Toys from the 20th Century, or Mr. Potato Head had a Son?!

December 7, 2017 | David

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Robot holding a book beside a baby who is upset
Toronto Star Photograph Archive

Like other objects, toys can tell us a lot about the times in which they were made. The entry for toys in Britannica Online (get free access with a library card) contains several interesting facts about the history of toys -- here are a few of them:

  • Dolls, balls, kites and yo-yos are thought to be among the first toys
  • Clay animals on wheels date back to 2,500 BCE in India
  • "The earliest types of play probably developed from the instinct for self-preservation... one of the first things taught to the young was the use of weapons"
  • Dolls and figures have been used to help children learn religious stories
  • Learning folk culture through handmade toys declined with industrialization.

Below is a short visual history of toys in the 20th century. The images come from Canadian product catalogues (like Eaton's catalogues from Toronto) and from the Toronto Star Photograph Archive -- all of them found in the Toronto Public Library's amazing Digital Archive.

1900 - 1950


A catalogue list of toy guns and toy whips
From 1900-1901 Nerlich & Co. catalogue
Book cover of man with bow and arrow aiming at a frog
The Nursery Rhyme ABC, a book in a series of Warne's playtime toy books, 1903
Doll with nightgown
From Simpson's 1918-1919 catalogue. It reads "'Baby Ella,' 16 inches high, with the prettiest smiling face, and eyes that will go to sleep. Has real hair wig. Price, delivered... $4.69"
Cover of Eaton's catalogue of a man in the fields with a cowboy hat  and an image from inside showing a toy container with disks inside and outside of it
Left: Cover of Eaton's 1920-1921 catalogue. Right: Toy from inside the catalogue, with a description that reads "Tiddly Winks. A six-player set, consists of wood cup and colored bone flips, both large and small. Packed in strong box. Price... 35 cents"
Catalogue items that are for girls  such as Wilson Minature Electric Ranges  Sunny Suzy Laundry Sets and a toy Sewing Machine
From 1933-1934 Wilson's Winter Sports Catalogue, page 96
Catalogue items for boys  such as Wilson Miniature Artillery  cowboy outfits and Givjoy forts
From the 1933-1934 Wilson's Winter Sports Catalogue, page 94
All text cover of The Moneymaker catalogue  next to one of the inside pages showing various toys with prices  like Toy Opera Glass  Toy Horse  Squeaking Clown and more
Left: Cover of The Money Maker catalogue from 1935. Right: Full page of toys inside the catalogue.


Two boys playing with a toy machine-gun
Toy machine-gun. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1943
1950 - 1999
Girl holds phone up to the head of a a larger-than-life doll'
Puddykins doll. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1959
Boy and a girl stare longingly at toy trucks on the wall of a store
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1962
Boy plays with a toy that consists of two balls attached by string
Klacker balls. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1971
Children using hula hoops in a park
Hula-Hoops. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1971
Toy with potato head held by a woman
Baby Potato Head (son of Mr. Potato Head). Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1978
Plastic dog toy with a water bowl
My Puppy Puddles, "Water in one end; out the other." Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1980
Ball of straw with googly eyes in a crate
Prairie Pet. Text on crate reads "Tumbleweed / A Piece of the West". Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1983
Plastic toy version of a gas pump for young children
Fisher-Price Gas and Go Service Centre. Courtesy Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1983
A small plastic car that transforms in to a standing robot
GoBots before and after transformation. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1984
Four action figures againsts a blank background
Master of the Universe action figures.  Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1984


Boy crunches down and looks through the sights ofa toy rocket launcher
Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1987
Smiling woman holds a pink trinangular boomerang toy
The Orbiter. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1991
Teenager playing with devil sticks
Devil sticks. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1994
Inside a toy store a woman carries three stuffed animal toys
"Tickle Me" Sesame Street toys. Toronto Star Photograph Archives, 1997
Woman standing beside shelves bursting with small stuffed animals
Beanie Babies, animal toys with pellets for stuffing. Toronto Star Photograph Archive, 1998


Dive deeper into the history of toys with books from Toronto Public Library:

  Book cover with illustration of of robot

Toy Time!: From Hula Hoops to He-Man to Hungry Hippos: A Look Back at the Most-Beloved Toys of Decades Past

  • Also available as an ebook


Book cover with illustrations of different toys in playful colours

Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions


Book cover showing a globe made in lego blocks

Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry

Book cover with plastic figures againsts a backdrop that measures their height

I Am Plastic: The Designer Toy Explosion  

Do you have nostalgia for toys from your childhood? Let us know in the comments!