YOUR HISTORY: Mackin House explores the toys from our past

A wax doll and a toy touring limousine from 1911 are just some of the exhibits being shown at Coquitlam’s Mackin House museum. The displays show the changing attitudes parents had about toys over the last century.  - Submitted photo
A wax doll and a toy touring limousine from 1911 are just some of the exhibits being shown at Coquitlam’s Mackin House museum. The displays show the changing attitudes parents had about toys over the last century.
— image credit: Submitted photo

During the Christmas season many children have their hearts set on the newest toys and gadgets that light up, buzz and beep.

Now that the Christmas season has come to an end and the toy-craze has settled, let’s take a moment to think about the toys of the past. Many of these early toy examples are on display at the Mackin House Museum.

One-hundred years ago Coquitlam’s children played with toys made of wood and metal. The toy cars had wooden wheels, the rocking horse was wooden — not plastic — and the spinning tops were made from your mom’s old thread spools.

They did not light up like today’s Beyblades. Although, interestingly enough, children did play a spinning top game where the tops would battle each other, with the last top left spinning declared the winner.

Other than material and marketing, were those old toys really different from toys of today? In the early 1900s children were strongly encouraged — more so than today — to play with gender-stereotypical toys.

Girls would play with toys that called attention to domestic activities of motherhood and wifehood. This was seen as training for their expected adult roles in life. As reported by The Coquitlam Star newspaper on May 18, 1912, three times a week for one hour, girls stayed behind at the Convent School in Laval Square to practice sewing skills, while the boys went home.

Girls were taught both formally at school and informally through toys. The message of gender expectations lived through toy irons, doll houses, toy washboards and spinning wheels, which are on display at Mackin House Museum.

Since the Second World War and the feminist movement of the 1960s, women started to join the paid workforce. Parents began to encourage their daughters to play with gender neutral toys or even toys that test the boundary of the gender stereotype.

Even Barbie had career goals! Although Barbie is well known for her unrealistic interpretation of the female body, she was influential in inspiring young girls to have a career.

Barbie had a career in nearly every field, including many male-dominated fields such as a U.S. fighter pilot, a U.S. President, architect and a firefighter to name a few. This may be difficult to believe but Barbie actually demonstrates that girls can be anything they aspire to be (career wise).

On the other hand, in the early 1900s, boys were given more masculine toys that encouraged building, invention, and exploration. They were provided with toys that would motivate them towards a masculine trade such as construction, policing or firefighting.

This was often a field in which a father or uncle was employed and was used as a way for children to learn about norms in society and practice their masculinity. Nowadays, more and more parents are allowing their sons to play with non-stereotypical toys such as dolls. However, atypical play has been increasing at a greater rate for females than for males.

Indeed, as much as toys have changed throughout the year, much has remained the same. Girls still play with dolls and boys with trucks. But today they are encouraged to play with toys where they can explore, build and invent.

Mackin House Museum has a whole room on the upper floor dedicated to toys from the past. Come see what we have on display for 2014.

Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities’ three heritage groups writes about local history.


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