A cardboard box and a stick, that’s all children need to keep them occupied. But if you want to see some of the other things adults have given children over the years to keep them happy, pop on down to the Toy Museum in Zurich. It is a place of quiet, time-travel adventure.
Juxtaposed with a modern exhibition area, the toys from the 1800s to present day are displayed in easy-to-see cabinets. I wandered past windup toys, dollhouses (An excellent way to see how technology and changing societal mores have affected everyday life. What role do they play in cementing a player’s role in society?), trains, cars, soldiers and stuffed animals, to name a few.
The oldest toy is from 1790-1800. It is a carved wooden ‘shed’ with animals (allegedly hens but which, somehow, manage to look more like pigs) which bob their heads up and down as if eating, when a handle is turned.
Dolls, that childhood staple, were particularly plentiful. Moving through wood to leather to porcelain to plastic, they reflect the materials of the times. I wondered whether little Victorian children dressed and undressed their dolls in the way that modern children do. No velcro then of course so those layers of fine clothes would have had to have been manipulated very carefully. There were hats and bonnets and bustles and petticoats, satin and lace and boots. The dolls had full, rosy – if not downright ruddy – cheeks and painted eyelashes.
The earliest dolls on display dated from 1840. They are simply a wooden wedge (think today’s trendy doorstops), with a head. The child would wrap what was basically a stick of wood, in a cloth, like a swaddling garment, and hold it in the crook of her or his elbow. How simple were the expectations compared with those we as a society have instilled in our children. It would be interesting to give such a toy, handcrafted by a parent or grandparent, as they often were, to a modern child to see their response. Would the pleasure of a toy created specifically and lovingly for them outweigh its primitiveness? Perhaps that very simplicity and oddness would be its attraction.
A miniature railway station made from cardboard in 1868 accompanied by tiny, detailed cut-out people had me thinking about whether techniques of play have evolved. For example, did children playing with such flimsy materials develop greater care and dexterity or did they simply move toys around less?
It’s tempting to say that children of yore had better imaginations because they had to make do with less: “Today’s toys leave nothing to imagine.” But imaginative play resides in the child not the toy. A doll is still a doll who needs relationships and adventures; a car, whether made from wood or metal or plastic, still needs a geography and a purpose. (I concede though, that technology may become so alluring that it obliterates any desire to create story. I think here of children attending their remote-control vehicles.)
Upstairs, the display is organised into a decade per section. Children’s need to explore the relationships they see between the people (and the inanimate objects) around them is the constant through which innovations in manufacturing and changes in societal values are expressed.
To visit, catch trams 13, 11, 7 or 6 to Rennweg, in the city. Follow the brown signs to 15 Fortunegasse. The museum is near the top of the building. Take about one hundred stairs or one lift.