Story: Children’s play

Page 6. Toys – from homemade to mass market

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Improvising toys

Māori children had a range of toys, including teka (darts), pōtaka (tops), pīrori (hoops), manu taratahi (kites) and pouturu (stilts). Karetao were a type of carved wooden puppet or jumping jack with arms that could be moved by a string. Small flax canoes were floated down rivers. Children made small model for games of mock combat.

Making a shanghai

A suitable prong was cut from a tree and trimmed. A piece of bootlace 7–10 centimetres in length was tied to each side of the prong, then a 20–22-centimetre length of elastic was tied to the bootlace. A holder for missiles – a small oval piece of leather from an old boot – was attached to the elastic with short pieces of boot lace. With a collection of small stones as ammunition, the shanghai was ready to go.

In the early period of European settlement the majority of settler children largely relied on homemade toys. Kites, stilts, bows and arrows, model boats, wooden animals, rag dolls and wooden dolls were all produced from material at hand. An essential boys’ toy was the shanghai, a home-made catapult used for hunting and general mischief. One ‘toy’ that was purchased rather than made was the pocket knife – a vital piece of equipment for the colonial boy.

Hoops and tops were among the most common 19th-century toys. Iron hoops could be purchased cheaply from a local blacksmith and trundled about with a stick. Tops could be made at home from a convenient piece of wood. The whip that propelled the top was constructed from readily available flax.

Manufactured toys

The children of wealthier families had a much wider range of toys, including manufactured items. Specialist toy shops were found around the colony by the 1860s and department stores also had toy sections. Most toys were imported, including mechanical wind-up metal toys, lead or tin soldiers, miniature tea sets, dolls’ houses, and wax or porcelain dolls. Teddy bears and golliwogs made their appearance in the 1890s. Boys already played with improvised guns, but with mass production toy guns became widely available. In the 1960s some parents began to campaign against the sale of toy guns on the grounds that they encouraged violence.

Toys for the very young

In the 19th-century infants’ toys generally consisted of improvised items such as rattles made from household materials. Many dolls and soft toys were home-made. In the 20th century mass-produced teddy bears and other infants’ toys became widely available. The development of plastic greatly extended the range of infants’ toys. In the later 20th century the idea that toys should help child development meant many more toys were designed specifically for the very young.

Toys of the 1950s

In his poem ‘1950s’ Bill Manhire lists toys from the era: ‘My cricket bat. My football boots./My fishing rod. My hula hoop./My cowboy chaps. My scooter./Draughts. Happy families. Euchre./Ludo. Snap. My Davy Crockett hat./My bicycle. My bow and arrow./My puncture kit. My cat./The straight and narrow. Fancy that.’1

Toys for fun and learning

In the mid-20th century more toys became available at lower prices. In the 1930s and 1940s New Zealand toy manufacturers had an impact on the local market. Jack Underwood, who began manufacturing metal toys in his basement, went on to set up the Fun Ho! toy company. Hector and John Ramsey mass-produced the classic Buzzy Bee designed by Maurice Schlesinger and developed a range of other wooden toys from the 1940s. New Zealand toy companies were largely swamped by large overseas manufacturers in the later 20th century. Fashions for particular toys such as hula hoops, yo-yos, frisbees and diabolos (toys that are spun on a hand-held string track) were promoted through the mass media. Clockwork and then electric train sets were coveted by children of all ages.

In the 20th century toys were increasingly designed to be educational as well as entertaining. Meccano construction sets had been imported into New Zealand since the early 1900s. They consisted of metal pieces that were bolted together to make vehicles and buildings. In the later 20th-century Lego sets, with plastic push-together blocks, became the construction sets of choice. Changing attitudes are reflected in the fact that Meccano was largely seen as a toy for boys, whereas Lego was regarded as suitable for girls and boys. Lego retained its popularity into the 21st century.

  1. Bill Manhire, Victims of lightning. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010, pp. 32–33. Back
How to cite this page:

Peter Clayworth, 'Children’s play - Toys – from homemade to mass market', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 April 2024)

Story by Peter Clayworth, published 5 Sep 2013