If there are children in the home, there will be toys. Lots of them. Toys that light up, toys that talk. Toys that beep, flash, spin and come apart into a hundred tiny pieces. Toys to lose, toys to stand on and squabble over — but above all, toys to play with.
In the past children had far fewer toys, and their toy collections reflected the social status of their families. Working-class families had to ‘make do’: a stick became a horse to ride or a gun to shoot. Children from wealthy families had a wider range of playthings, and the leisure time to enjoy them. Porcelain dolls, tea sets and train sets were popular. Some lucky children had a rocking horse, with a mane and tail made of real horsehair.
The marketing of toys became more explicitly ‘gendered’ in the early-twentieth century. Toys for girls focused heavily on domesticity and nurturing, designed to prepare young girls for a life of homemaking. Toys for boys emphasised preparation for the armed forces, or for working in the industrial economy.
Over the last 50 years there have been significant changes in toys and the patterns of play, from the characters and materials used, to the introduction of technology. But the gender divide remains. Walk down any toy aisle and you can clearly identify the target audience. Rigid boundaries segregate brawny blue action figures from pretty, pink princesses and beauty kits.