Toys as a Defining Marker of Humanity
Toys show up in the archeological record of all peoples and civilizations, and may even separate us from animals more than tools do. Crows can manipulate sticks and use them to pry insects from wood; monkeys use tools to gather food and for defense. But toys seem to be reserved for Homo sapiens. Did Homo neanderthalensis have toys? Some anthropologists think recently discovered cave paintings may have been done using stencils by our extinct cousins.
Stencils showing hands are a representation of something real, but isn’t that also what a lot of toys are? Dolls are not children, but often get treated like the real thing, though the first dolls were most likely used in religious rights instead of play. Certainly the small figurines (ushabti) found in ancient Egyptian tombs were not toys. The purpose of the wooden or ceramic figures “was to act as a magical substitute for the deceased owner when the gods requested him to undertake menial tasks in the afterlife.”
Plush toys, including some dolls, were arguably created in response to taxidermy. “The goal was a kinder, gentler take on taxidermied animals, and toymakers strove for a degree of realism,” reasons Elissa Strauss. “The German company Steiff, founded in 1880 and one of the first to manufacture stuffed animals, used to stuff their toys with wood shavings and featured limbs that could rotate.” While the first stuffed toys were quite stiff, the stiffness was considered to be a sign of quality and skilled craftsmanship.
Or, maybe toys are about empowerment? Cartographer John Spilsbury (1739 - 1769) introduced the first jigsaw puzzles to teach children geography around 1767. “Spilsbury affixed paper to wooden boards and cut his puzzles into pieces with a handheld saw. The product was expensive, and Spilsbury’s clientele included the children of King George III.” By the 19th century, new technologies streamlined the puzzle manufacturing process, cutting costs and increasing the general public’s access to them.
At the turn of the last century, construction toys became popular in response to the industrial revolution. Engineering, was on the rise.
Erector Sets, packaged metal bars with spaces for small nuts and bolts, made their debut in 1913. Alfred C. Gilbert (1884 - 1961) “sponsored contests that asked young builders to send photographs of their creations to his company.” He knew “the contests encouraged young boys to use their imaginations and build beyond any instruction book of set of plans. The contests also served as an ingenious form of market research.”
Just three years later came the Lincoln Logs that had small pieces of logs with notched ends that could be used to build cabins of various sizes and shapes. They were invented by John Lloyd Wright (1892 - 1972) between 1916 and 1917. They were marketed as “interesting playthings typifying the spirit of America.” Since then, “over 100 million sets of Lincoln Logs have been sold worldwide.”
LEGOs, the small interlocking building blocks, were invented in 1949 by Ole Kirk Christiansen. Although his company, the LEGO Group, was actually started in 1932, it primarily sold traditional children’s toys until the creation of its most successful and popular product. “In its  year history, LEGO has grown from a fledgling toy workshop to a vibrant multinational corporation that produces [over] 19 billion LEGO pieces a year.”
For centuries, materials used to make toys remained pretty consistent. According to Britannica:
“The earliest-known written historical mention of a toy comes from about 500 BC in a Greek reference to yo-yos made from wood, metal, or painted terra-cotta. It is believed, however, that the yo-yo originated in China at a much earlier date. In addition, the kite, still a popular plaything in China, existed as a toy there at least as early as 1000 BC. In India, clay animal-figures on wheels and other animal toys date to about 2500 BC. Later, brass and bronze horses and elephants were common playthings among Indian children from wealthy families.”
Billiard balls were the first “toy” to feature a plastic-like material. While they were initially covered in ivory, due to some erroneous belief, for a brief time ivory was thought to be in short supply. “There was a time when taking a perfect shot in a game of billiards could cause the ball to explode. That’s because the balls were made of celluloid, an early plastic that was, unfortunately, combustible.” By the middle of the last century, however, plastic became widely used by companies for affordable mass production.
Then, radio arrived. And after that, computers. The first computers of the 1940s and 50s were massive and extremely expensive, very few people had any familiarity with what they did or “with the types of mathematical equations these machines were regularly programmed to compute. Games like tic-tac-toe or William Higinbotham’s 1958 Tennis for Two were excellent ways to attract public interest and support.” In a way, video games were developed by computer programmers who were pushing the boundaries of their new technology.
Today, defining the word “toy” remains as difficult as ever. Mobile technology now serves as entertainment, a personal aid, and a work tool. But, it’s also a toy. A piano is both a piece of musical equipment and a plaything. While what makes something a toy may be debatable, what isn’t - so far - is that toys may be the main thing that separates Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis from animals. And that’s something to think about.