‘Away with the toys – give me a gun!’ – Toys in the First World War

As we approach Christmas, in our latest blog, Rebecca takes a look at the impact of the War on toys and games for children.

National Doll League Children's Unconscious Doll Exerciser
National Doll League Children’s Unconscious Doll Exerciser© IWM (EPH 3325)

Although toy production was not seen as a priority war industry, the toy market continued to expand during the First World War in Britain. This was due to the patriotic fever in Britain combined with the restriction on German imported goods. Before the start of the war, many toys were imported from German. As anti-German feeling grew German toys became rapidly unpopular, toy manufacturers took the opportunity to exploit the gap in the market and combine this with the demand for nationalistic toys. Popular toys were rapidly altered to appeal to the nationalistic feeling within Britain. This resulted in ‘lead soldiers, forts, boats, aeroplanes and uniforms’ being sold exceptionally well to children.[1] Toy soldiers became increasing popular as they linked so closely to events occurring overseas. Teddy bears also became nationalistic, often dressed in various soldier`s uniforms.

There were also many nationalistic board games produced during the war, including one entitled ‘Kill Kiel’ which encouraged children to move Dreadnoughts into fighting positions across the sea, paralleling warfare.[2] These board games encouraged children to develop their interest in military strategy and affairs, as well as providing entertainment. Other nationalistic toys included Red Cross ambulances, Red Cross field hospitals and a game named ‘Trench Goal Football’[3] The aim of which was to get a ball across no man’s land and past the feeble goalie Willie, who was a parody of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Trench Football
Trench Football

Historian Rosie Kennedy in her book The Children`s War suggests that ‘children adopted war as a recurring theme in their games because they were surrounded by it in their everyday life’.[4] These patriotic toys connected children to the situation that was happening in the world around them and allowed them within the confines of their play to be involved in the war.

Rebecca Ball

[1] Rosie Kennedy, The Children`s War Britain, 1914 – 1918 (London, 2014), p.52.

[2] Luci Gosling, ‘Patriotism in the Nursery’, http://blog.maryevans.com/toys/.

[3] ‘What Did Children do for Fun? ‘, http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/0/ww1/25183931

[4] Kenneth Brown, The British Toy Business, A History Since 1700 (London, 1996), p.80.

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