Tag Archives: Childhood Toys

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

Toy Stories: Part 1

While researching and writing the story of my ‘lost’ London ancestors in my blog A London Family, I published a post entitled Of Lost Toys and Mothers which compared the childhood of my London-born father with that of my Scottish mother. My father’s experience of being a wartime evacuee in Surrey then Somerset (see East Coker) was very different from that of my Edinburgh-born mother, ten years his junior. Even though my mother went to live in the countryside outside Edinburgh with my grandmother for a few months early on in the war, she was an infant at the time and thus has no memories of that period. Not only that, but my grandmother had simply to take her baby daughter several miles out of the city to the village of Roslin, where her older sister Bessie lived with her miner husband and two young sons. It was certainly much less of an upheaval than the four years my father and his siblings spent with their mother in East Coker, living with strangers, with my English grandmother trying to eke out a living by undertaking odd jobs in the locality.

As I pointed out in Of Lost Toys and Mothers, my father and his siblings ‘lost’ their childhood toys when their London home was partially damaged in a bombing raid and the contents stored with relatives who lived nearby. When my paternal grandfather later went to retrieve the items, he quarrelled with that branch of the family and never spoke to them again. Later my aunt told me she suspected they had been using the furniture in their own home, a fact which had angered my grandfather, who was prone to irascibility.

When writing Of Lost Toys and Mothers, I also mentioned my Scottish family, stating that: I remember once when I was staying with my Scottish grandmother after she had been widowed, and my mother had helped her clear out a cupboard built into the floor of the cloakroom in the hall (or lobby press, as we called it). This had always been my grandfather’s domain (being dark and dusty and full of spiders), and when my mother took it upon herself to rummage about in the space she found a cornucopia of old toys, many of which she’d been bequeathed from older relatives, including a bisque doll given to a soldier uncle by a French family in France during WW1, a metal spinning top, and a couple of strange wooden objects we had to be taught how to use! This also spurred my Scottish grandmother to reminisce about her favourite childhood games – including the metal hoops that she and her siblings played with in the street (which seem to be the ubiquitous image of turn of the century childhood). I vowed then that I would never let my favourite childhood toys languish in an attic or basement space.

The French bisque doll called ‘Margaret’ from WW1

While I have kept my promise to myself and held on to some of my toys for over half a century, my mother was quite content to let her two favourite stuffed animals, Panda and George, be discarded when she became a teenager, something I find hard to fathom. She of course finds my special attachment to my very ancient stuffed cat rather strange. Yet I am comforted by the knowledge that the poet John Betjeman had a lifelong bond with his much-loved ‘companions’, Archie and Jumbo, and even went to so far as to have them close beside him on his deathbed. He was in fact holding them in his arms when he died in 1984. 

Pussy Willow and Me (when both of us were young)

Searching through the collection of Scottish family photographs I find very few where toys play a major role. But perhaps this is mainly because it is the adults who deemed what was worthy of being photographed. I do remember having to ask my father to include my dolls and stuffed animals in photographs (such as in the image above) and he was often reluctant to do so, unless it was some kind of prop that I’d been given as a distraction. That seems to be the case with the older studio portraits, where either the photographer had a wooden toy that the child could pose with, or a personal play object was brought along by the family.

Great Uncle Adam with wooden toy (c1900)

It’s hard to make out the exact details of Great Uncle Adam’s wooden toy but it appears to be a replica of a steam locomotive, replete with a chimney and boiler, which can be pulled along on wheels. The poor wee lad was probably torn between playing with the object or looking at the photographer, as he would have possibly been aware that both tasks were expected of him. I often think that being taken to a formal photographer’s studio must have been quite an overwhelming experience for a young child at that time.

Perhaps that is why I love the very natural looking photograph of my mother’s younger cousin, Alan, laughing while propped up on a rug in my grandparent’s back garden in Carrick Knowe flanked by Mum’s favourite toys. Alan and his mother Anne – a younger sister of my grandmother who’d moved to London after her marriage – had come to stay with my grandparents in Edinburgh to escape the dangers of the Blitz. (By then it was clear that the neighbourhood in West Edinburgh was relatively safe and the stay in Roslin had been abandoned). Although baby Alan seems rather disinterested in the toys, the photograph almost seems to have been taken with Panda and George in mind, possibly due to the pleasing composition of the image

Panda and George with a younger cousin of my mother c1941

A later photograph sent out as a family Christmas card shows an older Alan with his younger brother looking decidedly underwhelmed at their meeting with a beatific-looking Santa Claus in Selfridges Toy Department in London. We can only guess at what the old man is saying to them, but they are perhaps wondering whether his stuffed panda is just a prop or whether they’ll get to take it home with them. Whatever or whoever they are fixated on out of the frame, they don’t look as if they are particularly enjoying the experience (which was no doubt a money-spinner for the department store and the photographer). As rationing was still very much in place at this time, Xmas might have promised more than it delivered.

My mother’s younger cousins, Xmas c1947

My mother recalls an earlier straitened wartime Xmas where her mother made her a handsewn doll from a kit that was on sale at the local Co-op. A few weeks earlier my mother had been helping my grandmother with the shopping when they passed the ragdoll display in the shop. Do you like that doll? My grandmother asked my mother, hopeful in her tone. No, it’s horrible!  my mother replied petulantly, tired and fed up at  being dragged round the Co-op after school. Needless to say, when it turned up in her stocking on Xmas Day (customised by my grandmother, a qualified dressmaker) she promptly named it Betty – the ugliest name she could think of at the time. Now of course she cringes at the memory and to this day still hopes she hadn’t hurt her mother too much with her outburst. As my grandmother was rather thin-skinned, I’m surprised that doll actually did turn up on Christmas Day. I should add that this was also the year my mother realised that there was no Santa Claus. (For obvious reasons no photographs exist of Ugly Betty).

But perhaps my mother would have been more appreciative of her gift had the wonderful and quirky Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile been established during her own childhood, rather in 1955 when she turned 17. In the 70s it was one of my favourite places to visit as a child and I’d go with my mother and sister whenever we went to stay with our Edinburgh grandparents. At that time the museum was housed in an old soot-blackened tenement building (since much expanded and modernised) with dark, steep winding staircases and small cramped rooms. This of course was itself all part of the experience, lending the museum a slightly spooky lost-in-time feel. Display cases of glassy-eyed Victorian dolls vied with straw-stuffed bears for our attention, alongside cabinet curiosities and creepy automated doll-sized shows (such as the one of Sweeny Todd disposing of his clients with a cut-throat razor). Many of the exhibits were in fact the stuff of nightmares, which is why the museum held such a macabre fascination for me.

 An old collectable postcard of the ‘shoe doll’ (c) Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh

But perhaps the display that exerted the most pull on me was the one which housed the ‘make do’ dolls. There, a sad metal-faced female doll made from a discarded shoe nestled beside a barely-there doll composed of nothing but a rag wrapped round a mutton bone. I collected postcards of these objects – which to my mind were beautiful – and wondered at the children who had owned and loved such things seventy years previously. Yet as an adult I am more interested in the idea that the shoe doll was most likely made by impoverished parents for their daughter, and it is that sentiment that moves me, rather than the doll itself.

There is a more modern ‘interactive’ image of the doll (shown above) in the Edinburgh Capital Collections that can be directly accessed here. With the wonders of technology we can zoom in to see the detail on the clothing and limbs – even the individual stitching. I had always wondered how such a doll came to be in the museum (was it abandoned or stolen?) but the accompanying text to the digital image (below) has now cleared up the mystery for me.

This is part of a collection of over 600 dolls which belonged to Edward Lovett (1852 – 1933) who was a cashier in a London bank. He was a member of the Folklore Society and became an authority on ethnographic dolls, particularly makeshift, or emergent, dolls made for poorer children who did not have commercially made toys. He travelled extensively collecting these dolls from children in exchange for new ones

So now I know that somewhere in the East End of London, in 1905, a little girl was unexpectedly presented with a brand new, possibly relatively expensive, doll in exchange for an old pre-loved improvised one. I’m not sure, had I been that child, that I could have willingly given my homemade doll away. But I’m glad she did just that, as the shoe doll is an item which has intrigued and fascinated generations of children (and adults) in the Museum of Childhood for almost seventy years, and along the way gained an importance that its original maker could never have expected.  

To be continued in Toy Stories: Part 2 next month.

The Incidental Genealogist, June 2022