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CW Journal : Christmas 04 : Babies, Balls, and Bull Roarers

Babies, Balls, and Bull Roarers

Christmastime or Anytime, Kids Still Enjoy the Toys and Games Their Forebears Loved

by David Robinson

Doll in gown

Bewigged and begowned in lace and embroidered silk, this doll, now in Colonial Williamsburg's collections, must have been the treasure of some eighteenth-century girl. Photo by Hans Lorenz.

What a doll. She's a tall, slender beauty with flowing tresses and shining eyes and a Mona Lisa smile. She's got it all: gently arching eyebrows, shapely legs, petite fingers and feet. And what a wardrobe—a lace-trimmed dress of watered silk, a satin petticoat, two white undercoats, whalebone stays at her tapered waist, fancy silk socks inside brocaded shoes, and a robe in rainbow hues with sleeves turned back for a flirty glimpse of forearms.

A doll indeed. She's carved of wood with a face of gesso and languid eyes of glass that would steal Ken from Barbie any day. Not to be catty, but Barbie is, after all, in her fifties—all the more galling to lose a boyfriend to a rival in her 200s.

Barbies by the thousands stare through plastic on the crowded shelves of today's cacophonous super toy stores. Her colonial counterparts may have sat among the bonnets and purses on a shelf of the millinery shop in Williamsburg, whose proprietor, Margaret Hunter, advertised "a variety of Toys, dressed and undressed Babies, Green Silk Purses etc." in the Virginia Gazette of October 15, 1772. Lucky was the little girl—and well-heeled her family, no doubt—who was given this stylish lady as a toy.

But for most of the kids in town, and nearly all the kids in the countryside, toys came not from stores or Santas but from their own imaginations and ingenuity. When father's carriage broke a wheel, the iron tire made a dandy hoop. Stand it up, whack it with a stick, and see how far you can keep it rolling, you running and whacking alongside. It's not as easy as it looks; the infernal thing wants to veer or wobble or just fall down and rest, and it takes a deft hand at the stick to keep it tracking straight and true.

When mother set her girl to husking the corn, the child saved some husks and made her own doll. It's easy: tie four husks together near the big ends, double the long leaves back, tie off the neck, and there's your head. Slide a twisted husk up the skirt to the neck, and there are your arms. If it's a girl doll, add husks for a skirt, tie off the waist, and you're done. Divide the skirt and tie it off into two legs, and it's a boy. Give it a name, paint it a face with charcoal or pokeberry juice, sew it a wardrobe of remnants, and when it wears out, make a new one and use the old to kindle a hearth fire.

Engraving of Indian girl with toy

An Indian girl near Sir Walter Ralegh's 1580s Roanoke Island settlement plays with the English gifts of a rattle and a doll in this 1590 Theodore de Bry engraving based on a colonist's watercolor. Image courtesy of the Mariners' Museum.

Engraving of rural youths at play

London's L. Truchy executed this hand-colored line engraving of rural youths at play based on a painting by Francis Hayman. A copy is preserved in Colonial Williamsburg's collections.

Indian children had been making corn-husk dolls for centuries when Sir Walter Ralegh's colonists stepped ashore at Roanoke Island in 1585. They were "greatlye delighted with puppets and babes which are broughte oute of England," wrote chronicler Thomas Harriot. In John White's painting of an Indian mother and daughter, the child holds one of the gift dolls the expedition brought across the Atlantic. It's an incongruous snapshot: the nearly naked daughter of an Indian chief clutching a little lady in Elizabethan finery.

Sir Walter's gifts weren't "dolls." Not yet. Until the 1750s these little figures would be called "Bartholomew's babies" or just "babies," after the great Bartholomew Fair in England, where so many of them were bought and sold. Some weren't toys but style statements, stitched in the latest fashions to be copied full-size by seamstresses far from the big-city tastemakers in days before there were patterns and ladies' magazines. Baby dolls were also far in the future; the "babies" of colonial times were full-grown femmes fatales. Artists of the day followed the same convention, often painting infants as scale-model adults.

Kids have always found something to play with—a stick, a bone, a handful of pebbles, a mud puddle, a bug. As humans learned to make tools, their children surely made toys: sharpen the stick and spear the bug with it; break off a piece and float it in the puddle; bend the stick and see how far it will fling the pebbles; keep one sharp pebble to scratch a design in the bone. But if such were the toys of our ancestors, not a scrap survives to tell us so.

The earliest toy we know of—if indeed it was a toy—is a carved stone ball forgotten by its owner 5,000 years ago in what is now Scotland. Throughout human history, no other toy has rivaled the doll or the ball. When settlers sailed to America's shores, the children they brought with them might have seen Native American girls cuddling dolls made of corn husks or carved of wood with a handle instead of legs, or watched boys playing a game with balls of feather-stuffed hide that evolved into lacrosse.

Puritan fathers harrumphed. Child's play was a sinful waste of time, for it was God's time being wasted. There was a wilderness to tame and a living to be made and idle hands to be kept from the Devil's mischief, and children must do their share. Not the little children, of course, "for their bodies are too weak to labour," said minister John Cotton in the 1650s. "Even the first seven years are spent in pastime, and God looks not much at it." At seven, however, after an infancy trussed up in swaddling clothes and another six years in neck-to-toe dresses like his sister's, a boy was "breeched" into garb more like his father's. It was time to put him to work.

On the long sea voyage of the Arabella, scrawled John Winthrop on "munday Ap:12" of 1630, "our Children and others that were sicke, and laye groninge in the Cabbins, we fetched out...they soone grewe well, and merrye." Two days later, on "Wensday ...our Captaine sett our children and yonge men to some harmless exercises, which ...did our people muche good." It was harmless because it was play for a purpose, not for fun. Did a boy bring a ball aboard, or a girl a rag doll? We look in vain for toys from these times.

Girls play with dolls at the Powell House

Costumed Claire and Amanda Schumann play with dolls in a Powell House Christmas tableau. Photo by Dave Doody.

Children viewing an antique toy exhibit

Children delight in an antique toy exhibit at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Photo by Dave Doody.

By 1712, child's play wasn't so bad after all. "Time for lawful Recreation now and then is not altogether to be denied them," wrote Benjamin Wadsworth in his Well-Ordered Family. "Yet for such to do little or nothing else but play in the streets a great sin and shame." At seven or eight, he said, they were "almost able to earn their living." Thus many of the toys and games that come to us from these times kept the younger kids happy while their older siblings chopped and spun and raked and patched and churned and fetched and babysat.

Big boys of sturdy stock could stuff a leather bladder with straw, feathers, or "wynd," and kick it around for fun. But not in the streets of Boston; such roughhousing was banned in 1657. By 1791, "Foot Ball" still hadn't gained much favor with the likes of the Rev. Mr. William Bentley, who deemed the game "unfriendly to clothes, as well as safety." He said that "the bruising of shins has rendered it rather disgraceful to those of better education." College boys played it nonetheless; a contemporary painting shows Yale undergrads respectably scrimmaging in tall hats and swallowtail coats.

School interfered with the younger children's playtime, then as now. But when the lessons ended and the hornbooks were put away, up to the clouds went kites with tails of rags. Out of pockets came marbles of glass or clay, or a jackknife to whittle a whistle from a willow shoot or a popgun from a stick of elder. Out came a young girl's prized kitchen in miniature—not an educational toy, for there were none such then, yet it did teach a future homemaker to bake her cakes in the round pan with the center pedestal and serve her puddings in the two-handled dishes with the domed lids.

Like a child's own birthday, the birthday of Christ became a day to receive a present or two. Or thirteen, as in the shopping list George Washington put together for his young stepchildren, John and Patsy, in 1759. Among the Christmas presents were a squeaky "bird on Bellows," a mechanical "Man Smoakg," and "A Tunbridge Tea Sett" and "A neat dress'd Wax Baby" imported from the Royal Tunbridge Fair.

By Revolutionary times, Washington could have done his Christmas shopping in Boston, where there was a thriving toy store and the newspapers were carrying ads for all sorts of toys—rattles, tin drums, rocking horses, dolls "drest or naked." Bunker Hill may have made a great run for boys on sleds with slick beef bones for runners—almost as good as the Indian sleds with runners of bison ribs.

The child without a toy played a game instead. Grab your left wrist with your right hand; have a playmate do the same; then each grabs the other's right wrist to make a seat for a third playmate; now run around without dropping your passenger, and you're playing honey pots.

Play tag in the snow, and you're floundering through a game called pickadill. And who hasn't hopscotched through the same sidewalk pattern of rectangles that kids scratched in the dirt and called "Scotch-hoppers" two centuries ago?

Today the array of toys and games under a Christmas tree can be dazzling—and sometimes, to parents, a bit disquieting: kill aliens by the hundred with just two thumbs; install batteries and watch while the toy, not the boy, does something; stare at a video, listen to a boombox, download a game, be entertained; slouch on the couch and watch whatever's on, then yawn and say, "I'm bored." Roll a hoop? Spin a top? Not cool.

Tarpleys store

Tarpley's Store clerk Andrea Rowe, center, teen Emma Cross, and, left to right, Williamsburg children Julia Lake, Gresham Wagner, and Ciara Montgomery enjoy colonial-themed books, toys, games, and costumes. Photo by Dave Doody.

Or maybe just not familiar. Watch today's young visitors to Williamsburg as they discover some of the toys their forebears enjoyed. Off they go, running and whacking at a wooden hoop or teetering on a pair of stilts. Brows wrinkle and tongues get bit while they try to catch the ball in the cup. Cat's cradle can hold them spellbound as they finger a loop of string into intricate patterns and clever tricks. To their colonial forebears, this was cratch-cradle, named for the cratch, or manger, that cradled the newborn Jesus seventeen hundred Christmases before. In the Williamsburg Marketplace today, young imaginations awaken at the intriguing assortment of toys from long-ago childhoods—a doll and cradle bedding set, a drum, a maple fife, a tin whistle and song sheet, a wooden hoop and stick, a tabletop bowling set. And what is girlhood without a jump rope or tea set, or boyhood without marbles or a bull roarer?

What, asks today's child, is a bull roarer? The kid who knows can tie a loop of string through two holes in a big button or a slab of wood, twist the string, give a pull to start it spinning, and revel in the raucous roar of the bull.

In The Pretty Little Pocket Book, colonial parents in Revolutionary times could read up on children's games and teach them to their kids. Today's moms and dads might not recognize chuck-farthing, stool-ball, fives, squares, or I sent a letter to my love. But the laughter of children echoing from the little volume still sounds today as children put down the remote and the controller and scramble outside to play games their ancestors played—tag, hide and seek, blindman's buff, leapfrog, hop, skip, and jump.

Recognize them? Sure you do. You were a kid once, too.


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Massachusetts writer David Robinson contributed "accepte our poore indevour," an article about the first representative assembly in English America, to the summer 1995 journal.