Saturday, March 4, 2017


Continuing from last month’s blog, I’ve added a few more toys and games to the list that entertained children in 19th century America.

As stated before, the early immigrants brought their toys and games to America from many countries. The rules and ways of playing them were handed down from generation to generation and many of them are still enjoyed by children today. 

The history of rocking horses can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when a popular children’s toy was the hobby horse – a fake horse’s head attached to a long stick. Children would place the stick between their legs and “ride” the horse around. These toys can still be found today.

The hobby horse was replaced in the 16th century by the barrel horse, which consisted of a circular log supported by four legs and adorned with a fake horse head. Crude in nature, this toy mimicked the back of a horse better than a hobby horse.

The rocking horse in its current form is widely believed to have first appeared in the early 17th century. It was around this time that bow rockers were invented, introducing rocking to the world of toy horses. There were, however, improvements to be made to the first rocking horses. Being made from solid wood, they were heavy and their center of gravity was high, so they could easily topple over.

It was in the Victorian age that the ‘safety stand’ was introduced and the idea of making the horses hollow was conceived. This made the horses lighter and more stable, and gave birth to the idea of a secret compartment being fitted into the horse’s underbelly.

The family heirloom horse could store photographs, mint coins, locks of baby hair and other such trinkets for future generations to find. During this era, the style of choice was the dappled grey rocking horse, which was a favorite of Queen Victoria. Her love of rocking horses was instrumental in increasing the popularity of the toys.

During the 19th century, the popular wooden toy horses evolved from a cottage industry into a factory production. Today, antique wooden rocking horses have become collectors' items while new artists have emerged with their own design to make the collectors' items of the future. There is a great range of designs and styles available and horses are made in a wide variety of materials from cloth to plastic and with a wide range of prices.

Paper Dolls have existed as long as there have been paper and creative people to apply images to it. Examples of the first true paper dolls have been found in fashion centers of Vienna, Berlin, London and Paris from as early as the mid-1700’s.

McLoughlin Brothers, founded in 1828, became the largest manufacturer of paper dolls in the United States. They printed their paper dolls from wood blocks engraved in the same way as metal plates. The largest producer of paper dolls and children’s books, McLoughlin Brothers was sold to Milton Bradley in 1920.

A smaller publishing company, Peter G. Thompson, published paper dolls in the 1880’s and sold for eight to fifteen cents per set. Also in the 1880’s, Dennison Manufacturing Co. added crepe paper to their line, starting a trend that lasted for about forty years. Crepe paper added dimension to the costumes of paper dolls and provided countless hours of fun for children at home and in schools. In the 1890’s Frederick Stokes and Co. published sets of paper dolls with likenesses of European royalty and America’s Martha Washington.

In November 1859, Godey’s Lady Book was the first known magazine to print a paper doll in black and white followed by a page of costumes for children to cut out. This was the only paper doll Godey’s ever published, but it set the trend that many women’s magazines followed in years to come. The 1900’s saw an explosion of paper dolls in many lady’s and children’s magazines.

Paper dolls were most popular during the era of the 1930’s through the 50’s. During the Great Depression, paper toys could be afforded by all. Despite the product shortages of World War II, paper dolls were still manufactured. Children in the 1950’s spent many an hour playing with their favorite paper dolls, just as their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had before them.

How to jump rope was a selection in a book published in 1833 by Lydia Maria Child, titled The Girls Own Book. Why did girls in early 19th century America need instructions on how to jump rope? Up until then jumping rope had been considered a game only suitable for boys. 

By the early 19th century, the new gendered ideology promoted passiveness and domesticity that limited girls’ play. Yet the recommendations of antebellum child-rearing advisors suggest that many believed active play was good for girls. Along with Child, other experts predicted that open-air exercise would improve girls’ dexterity, diligence and strengthen their bodies, also rid them of debilitating medical conditions.

Girls’ new freedom of movement had been made possible by changes in clothing fashions as well. Their shorter dresses (frocks) enabled them to skate, sled, run and romp. Yet it was the introduction of pantalettes or pantaloons (loose pants worn under dresses) that enabled girls to make the game of jumping rope their own.

Jumping rope is traditionally a girls’ activity in which two players turn a rope (holding it by its end and swinging it in a circle) and the other players take turns jumping it while chanting a rhyme or counting. When it is played as a game, each player is required to move in while the rope is turning, complete the jump, and move out without contacting or stopping the rope; the jumps required usually become more complicated as the game proceeds. There are many types of jumps, including single, double, backward, and two at a time jumpers, even double Dutch with two ropes turned simultaneously in opposite directions.

 The first recorded pair of roller skates were used for a theatrical performance in London in 1743, unfortunately the inventor’s name has been lost to history, but the idea soon caught on and by 1819 M. Petitbled patented the first roller skates in France. These early skates were the predecessors to the inline skates we use today, although it would have been hard to do more than skate in a straight line.

By 1863 the four-wheeled skate (or quad skate) with an added rubber piece to allow skaters to curve when they moved was developed in New York City and it was such a hit that the first roller rink was opened in the city shortly thereafter. Over the rest of the century the design of the roller skate was fine-tuned with the addition of things like toe stops, making it easier and more enjoyable for people to roller skate. By the end of the 1800s roller skates were being mass produced in the U.S.

Besides the more common outdoor games of hide & seek, leapfrog and tag, board games such as tic-tac-toe, checkers and chess, other popular games of the 19th century were:

Battledore & Shuttlecock, an outdoor game played since the earliest American settlements, the forerunner to both modern badminton and table tennis.

Graces, brought to America by the French, also known as Flying Circle and French Hoops, most popular during the Victorian Period, particularly with young ladies and used for exercise and to teach gracefulness.

Tiddlywinks, a table game quite popular in the 1890’s, played by adults and children alike, in which players used a larger disk to flip smaller disks called winks into a cup.

Typical with researching historical topics, there’s no end to the fascination of reading about the games and toys of our ancestors. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading and yes, reminiscing about some of these toys and games we may have enjoyed playing ourselves…and maybe, still do!


  1. Cheri, that brought back memories! I was a sickly child and spent many hours playing with paper dolls. Thanks for a good reference post as well.

  2. Caroline, yes, I also loved playing with paper dolls. And I loved jumping rope. Thank goodness I could wear pants - called them pedal pushers back then! I found it fascinating to read about the origin of some of those toys and games.

  3. Very interesting tidbit about the secret compartment in the horse's underbelly. I had no idea it existed. I would have loved that as a kid.
    Paper dolls were one of my favorite things growing up. My sister and I used to draw and color our own dolls and their paper clothes. Sometimes I would forget to make the tabs that held the clothes on the dolls.
    Such a fun post, Cheryl. Makes me wish I was a kid again for a couple hours just to enjoy the delight of play.

    1. Just as it did for me, I knew these two blogs would bring back memories for some of us. Interesting to see that adult coloring books are now quite popular.

  4. I'm amazed at how far back paper dolls were available..and many of the games we still play today, such as checkers. Although I think a form of checkers was played centuries ago in Europe.
    The roller skates? And the shoes? I would break my neck. I remember the skates I had as a child, and they would never stay on my shoes--bad design--they should have stayed with those old-fashioned ones!
    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. Great photos, too--my favorite.

    1. Yes, many games are centuries old. Interesting to see how they evolved, with their names and rules changed. I agree, Celia, the photos add so much to our blogs.

    2. Your book covers are so pretty--just beautiful. I love those.

  5. Thank you Celia, nice of you to say! I've dragged my feet on finishing the third book in the trilogy. When it's ready for publication hope I can find the talented gal who helped design Books 1 & 2.

  6. Thank you Celia, nice of you to say! I've dragged my feet on finishing the third book in the trilogy. When it's ready for publication hope I can find the talented gal who helped design Books 1 & 2.

  7. Fun post, Cheri. I played with most of those toys in my growing up years. I've never heard of Graces. Guess I better look that one up.

    1. I enjoyed some of the toys and games too. The Game of Graces was a popular activity for young girls during the early 1800s. Graces is played with two people. Each person gets two rods, four in total. Then, one of the players takes a wooden hoop and, pushing apart the two rods, makes the hoop fly in the air for the other player to try and catch it. The winner is the player who catches the hoop ten times first. I had never heard of it before either.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.