Monday, March 10, 2014

Come play with me-part 1

by Maria Grace

Playthings of the Georgian and Regency eras

Boy HobbyHorse ca1815 byHenrySargent MFABostonPlay is a universal aspect of childhood, with toys and games found everywhere from prehistoric archeological sites to our living room floors as we avoid stepping on little bits of Lego and Barbie doll shoes. Knowing how children (and adults) played and what they played with paints a vivid picture for me of what life was like in an historical era. I feel a little transported to that era myself. That is the crux of world-building, a skill every writer must have whether they are creating their own fantasy world, or recreating an historical one. So I was thrilled when my most recent project found me writing about a group of children and I had to figure out how to play with them. How often do you get to research toys and get to call that work? What fun!

I was surprised to find that many of the Georgian era toys would be familiar to children and parents of today. While some have fallen out of common use, many playthings common to that period are tucked away in playrooms, bedrooms and living rooms of our own homes.

Our ancestors would either make toys at home, or, as became increasingly common into the late Georgian era, purchase them at a knack shop or a nicknackatory. I love that name!

The production of consumer goods vastly increased during the 18th century meaning a much greater variety of toys were available to children and their parents, beyond the simple wooden dolls, miniature animals or hobby-horses of earlier periods. Moreover, parents of this era did not commonly subscribe to the early philosophy of making children into miniature adults, but rather allowed them to be children and amuse themselves accordingly. So toys became increasingly available.

While toys were often expensive, poorer families could buy cheaper ones made out of paper - soldiers, dolls, rooms with figures to put in them, all to be cut out and made up by the children at home.

Outside Play

Children love to play outside. Many of the pastimes our 18th century ancestors enjoyed would seem so familiar that contemporary children would not hesitate to join in the fun.

Skipping rope was a common pastime for both boy and girls. In fact, during the medieval era, only boys skipped rope as strenuous exercise was not considered healthy for girls. During the Regency era though, girls clearly enjoyed the sport as well.

Afonso 01 1846
Yes, this is a little boy.
Hoops of various sizes were popular among children. Boys would roll metal and wooden hoops, propelling them with another stick. Girls would play the more sedate game of graces. Girls would hold two slender sticks and catch a ribboned hoop on the sticks. They would then throw the hoop to another player by crossing the sticks, allowing the hoop to slide down, then rapidly pulling the sticks apart.

When a body of water was available, children could play ducks and drakes by skipping a flat stone across the surface to see how many time they could make it skip. I'm sure they also had great fun jumping and splashing in puddles, but I'm not so certain mothers and nursery maids were as fond of it as the children. Ice skating and swimming were also popular near the water. Only boys swam though.

Indoor toys

Although their caregivers have wished for it, children could not always play outside. When play took them inside, many of their toys bore a striking similarity to toys we ourselves have played with.

Rocking horses, then as now, were a staple of nurseries everywhere. My boys had one they loved for years. It is hard to imagine childhood without one!

Child with toy soldiers
Yes, this is also a little boy.
Lepeintre doll Toy soldiers for the boys and dolls and doll houses for the girls populated houses with children as well. Initially, most toy soldiers were made in Russia, Germany, Prussia or Turkey. They were stamped and painted pewter figures. The ‘flats’ were sold by the pound and were cheap enough that small boys could amass an impressive force of troops. More expensive, and consequently less popular, lead soldiers were produced in France. It does give a modern mother a bit of a shudder to think about intentionally giving her child lead toys to play with, but we won't go there right now.

Dollhouse of Petronella Ortman by Jacob AppelDolls with changeable clothes and houses, called baby houses, for them to ‘live’ in first appeared on the marked in the mid-18th century. Previously doll houses, really elaborate miniatures more for show than play, had been the province of adults. The illustration is of one of these grown-up amusements. Baby houses were more to be played with than admired.

My First Dollhouse
A baby house
Dolls could be made of paper, papier-mâché, rags, wax, wood, ivory or porcelain. Elaborate clothing and furniture for dolls could be made or purchased for a little girl's most beloved companion.

Toy theaters complete with doll house like stage and backdrops and metal or paper characters were also common. Children could act out familiar stories for their playmates or their families. Creative children might write their own stories or even draw or paint their own characters for their miniature stages. These remind me a great deal of some of my favorite toys from my boys’ childhood. They played with a castle complete with knights and jousting horses and a dragon and a pirate ship with pirates, an island, treasure and a giant ogre defending it. Shhh, don’t tell, but I never got rid of those!

Speaking of my favorite things, in 1817, one of my all-time favorites was invented, the kaleidoscope. The originator, David Brewster intended it as a serious scientific tool. But given that over 200,000 sold in the first months of it being patented, I’m sure children of the era found it as endlessly entertaining as I do!

Jean Siméon Chardin - Retrato de Auguste Gabriel Godefroy Spinning toys have always been popular. I remember a period when  tops were always underfoot in my kitchen, where the hard floor was more conducive to spinning than the carpet. Whirling toys made their appearance in English Literature as early as 1686 while at least 5 kinds of tops were known in the 15th century. Both boys and girls played with tops and buzzers; apparently noisy, dizzy things have a universal appeal.

Similarly, the clacking, inexplicable Jacob’s Ladder constructed of wooden blocks and ribbons fascinates today’s children as much as it did yesterday’s. I’ve lost track of how many of these I have purchased through the years as gifts.

Bole Jeanne L Enfant Au Bilboquet
I'm not sure he's ever going to catch that ball on the tiny pin.
Bilboquet was another favorite toy. I remember the very first one of these ball and cup games I got as a kid. How hard I tried to get the knack of getting that little ball into the cup. I never did get very good at it, but it was a good way to occupy a dreary afternoon. No doubt many Georgian mothers and nursery maids thought the same thing. The game could be made easier with a larger cup in which to catch the ball, or could be made more challenging with a small cup or worse still, a tiny pin on which to catch the ball.

For our next family reunion I am planning to print instructions for making some of these toys for sons and nieces. I have a feeling they will enjoy constructing them as much as playing them.


Boyle, Laura. Battledore and shuttlecock. Jane June 13, 2013.

Boyle, Laura. Lawn Bowls. Jane July 17, 2013.

Boyle, Laura. Spillikins. Jane August 16, 2013

Davidoff, Leonore & Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850. Routledge (2002)

Grose, Captain (Francis) Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 edition Ikon Classics (2004)

Lydia Maria Child. Girl’s Own Book (1833)

Manring, Lynne. Children's Amusements in the Early Nineteenth Century. Memorial Hall Museum Online, American Centuries. Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters. Hambledon Continuum (2004)

Rendell, Mike. Sir David Brewster, the man with kaleidoscope eyes. Georgian Gentleman. December 11, 2013.

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and Children. Continuum Books (2010)

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)

Stone, Laurence. The Family, Sex & Marriage in England 1500-1800. Penguin Books (1979)

Toys and Games. History lives.

Waldock , Sarah J. Toys and games of Jane Austen’s time. Dec 13, 2011

Waugh, Johanna, Conkers and the games children played during the Regency. October, 2008.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at LongbournClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.


  1. Interesting and useful facts. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Thank you. That was enjoyable. I believe marbles may have also been popular. At least they were in America. I have some from the late 1700's. It is fun to see what toys have passed down through the ages.

    1. Yes they were. They're in part 2 of this post scheduled for next month. Thanks Deborah Ann!

  3. That was a very informative post. I found it gun to see what has passed on through the ages. I wonder if marbles was played in England. I know it was played in Colonial America. I have marbles from the 1700's. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

    1. They were played and in fact I believe it was at Cambridge that the governors had to make an edict against playing them on the steps of the main building. That's in the next part of this post.Thanks, Deborah Ann!

  4. Sorry. I posted pretty much the same info twice. Thought I accidentally deleted the first. Sorry to anticipate next month's post. Thanks for the info and your patience with me.

  5. Great post. I just have one question: what is your source for the statement that "strenuous exercise" was not considered healthy for girls in the Middle Ages?

    I have never seen anything that would suggest girls were coddled in the Middle Ages. After all, they were expected to climb all those castle stairs without getting out of breath and to ride long distances in all kinds of weather. (No comfy carriages yet!) They certainly hunted and hawked, and on occassion acted as commanders of castles under seige -- though of course it is nonsense to suppose they weilded weapons or had the strength required of boys. Still, I've never seen any suggestion in my research that girls were discouraged from physical exerciset, provided they could do it in "decent" clothing and were not pitting themselves against men. If I've missed a source, I'd like to know what it is. Thank you!


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