in the photographs of children that I possess in my collection, perhaps because they were regarded to be too babyish for the camera. However, there was one picture of unknown relatives which I came across that shows a little boy clutching what looks like a stuffed rabbit. As un ‘unbreeched’ infant i.e. still deemed too young to wear boys’ clothes, he was possibly allowed to bring his beloved toy along to the studio and his shy demeanour, clutching his rabbit, is in contrast to the more confident stance of his older ‘breeched’ brothers.

Boy with Rabbit Toy c1900

Unfortunately we have several other photographs in our family collection of unknown relatives and friends that I may be able to identify once I am further into my genealogical research. I am forever grateful for the times my mother sat with my grandmother and youngest great aunt and labelled up the majority of the older photographs – the ones I still call ‘the Victorians’ (see February Fill the Dyke) – in pencil on the reverse. This was a tip she learnt on her family history course in the 1980s and has helped so much in my bid to catalogue all those messy boxes.

Of course some of our photographs were already inscribed with names and dates, usually indicating they’d been sent to my great-grandmother (the original holder of the collection) or grandparents from various friends and family scattered around the country. One of these shows a younger cousin of my mother on the paternal side of the family playing with a friend in his back garden in Glasgow. I always loved this image as the piper which steals the scene looks like a miniature ghost, striding out of the tent and across the lawn, playing his ethereal bagpipes. Yet a closer inspection with a magnifying glass reveals the piper to be nothing more than a cut out advertisement for the company for which Alistair’s father worked as a sales rep (Wylie, Barr and Ross Ltd, a biscuit manufacturer). No doubt there was more fun to be had from repurposing that piper than from any expensive toy his father’s salary might have afforded.

Boys and Piper, 1951

Cousin Alistair’s life in the affluent suburban Glasgow of the 1950s was a far cry from that of the generation which had preceded him. Growing up in overcrowded tenements in Scotland’s two largest cities, the youth of the early 20th century did not have the luxury of a private back garden that most of their own children would have by the middle of the century. For them, the relatively car-free streets of their Glasgow and Edinburgh neighbourhoods were their playground. And in the case of my grandmother’s family in Edinburgh Dumbiedykes the proximity to Holyrood Park (see A Tenement with a View) meant acres of free space on their doorstep.

And it it is to this topic that I intend to turn to in next month’s post.

Wishing everyone a Happy Summer!

The Incidental Genealogist, July 2022

2 thoughts on “Toy Stories: Part 2

  1. dalesbred

    Every time I read your blog I go rushing upstairs to the cupboard where I keep old photographs and then spend the next hour looking at them! Well done on your journey through the toys of your family.

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    1. The Incidental Genealogist Post author

      Thanks, Marion. Glad you enjoyed it and that it inspired you to get your own photos out again. Every time I start looking through the boxes I see photographs that I can’t recall, even after having sorted them all out earlier this year. I also found that having a theme made me look more carefully. The little boy with the rabbit was one I’d overlooked before.

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