Ancient peoples of Greece and Rome amused themselves with toys resembling the spinning tops we know today. Some archaeologists claim that the toy originated in Asia thousands of years ago and it traveled west to Europe. But, before any encounter with Europeans, ancient peoples of the Americas played with tops too. Toy makers made their tops in a variety of shapes which, in turn (no pun intended), led to the different ways in which the tops were used and to the different skills needed to win spinning competitions. For example, a player twirls a top with a short stem between his two fingers, which sends the toy off for some distance and duration. With a top with a long stem, however, the player uses her palms to twirl the longer stem, which, when she lets loose, spins the top much longer and farther. Gamblers and betters used carved wooden tops with four or eight sides, called teetotums, in games of chance. Jewish children use a specialized teetotum, a dreidel, in games played during Chanukah. Toy innovators wrap string around their tops or the stems and use metal springs to set the top on its spinning way. The twirling motion of the top invites the kind of surface decorations that deliver a variety of illusions not evident when the top is at rest. It is these illusions as well as the spin of the top itself that mesmerizes us and encourages us to spin again and again.


  • Title: Top
  • Date Created: ca. 1980
  • Location: Japan
  • Type: More Toys
  • Medium: lithographed tinplate
  • Object ID: 111.4737
  • Credit Line: Gift of David B. Tischler

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more


Google apps