Toying with History

Planes, trains and automobiles: what toys teach us

Whether they’re carriages or planes, toys let children imagine entire worlds. But they’re more than just playthings, they’re directly connected to our history and progress. You can learn a lot from a simple toy.

Galloping Ahead

Horses are majestic animals, and they’ve helped grown-ups get things done and entertained children along the way.

Wooden horse on wheels, Axel Nilsson, 1895 (From the collection of Nordiska Museet)

It’s no surprise horses are a classic. They’ve been everywhere, helping farmers plough fields and transport well-heeled people around town in carriages. For kids, they conjured speed and wonder, galloping through little girls’ and boys’ imaginations. But soon the kids graduated from hooves to wheels, bringing us along for the ride.

From Galloping to Gliding

Whether we were looking to get somewhere quickly or the kids just wanted to take a turn around the block, roller skates got us there.

Rollschuhe, made in GDR (From the collection of DDR Museum)

First invented in 1863, four-wheel roller skates grew more fun after roller rinks gained popularity. They were first seen on a London stage, but they rolled out onto the streets with these four-wheeled versions. Kids took it even further, claiming a piece of freedom and zipping around on their speedy feet. But why stick to small wheels when you could have large ones?

The First Big Wheel

Bringing whimsy to getting around town, the Martin Bicycle made cycling safer, and even a little funny. Invented to be safer than sporty two-wheeled versions, the Martin bike’s wideset three wheels wove some fun into cycling for everyone, and particularly for ladies who could ride without long skirts getting caught in the chain. Almost like an oversized kid’s tricycle, it was loved by both adults and kids alike. But these massive wheels didn’t stop at just a bike.

The Martin toy bicycle, Seraphin Fernand Martin, 1888 (From the collection of Musee des arts et métiers)

Floating On

Milk Wagons brought the small town into the toy world. Adorably called ‘milk floats’, these carriages brought milk into homes around the world. They were a common sight trotting down quiet streets, so they made a natural fit for kids’ play, adding a dash of the real world to their make-believe. Soon, they’d add some real speed to the mix.

Milk delivery wagon, toy, Morton E. Converse Company, 1913 (From the collection of McCord Museum)

Full Steam Ahead

Trains moved loads across the country and let kids dream of long trips, too. Shooting off plumes of steam, trains powered across the land and helped our cities grow. But it’s no wonder they were popular toys, too. They let kids dream of roaring off to distant places, discovering new worlds. It was one thing to shoot across the landscape, but what about when danger struck?

Toy Locomotive, Charles Henning, c. 1940 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

The First Fire Engine

It might not look like it, but this small carriage was a big help and kept kids saving Mr. Bear’s house. The grandparent to our modern red fire engine, the real-life version kept peoples’ homes safe, the speedy horses getting there and the enormous water tank on back putting out the fire. Driving their mini engines around, kids could save the day for the rest of their toys. And if water could put out a fire, what else could it do, and where might it take you?

Toy Fire Engine, Harry Grossen, 1935/1942 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Sail the High Seas

From coast to coast, ships won wars and moved us all. Massive ships like the Maine floated through our harbors (minus the wheels, of course) and helped us win countless conflicts. With their smaller wooden versions, kids waged their own battles, leading soldiers on the high seas and finding adventure at every port. But to an excitable kid, the real adventure might be the open road.

Toy Warship, Frances Lichten, 1935/1942 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Motoring On

Moving on from roller skates, motorbikes added some cool edge to the road, and kids’ dreams. Bringing a little edge to the streets, motorbikes have been used for everything from speeding to relay messages during a war to just roaring down the street. Shrunken to toy size, they were a natural fit for an adventurous girl or boy to play with. Still, why stop at two wheels with such a small engine?

Toy soldier, Dispatch rider, Unknown/Inconnu/Early to mid 20th century (From the collection of McCord Museum)

Pedal to the Metal

The ultimate in cool, both in toys and on the highway. Speedy cars are the ultimate in cool, and adults have loved them forever. Volkswagen created many iconic cars, like the classic Beetle, but it’s small, sporty ones that have captivated us the most. As kids zoom around make-believe tracks, they got a piece of that speedy glory. And once they’d gone fast, the only way to go was up.

Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, toy, Unknown/Inconnu, 1962 (From the collection of McCord Museum)

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane

Flying through the air with the greatest of ease, it’s the most loved toy of all. Planes just might be the most exciting invention and the most thrilling toy. Lifting us up to the height of birds and clouds, they’ve won battles and taken us around the globe. And for young minds, there’s no greater adventure than hopping aboard, or even piloting a plane and seeing the world.

Toy Plane in Hiding, 1943/1945 (From the collection of National Comite 4 en 5 mei)
Written by Jesse Aylen
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