Saturday, July 21, 2012

The History of Dolls: V & A Museum of Childhood

Jem and Stormer of Jem and the Holograms c.1986
During the past week in London, I've managed to fit in some unofficial research about childhood around my real work at the Bodleian Library and the British Library, where I have been reading girls' school stories. One thing I won't be listing on my university travel diary is a visit to Hamley's, an amazing toy store on Regent St. I braved four floors of frazzled parents, hyperactive kids, and enthusiastic staff demonstrating products in a zany fashion. Though the "zaniness" of the staff interacting with toys seemed confined to the boys' floor, with more sedate happenings on the girls' floor. Although technically they're not "boys'" and "girls'" floors since the "gender apartheid" of such labelling at this iconic store was pointed out last year. 

Nevertheless, the "not-just-for-girls" floor was a pink wonderland of Barbie, fairies and Hello Kitty. Astonishingly, there is even a beauty salon, at which girls can nag their parents into paying for them to have their nails, make-up or hair done, with glitter an optional extra. The salon is called Tantrum, and the website of the concept store doesn't give any sense that a boy would want to tangle with glitter tattoos or nail polish (after all, it's "the ultimate girls' experience): 

Shirley Temple cut-out doll, 1935
The current trends in toys make an ideal contrast to the history of toys and children's play that is recorded in the exhibits at the V & A Museum of Childhood. The Bethnal Green building once housed an odd mixture of items including collections from the Food and Animal Products displays at the Great Exhibition, as well as art works intended to bring culture to London's East End. Since 1973, however, all of the V & A's objects relating to childhood have been held here. With thousands of items dating from the seventeenth century onwards in the collection, only a fraction is able to be displayed. I gravitated toward toys from the nineteenth century and to those of my own childhood in the 1980s, hence the Jem photograph above (though I was more of a Barbie & the Rockers girl, despite it being a blatant copy). All of the periods represented have much to tell us about how childhood, manufacturing and branding have changed, and to reveal the fine strands that connect the toys of the past with those of the present.

Lillie Langtry soap ad
The Shirley Temple cut-out doll from 1935 is a good example of how celebrity crossed over media platforms long before the Olsen twins. Of course, celebrity association with brands began decades before Temple's dimples charmed the world, with the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising showing some of the products endorsed by music hall performer Lillie Langtry from the 1880s. While images of children, such as Millais' Bubbles, were used to sell products such as soap in the Victorian period, Temple is perhaps the first actual child to spawn her own merchandise.

Walking doll c. 1885
It is miraculous that many of the early toys survive at all, let alone with their accompanying packaging and tiny accessories in some instances. The care taken with them indicates the precious nature of children's toys in the 18th and 19th centuries, and differing ideas about their disposable nature today. The skill and patient labour required in the manufacture of many early toys is evident in the walking doll picture here: a mechanical device that made the doll perambulate was concealed beneath her large skirts. The Museum's amazing display of dolls' houses (which were originally the preserve of adults) shows the extent of the painstaking labour devoted to crafting these miniature replicas. 

Amy Miles dolls' house 1890
Though the V & A collection includes a royal dolls' house, the one pictured here from 1890 belonged to a girl named Amy Miles, who is believed to have helped in its construction. There are other objects on display that show how children and parents created or crafted their own amusements. I'm surprised my father didn't design his own board game like the very elaborate home-made game created by one family. A faultless girls' embroidery sampler from the nineteenth century shows the crossover of leisure time with the acquisition of practical skills for homemaking.

There were also amazing displays of optical toys, such as panoramas, shadow theatres and lantern slides, many of which promoted Britain's achievements or explained the customs of its colonies. In my next post, I'll show some of these toys that introduced ideas about the British Empire to children in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Janelle said...

Michelle, what an enviable trip! I look forward to hearing all about your reading/window shopping endeavours when you get back. I still have my Barbie and the Rockers stage set, in neon pink. I was an only child who was very particular in caring for my toys, so I still I have a lot of things I probably should have sold in a garage sale by now... I'd gladly swap it for a trip to London and Oxford, though!

Michelle Smith said...

Thanks for your comment, Janelle. Yes, let's catch up soon. I am exceedingly jealous of your Barbie and the Rockers stage set. I never managed to talk my parents into any accessories like that, or the much coveted pink Barbie Ferrari. Your toys might actually be worth something now that 80s toys are being collected- if you've got any boxes with your toys they are worth a fortune. We need to take the stage set TO Oxford and photograph it in front of something highly intellectual. That would be the ultimate.