Children’s toys: The New-York Historical Society, 200 years

Amy Weinstein

Amy Weinstein Art

By Amy a. Weinstein; originally published in January 2005.

Appealing to the imagination of children of all ages, the toy collection of the New-York Historical Society offers a miniature window into nineteenth-century American family life. The approximately three thousand objects that constitute the collection are made of wood, metal, paper, ceramic, and cloth and trace the social, economic, political, and military history of the nation. The collection documents how new toys were created in response to great events and as new materials and technologies were adapted by the European and American toy industries.1 Although the collection most clearly illuminates the leisure pursuits of wealthy and middle-class children, simpler versions of expensive toys made it possible for children living in less privileged circumstances to own toys of their own.

The growing presence of toys in the United States was in part an outgrowth of the emerging recognition of childhood as a special phase of life, separate from adulthood. Rules governed when and how children might play with their toys, with many families en-forcing a ban on Sunday play. With its obvious biblical theme, the Noah’s ark (see Pl. VI) became a joyful exception to this policy. Created almost exclusively in households and small workshops in German villages surrounded by dense forests that provided the raw materials, Noah’s arks came in many sizes; smaller, cheaper models might include just a few pairs of animals, while more lustrated, with painted motifs ornamenting the bow and roofline, often featured Noah’s entire family and great zoological diversity, both real and imaginary.2 

A connection between play and life’s lessons also helped popularize toy savings banks. Al-though decorative banks had been made for many years, cast-iron banks became especially popular in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, when post-Civil War weapons production was diverted to this more benign purpose. In addition to many cast-iron banks, the society’s collection also includes banks made of other metals, ceramic, and wood. Ostensibly sold to encourage children to learn the value of thrift, banks in the shapes of playful animals, from the traditional pig to circus creatures, bank vaults, and buildings, including iconic American structures such as Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty,3 proved highly entertaining as well as instructive (see Pl. VIII). In an era before moving images became commonplace, mechanical banks had tiny hidden figures that popped up or slid out with a tug on a string and disappeared again with each coin deposit, providing added amusement. A coin placed in the mouth of the American eagle (Pl. VIII, far right), for instance, drops toward her nesting brood of two eaglets when a serpentine lever hidden beneath her tail feathers is depressed. Reminding children of the need to be vigilant in protecting themselves as well as their savings, a fox, improbably situated in the aerie, peers out from amid the foliage.

 Headline news and a fascination with celebrity also played a role in shaping the production of banks and other toys. When the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind (1820- 1887) enthralled audiences throughout the world with her beautiful soprano voice, a younger generation could dress a paper doll in replicas of the costumes she wore on stage. Printed inside the box in which the society’s Jenny Lind paper doll was sold is a list of the roles she performed, enabling the musically literate child to dress her doll appropriately. The corruption trial of William Marcy “Boss” Tweed (1823-1878) in January 1873 was soon followed by the manufacture and sale of the Tammany bank (p. 181, Pl. XIII), a caricature of the Democratic Party leader who politely “pocketed” the pennies placed in his hand. With cries of “Remember the Maine” arousing patriotic fervor, children could save their pennies in a tiny version of the battleship whose sinking in 1898 touched off the Spanish American War (see Pl. VIII, second from right). Board and card games encouraged children to follow the distant land and sea battles that ensued, and thrifty children could drop their pennies into a cast-iron likeness of Lieu-tenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt clad in his Rough Riders uniform.4 

The world of adults, both workday and recreational, often found expression in toys. A nineteenth-century child pulling a wheeled American Express Company delivery wagon (Pl. V) loaded with burlap sacks and wooden barrels and crates might have envisioned himself guiding its team of horses along country roads and city streets. It is easy to imagine driver and cargo spilling out onto the nursery floor as children mimicked the speed of the new express companies racing to be the fastest to deliver cargo across the nation. The lucky young pilot of imaginary steam-powered trips up and down the nation’s great rivers aboard the tinned sheet-iron riverboat Excelsior (Pl. X) had to be careful to keep his boat on dry land to prevent its wheels from rusting. The four-decked toy boat, sharing its enthusiastic name with the motto of New York State, meaning “ever upward,” reflects the growing national importance of steamboat travel for commerce and pleasure. The Excelsior’s fanciful decoration and charming lack of adherence to scale underscore its dual significance at the society. It is not only an important example of the metal toys manufactured by the renowned George W. Brown and Company of Forestville, Connecticut, but it also captured the imagination of the modernist sculptor and pioneering folk art collector Elie Nadelman, who sold his collection to the society in 1937.5

Nadelman’s interest in toys seems to have encompassed the decorative, the figural, and the kinetic, without regard to medium, place of manufacture, or other criteria generally of interest to toy collectors. A wooden rocking horse (Pl. II), with a jaunty carved tail and naïvely painted flowers and ribbons decorating its curved rockers, and a set of accordion toy soldiers (Pl. IX), who appear to march in place as the mechanism is manipulated, are but two of the many toys that attracted Nadelman’s notice. Wheeled and windup toys are also well represented in the collection he assembled. Given the sculptor’s interest in the human form, it should not be surprising that his collection also includes a remarkable array of dolls, among them jointed wood and metal jumping jacks, delicately featured ceramic dolls, and paper dolls that might more properly be viewed as portraits of young women engaged in needlework and other feminine pursuits.        

Notwithstanding Nadelman’s proclivity to collect both dolls and toy soldiers, many nineteenth-century toys were gender based. Dolls in the collection range from homemade creations crafted from simple, readily available materials, such as cornhusks and nuts, to fashionably attired ceramic dolls imported from France and Germany. The doll bearing the greatest historical significance in the collection is dressed in the luxurious remnants of the satin, velvet, and fur costume worn in 1893 by Mrs. Grover Cleveland (nee Frances Folsom; 1864-1947) to her husband’s presidential inauguration (see Pl. VII). The doll was displayed and sold a few months later at the Women’s Department of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Revealing how widely accepted toys had become in American society, the exposition also featured an exhibit of antique and contemporary toys in a section of the fair devoted to children’s matters.6 The doll complements the society’s extensive library holdings of printed materials relating to the exposition.

The collection also houses many pieces of doll furniture, which reflect the changing tastes in American interiors, from the Federal style to the revivals of the second half of the nineteenth century. One tall-post doll bed (Pl. III), fitted with a linen mattress and two pillows, is draped with extraordinary nineteenth-century printed cotton hangings. Although toys have been formally accessioned into the collection since the early twentieth century, older curatorial records are not always as complete as records compiled for new acquisitions. Thus, nothing is known about the provenance of the doll’s bed.

Some toys in the collection do convey important information about their history and intended enjoyment. For example, the costumed paper doll called Fanny Gray (Pl. IV), printed in Bos-ton in 1854 and believed to be the first American paper doll, was packaged with a booklet that explains that she was “intended as amusement for children, and will, it is hoped be an acceptable present for the holidays.”7 The clarifying note that Fanny Gray was intended for childhood play was presumably needed to distinguish the doll from earlier printed European figures intended for the amusement of adults and the transmission of new fashions.8 The preface continues, “if exhibited by one person, while another reads the verses describing the figures shown, it can be made pleasing entertainment for a party of children.” Reflecting an age when death, poverty, and the changing fortunes brought about by each were an ordinary part of the social fabric, the verses and costumes trace Fanny’s happy childhood of comfort and ease to near destitution brought about by the death of her widowed mother, and a return to prosperity made possible by her kindness and good nature.

Toys are occasionally incorporated into exhibitions at the society when other museum collections fail to offer illustrative materials. An exhibition on the history of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) mounted on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the novel, for instance, used one of the few African American dolls in the collection to explore racism in American literature and popular culture. Derided in the twentieth century for its derogatory racial stereotyping, the Topsy-turvy doll (Pl. I), actually two cloth dolls joined at the waist, each with her face concealed by the other’s wide skirts, enjoyed great popularity throughout the mid- and late nineteenth century. In the exhibition, the doll was employed not only to evoke the characters of Eva and Topsy, but also to explore new interpretations of their social significance. 

The recent gift of the seminal collection of approximately five hundred nineteenth-century American board and table games amassed by Ellen and Arthur L. Liman (1932-1997) significantly expanded the depth and breadth of the society’s holdings and spurred new donations of modern-era games, including some that they inspired, such as Monopoly and Scrabble.9 A rotating thematic selection of the Liman Collection games, many with illustrations of nineteenth-century America in vivid graphics and intense coloration made possible by the new technique of chromolithography, may be seen in the society’s Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.

 While toys and dolls are not currently a collecting priority, the society’s wide-ranging interests in American history sometimes leads to new acquisitions of toys that add rich layers of meaning to significant events. The society’s 2004 bicentennial coincided with the centennial of the deadly fire aboard the East River steamboat General Slo-cum, and the poignant bequest of two dolls cherished by its youngest survivor, Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon (1903-2004). At the age of twenty months, Adella lost both of her sisters when the pleasure boat sank; she kept their dolls, one with the painted face of a laughing toddler, the other of a little girl with a bisque head and shoulder-length hair, for the rest of her long life. The most recent gift to the toy collection is a French lady doll.

From whirligigs to stereoscopes, from toy soldiers to toy kitchens, from horse-drawn fire engines to subway cars, the New-York Historical Society houses many toys illustrative of their day and the children who played with them.        

AMY A. WEINSTEIN is associate curator, twentieth- and twenty-first-century collections, at the New-York Historical Society.


1 Before the development of commercial toy manufacturers, toys such as rag dolls and carved wooden figures were made at home. Beginning in the nineteenth century, European toys were imported into the United States in large numbers, with many importers based in New York City. Wholesalers, also based there, made toys and toy parts (such as ceramic doll heads, sold with and without doll bodies), available to the American public. American toymakers, such as the game manufacturer McLoughlin Brothers (1854-1921), were also based in New York City. After the Civil War, makers of cast-iron and tin-plate toys established factories in New York State,Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, and made metal toys until World War II.   

2 See Mary Audrey Apple, “The Noah’s arks of the Erzgebirge region of Germany,” The Maga-zine Antiques, vol. 140, no. 6 (December 1991), pp. 966-977.

3 A Statue of Liberty still bank and Independence Hallsemimechanical bank, both made by the Enterprise Man-ufacturing Company of Philadelphia, were recently be-queathed to the society by Laura Harding.

4 The Teddy Roosevelt bank was the gift of Bella C. Landauer.

5 See pp. 176, 178 for further discussion of the history of the folk art collection of Elie Nadelman and its role at the society.

6 See Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Book of the Fair… (Chi-cago, 1893).

7 See, for instance, Sibyl McCormack Groff, “Gothamtide: Christmas words and images in nineteenth-century New York,” The MagazineAntiquesvol. 162, no. 6 (December 2002), pp. 64-73.

8 The society’s toy collection also includes paper dolls printed later in the century in newspapers in various cities. The following text is printed on the reverse of some of the figures: “the San Franciscochronicle/Will issue, each Sunday, a Fashion Plate Supplement which/will be in the very latest style and when cut out will exactly/fit this figure. Order the/chronicle at once.”    

9 For a detailed examination of this collection, see Mar-garet K. Hofer, The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board and Table Games (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2003); and Jennifer Jensen, “Teaching success through play: American board and table games, 1840- 1900,” The Magazine Antiques, vol. 160, no. 6 (December 2001), pp. 812-819.