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Collection of antique wooden toys

History's most popular Christmas toys for children

The evolution of toys mirrors the progress of human civilisation.


From the earliest handmade toys given to children in the Bronze Age to the sophisticated electronic playthings of today, toys and games have delighted, entertained and educated us for thousands of years. The evolution of toys mirrors the progress of human civilisation, so it’s time to take a look at their fascinating history.

Early history

The Ancient Egyptians are known to have given their children toys, such as dolls with hair and moveable limbs, spinning tops and wooden animals. Funeral portraits from Ancient Egypt often depict children holding dolls and other toys.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, children were given bows and arrows, yo-yos and dolls to play with. In Ancient Greek society, children were expected to burn their toys as a sacrifice to the gods when they came of age. It was also a custom for girls to offer their childhood dolls to temples on the eve of their weddings, usually around the age of 14.

Medieval toys and games

During the Medieval period, craftsmanship improved, and trade routes opened across Europe and Asia. This led to toys and games crossing borders and continents like never before. Intricately carved knights and castles were often given to the children of the rich, reflecting the era’s obsession with combat and chivalry. If children of the poor were given any toys at all, they were crude affairs, such as dolls made from scraps of cloth and straw.

The first board games also made an appearance during the Middle Ages. Games such as chess and backgammon quickly took Europe by storm, and they have remained popular ever since. Chess, invented in India in the 6th century, is the best-selling board game of all time.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment era of the 17th and 18th centuries saw the introduction of puppets, hoops, kites and spinning wheels, as well as more educational toys and games like puzzles and building blocks that reflected the intellectual pursuits of the time.

Board games also continued to evolve during the Enlightenment, most notably A Journey Through Europe, which saw players throw a dice and move across a board to reach an end goal for the first time. This game was an instant hit and is seen as the father of modern games such as Monopoly and the Game of Life.

The Industrial Revolution

The mass production of cheap toys during the Industrial Revolution meant more children than ever before were given the chance to play with toys, though not, of course, all children. This was the era of Dickensian poverty after all, and children of the poor were expected to work from the moment they were able.

Popular toys of the era included tin soldiers, porcelain-headed dolls and clockwork toys such as train sets. Meccano, introduced in Britain in 1898 by Frank Hornby, taught children the wonders of engineering, allowing them to construct everything from bridges to working machines with its metal strips, gears, axles and gears.

As the 20th century dawned, a small German company called Steiff produced a stuffed toy bear. It was soon christened the ‘Teddy Bear’ after US President Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear on a hunting trip in 1902. Teddy Bears have proved to be one of the most popular and enduring toys ever made and are seen as the ancestor of modern soft toys like Beanie Babies.

The 20th century

The 20th century saw the introduction of a material that changed the world of children’s toys forever - plastic. This gave birth to two of the most popular toys of all time. Firstly, in 1947, the Danish company Lego began manufacturing multi-coloured interlocking plastic bricks. By the end of the 1950s, the company had refined the design to resemble the Lego we’re familiar with today and it quickly became a firm favourite of children around the world. Now a multi-billion-dollar company with multiple spin-offs including video games, films and TV shows, Lego is seen as one of the most important toys ever produced.

Secondly, in the 1950s, the German doll Lilli inspired a behemoth of the toy world - Barbie. Created in 1959 by American Ruth Handler, the toy quickly became Mattel’s biggest seller. Today, over a billion Barbies have been sold worldwide, and the success of the recent tie-in movie has helped boost sales even more. Mattel claims three Barbies are sold every second.

The 20th century is often seen now as the ‘Golden Age of Toys’. As well as Lego and Barbie, the decade saw the introduction of action figures, toy vehicles and more board games.

The electronic revolution

The other significant development of the 20th century was the introduction of electronic toys and games, in particular, the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. There had been home computer game systems before - notably the Atari 2600 - but nothing had quite the cultural impact of the NES.

The NES was a trailblazer, paving the way for systems such as the Sega Master System, the Game Boy and the current dominant name in home gaming - the Sony PlayStation. Today, video games are the most successful entertainment product in the world.

Electronic toys of all shapes and sizes changed the world of toys and games forever; from educational toys such as Speak & Spell and Little Professor to toys that became worldwide crazes such as Furbies and Tamagotchis. Electronic toys - the spiritual successor to the clockwork toys of old - became wildly popular and remain so to this day.

An environmentally friendly future

In the 21st century, there is much more emphasis on educational and environmental play than at any other time in history. While kids still ask Father Christmas to bring them classics such as Lego and Barbie, many parents look for toys that aim to teach their children lessons about living in an increasingly diverse world, as well as toys that promote an environmental message.

Companies are now frequently criticised for their use of plastics, and many have pledged to do more to reduce their carbon footprints and become more sustainable and environmentally friendly in future.

Facts About Toys

  • The Beanie Babies craze of the 1990s is recognised as the world’s first Internet sensation. The toys, introduced by the Ty Inc. company in 1986, weren’t just bought as toys for children - they attracted serious investors. The most valuable Beanie Baby was a bear released in 1997 to commemorate the life of the late Princess Diana.

  • Over 275 million copies of Monopoly have been sold since the game went on sale in 1935. An occasional world championship is held, and the top prize is $20,580 - the value of the money in the game.

  • The most expensive Teddy bears ever made are the Steiff ‘Diamond Eyes’ bears. 125 were made to commemorate the company's 125th anniversary, and they feature diamond and emerald eyes and gold snouts.