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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Toys and games of Jane Austen’s time

Pictures and information  taken from ‘Antique toys and dolls’ by Constance E. King Antique Toys and Dolls

Reflecting on the number and complexities of toys that many children will receive this Christmas, I wonder how many of them will be appreciated and enjoyed as much as the simpler and fewer toys of Jane Austen’s time!

One of the more sophisticated would be a brand new thing in 1817 – the kaleidoscope, invented by Sir David Brewster.  More about him and his invention here:

Many of the less sophisticated toys and games would be familiar to us today – though we might be surprised to find that skipping ropes were still, as in the Medieval era, confined to the use of boys, as it was considered unhealthy for girls to take such strenuous exercise.  It was now known as a skipping rope however; though the old term ‘jump rope’ continued in America.  I have seen a French print however in which the clothes appear to be around 1818-1820 where young girls are skipping; but one has to recall that the French Revolution was supposed to be for more egalité for women too! Possibly by the later period of the Regency attitudes were changing. Hoops and whipping tops were also popular.

There were definitely boys’ toys and girls’ toys as one might surmise; boys played with toy soldiers and girls with dolls. Boys also might wear miniature uniforms to pretend to be soldiers, and when very young perhaps would do so to ride on a horse like this:

Horses of this era are more slender in body than the chunkier ones of later years. Rocking horses were also popular, and one may be seen in the nursery picture at the top of the page. 

Most toy soldiers were made in Russia, Germany, Prussia or Turkey, and were flat engraved pewter figures stamped out and painted.  French made lead soldiers had been known from the sixteenth century, but they were more expensive and consequently less popular as most small boys could not build up so grand an army. The ‘flats’ were sold by the pound.  The same techniques were used for civilian figures such as skaters and circus figures, perhaps inspired by Astley’s Amphitheatre.

All right, I’m not going to pretend, it’s the dolls and dolls’ houses that are my real love.  Baby houses started life as toys for adults with costly miniatures [funny how that’s come full circle in many ways] though little girls had long been encouraged to learn the skills of housewifery with miniatures. By 1800 however the splendid cabinet houses of the previous couple of centuries had largely disappeared in favour of the baby house for the education and edification of little girls.  As today they varied from the simple to the complex. A small house may be seen in the print at the top of this page.  The picture below shows the fine façade of a house built around 1810:
Front-opening baby house, English, c. 1810, width 48" Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

Kitchen of 18th century baby house, dresser, grate and spit rack are original. Pedlar doll, unusually small, c1824, maid 1840, width of room 15"

I’ve always found kitchens particularly fascinating so here’s a close up of one dating originally from the eighteenth century though the figures are later.  They do not differ greatly from the Grödnertal type figures, also known as Dutch dolls, of the Regency period, similar to those dressed so lovingly by the future Queen Victoria.  Larger versions as more easily held dolls were made, carved in wood like the one in the print at the top of the page; few little girls would own anything as exquisite as the eighteenth century ivory doll below:
ivory doll with wire and fabric body wearing open robe and petticoat of 18th century silk trimmed with gold thread and lace. Again, earlier than the period being early 18th century but demonstrating some of the finest carving that might have been available.

Though papier-mâché  was a fairly new material and some dolls were made of that as this eighteenth century example is:
papier-mache doll dating to about 1780

More common were the wooden Grödnerthal dolls.
this example has an unusual swivel neck and is a large doll 23.5" tall.  Only larger dolls had such features as carved ears. c.1820

Wax and Parian were still largely employed only for those dolls portraying the latest fashions; and fashion dolls really deserve their own post. 

Larger furniture than that for baby houses was made for dolls, a doll’s cradle may be seen in the foreground of the picture at the top of the page, and below find a day bed and a writing desk:
Earlier than our period being late 17th century but I couldn't resist.  Beechwood. Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood

oak veneered with walnut inlaid with boxwood, late 18th century, 9" high. Bethnal Green museum of childhood
Toy theatres had grown from nativity scenes, and hours of fun might be had with a miniature pasteboard and wood stage and characters printed from various plays to be coloured in and cut out and mounted on spills to move onto stage from the wings to act out the plays.  Probably the more creative children made up their own plays and maybe drew and coloured their own characters. Doubtless these plays were used to entertain the whole family in an era when families had to make their own entertainment and a thespian excursion was a change from a musical evening.  Games of cards, spillikins, and board games like fox and geese also entertained a whole family.  Mother-of-pearl or bone fish were used as betting counters. Or perhaps they might play ‘The Newly Invented Musical Game, By His Majesties Royal Letters Patent, Dedicater by Permission to H.R.H. Princess Charlotte of Wales’ [c. 1801]. The picture below shows the game.  Anyone who knows how to play this, do please let me know!

It may not have been usual for young ladies to prefer reading to cards, but children did now have their own books.  The print at the top shows an alphabet book, though many alphabet books had rhymes to help remember the letters.  Charles and Mary Lamb had re-written  the tales of Shakespeare, bowdlerised [if one may use the anachronistic word] and simplified, for children and published in 1807;  later Charles Lamb wrote in verse a translation of the tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ fully illustrated.  Lamb actually named the beast as ‘Orasmyn’.  This was an age in which books were produced especially for children, although only the very wealthy would be likely to own them as paper was extremely expensive and books were all hand bound. 


  1. Reading this post brought back memories of playing theatre with my sister when I was growing up; we'd use our doll house furniture and other building blocks to do set design for several Shakespeare plays, and once, when we were inspired by seeing it on our American public television statement, a dual production of Sophocles and Anouilh's Antigone...oh those were the days...

    But it's extremely interesting how doll house collections can be so popular. There are several classic doll houses on display at a local museum where I live; and I can recall a friend who, as an adult, as you say, collected doll house furniture; but I'm wondering about doll house dimensions. I'm under the impression that the scale of older doll houses was a bit larger, with furniture that was scaled to dolls about 10 inches in height, as opposed to the more common doll houses now, where the scale is for a doll of approximately six inches. Is that correct? And what were the most popular furniture pieces?? You say you enjoy kitchens--was it kitchens, or bedrooms, or something else??

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post!!


  2. the scale was certainly quite variable; some larger and some smaller. we have a standard 1/12, ie 1"=1' generally these days though 1/24 is also fairly popular. a true dollshouse also isn't as picky about scale as an adult's toy! The room I show is 15" across and from that we can extrapolate that the dolls are about 7" tall and seem quite in keeping with the room.
    I like kitchens because the wealth of kitchen equipment to be found has always fascinated me, fireplaces and stoves, spitjacks, utensils, the minute copper jelly moulds in Victorian houses, tiny pewter mugs and dishes displayed on dressers and so on. The kitchen is so very much the heart of any household. One of my prized kitchen pieces is a carved bone butter churn and dash, which are in fact a novelty with a tiny photographic scene set into the dash that you hold up to the light to peer at; it dates back to around the first world war. where kitchens in real houses have been gutted, updated, made easier to use, dollshouse kitchens are a frozen microcosm.
    Hmm, sorry, I do go on rather, don't I?!!

  3. No, I completely agree with fact, to the extent that food is a new interest that scholars have, I am wondering if children's kitchen toys are anything that they have thought to look at...and I completely agree that a butter churn is a mighty precious find...what I remember from my own family dollhouse was that we managed to find musical instruments...a minuture grand piano; a violin...we liked the idea of there being music in our house...and rugs are another thing that for some reason felt like the height of luxury although a miniature rug is probably a relatively easy thing to do...

    But it is also interesting, from a cultural perspective, to contemplate what is NOT in a dollhouse. For example, are there dollhouses with studies in them, and miniature books? what about bathroom fixtures...are there miniatures that are as enlightening, regarding changing technology for indoor plumbing, or personal hygiene?? and what about telephones, typewriters, computers, and so recent dollhouses incorporate those?? are three any older dollhouses that include looms, or embroidery stands, or other artifacts of older definitions of "women's work?"


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  6. I only paid attention to the costumes and aesthetics of Jane Austen's women. As for toys and games, I didn't know about it. It was a magical post.

    1. thank you, sorry i did not reply before, I had family illness and missed a lot that was going on.

  7. Jane Austen’s toys and games are very strange, but I think her doll is a bit scary.

    1. sorry I did not reply before, I had family illness and missed a lot of what was going on.
      We don't know if Jane Austen herself ever had a doll; as far as I know, no pictures or descriptions of the Austen family toys exist, these are merely some of the toys available. Your comment interests me very much, as I don't find any of them strange, having played with similar toys myself - I inherited a toy theatre of around 1900, 100 years later but very similar in principle to the earlier ones, and I loved my dolls and dollshouses and toy furniture. I had more up-to-date toys, an 'electric' iron which 'plugged in' with a rubber suction pad, and child-sized ironing board [a frustrating toy as the iron was light weight and did not work; I learned to use a travel iron at 7 to iron my dollies' clothes] a bissel carpet sweeper which did work, small dustpan and brush and so on. Like little girls of the time I learned to sew, and like little boys of the time I played with airfix plastic soldiers, and marbles, and skipping rope and spinning top - my brother made me a whipping top out of a big thread spool.

  8. thank you; glad it is helpful. I have homeschooled so if you need any expansions let me know

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  11. interesting to see what toys were like back then.


    1. yes, and how many are familiar as well as how many are strange!

  12. Hi, John, I have a lot of books on dolls, toys, and games from the past, as I inherited some old dolls and toys when I was a teenager, and wanted to make sense of where they had come from. I don't have anything as far back as Jane's time, but I confess to carving my own Grodenthals.