Do you want to play?

The history of toys is older that humanity, because mammals, mostly young animals can attend to an object that they promote to a toy for a long time. Toys were present in the ancient times and several relics remained from the period of first human civilisations. They were mainly models of adults’ everyday objects, arms or dolls and animal statuettes. They served and still serve as tools for roleplays: children can play the adults’ world with them. But let’s not go so far in the past, just 100-150 years ago.

Pete Gyula: Kislány játékokkal (1910 körül) - Városi Képtár-Deák Gyűjtemény, CC BY-NC-ND

In the 19th-century and early-20th-century Hungarian rural culture, children were taught to work at a very early age. They spent their time next to their mothers in the fields, and as they were growing old enough, they joined their work. The toys that modelled agricultural tools strengthened this learning mechanism. These toys were made by the family, siblings or children themselves. They could find perfect materials around the house: lumber, vegetable waste, branches and crops. The range was wide from the simple corn-cob or ragdoll to the dollhouse and its furniture that required advanced skills. These pieces of furniture were often the perfect copies of the original ones: finely elaborated, painted and decorated small works of art. Things that could not be made at home (for example a rubber ball) were bought on markets or fairs. Daughters of wealthier families could cuddle china-dolls instead of the home-made ragdolls.

After the turn of the 20th century, this tradition started changing: the urban character appeared. Since the 1940s and 1950s, a new aspect spread in wider layers of society: functionality was put into the shade and pampering children became the main aim of toys. A few decades later, presenting children with shop toys on their birthdays and at Christmas became an established custom. Department stores were expanded with toy departments in order to serve increased demands. Good examples are the toy departments of the State Department Store and of the Corvin Department Store in Budapest, or the one of the Centrum Department Store in Veszprém. Mass production of toys began and children gathered more and more toys during the years.

You can see contemporary toys on the Christmas exhibition of the Red Cross Youth in the Hungarian Newsreel of December 1924.

New raw materials appeared besides the old natural ones, like caoutchouc and plastic. Cornhusk dolls were changed to rubber and die-cast dolls gradually. The die-cast technology allows making plastic figures of great variety. ‘Shop toys’ were not regarded as rarity that time anymore and many children had more than one of them.

Ifj. Festetics György kisautóban - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Until the first half of the 20th century, fathers often made wooden carts and barrows to their little sons.  Later, small treadle-driven cars with sheet-metal body were spreading among the wealthier families. The small but ‘drivable’ toy versions of big car brands like Ford, BMW, Mercedes and ‘Zsiguli’ (AvtoVAZ) and Pobeda in Eastern Europe became extremely popular in the 1950s. The Russian ‘Moskvitch’ was the favourite one in Hungary. Treadle-drive Moskvitch was made from the 1960s until the 1990s. Collectors search for the retraceable pieces nowadays. In addition, matchboxes (miniaturized copies of car brands) were also very popular. The original Matchbox Company had a production line in Hungary in the 1980s.

Kovács László: Vodicai búcsú, nyuszimotorok - Viski Károly Múzeum, © Fizetős hozzáférés

Today, the plastic, three-wheeled, small run-bikes are also very successful. The type Enduro is a Hungarian invention and has been on the market since 1989. The Hungarian Museum of Ethnography also has a piece of Enduro as an important popular mass product of our period. There are several kinds in the brand; the memorable piece of the range is the ‘bunny motorcycle’ for very small children.

Not long after the ‘invention’ of the bicycle at the beginning of the 19th century, it was transformed to make it usable for children too. Velocipede was popular at the end of the 19th century. It is the ancestor of the modern bicycle. The difference is that the treadles were on its large front wheels. It also had a tricycle version for children. During the 20th century, the chain-driven safety bike was spreading. Csepel Bicycle Factory was established in Hungary in 1950. Its Camping brand was significant for many generations. The third wheel that helped children learn riding the bike and the broomstick fixed to the bicycle are familiar for everybody.

Síp - Leskowsky Hangszergyűjtemény Közalapítvány, CC BY-NC-ND

The toy musical instruments also provided a lot of fun – but not necessarily for parents. Besides the musical instruments made by children – like the home-made mouthorgan made of a comb and silk-paper –, the instruments available in shops became increasingly popular as well, e.g. the ‘pear music’, the mouthorgan, or the colourful toy clarinet.

Watching slide strips (that revives nowadays) was an amusing free-time activity for the children who were born in the second half of the 20th century. Usually parents operated the machine and read out the stories loud to their children. Many grown-ups might remember the humming of the slide-projector machines made by Lemezárugyár.

Számítógépes szakkör 1986-ban - Debreceni Művelődési Központ, CC BY-NC-ND

Besides the traditional toys, the electronic games started showing up in the 1980s. Children could spend a lot of time with these computers and video game consoles. PC games also integrated in the cultural history of toys and games, arousing the same nostalgia in young adults as the rocking-horses and marbles did a hundred years ago.


Translated by Zita Aknai


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