In studying the archaeological record, it can be a bit difficult to tell when you’re looking at a toy. After all, toys are mostly defined by their use: they’re intended for play, not serious activity. But play leaves few concrete signs behind, and archaeologists are admittedly prone to labeling something as “ceremonial” or “ritual” when they’re not sure what the intended purpose was for a given artifact. And when it comes to toy versions of practical objects — which is quite a lot of this category — we’re left looking at characteristics like size and materials to guess whether an object was a real tool, a ritual item, or something intended for play.
Size is relevant because toys, in the usual sense of the word, are almost exclusively the domain of children. This isn’t only because adults often have less leisure time, or prefer to spend what leisure they have on things other than fooling around with toys; it’s also because the kind of play children engage in frequently doubles as practice for adult life. This holds true even in the modern age, where you can buy fake plastic cell phones or kitchen sets, or miniature cars for the kid to sit in. We’re naturally imitative creatures, and so children want to imitate the things they see their parents doing.
But there’s a practical side to that as well. We’re imitative creatures because that’s how we learn — everything from language to manners to basic tasks of life. Much of the strong gendering of toys (dolls for girls; tools or weapons for boys) has its roots in the desire to socialize children for their gendered roles in life. Ergo, little girls practice caring for babies or hosting their friends over for tea, while little boys practice warfare or the craft of their father. I have a memory of reading about some society where babies that are old enough to grab objects are set in front of various toys, and the one they reach for either sets their path in life or is taken as a divinatory prediction of where they’ll end up; I suspect that’s a fictional society, but as I can’t recall anything more about it, who knows. (If you do, let me know in the comments!)
When we make practice versions of things for children, we don’t just make them smaller. We also make them out of different materials: either flimsier ones (because we know kids are likely to wreck stuff and there’s no point pouring a lot of money into something that won’t survive anyway) or sturdier ones (because we know kids are likely to wreck stuff and therefore it needs to stand up to their abuse). So little Timmy gets a toy sword that’s two sticks tied together instead of sharpened steel — it’s better for his friend that way — but little Tina gets a tea set of plastic, which won’t shatter when she drops it on the floor. Like anything else, though, this is shaped by the economic situation of the family; royal children may well get gilded toys, or dolls made out of painted porcelain instead of tied rags.
Not everything is directly about practicing specific adult responsibilities, however. Another category of toys serves to aid in general development, whether physical or mental. You see a lot of that first type historically, in the form of balls, hoops, jump ropes, and so forth, plus the toy swords again. Playing with them means running, jumping, throwing, catching, and otherwise improving your physical strength and endurance. Hand-eye coordination, too: knucklebones or jacks, cup and ball, diabolos, marbles, and props for juggling all teach dexterity. This blurs over into games and sports, so we’ll come back to that in the next few essays.
I suspect — though I don’t know for sure — that educational toys for mental purposes are more of a modern trend, sparked in response to the intensive education required by today’s society. Which is not to say that there was never a mental component to historical toys, but things designed to train the memory, teach the alphabet or numbers, or develop spatial reasoning skills tend to be more recent inventions. The oldest jigsaw puzzle, for example, appears to have been made in the eighteenth century. But just as toys for physical activity slide out of the “toy” category and into related topics, so too does this meld into games.
The childhood love for animals appears to be innate to our species, judging by how widespread in both time and geography animal-shaped toys are. Roughly modeled in clay or carved out of wood, they’re more likely to depict animals that are either useful to humans or admired for some reason; horses are extremely common, but also cats, dogs, and birds. Not so much with, say, toy lizards — though in modern times you do find those, probably as a result of our changing relationship with nature. Mostly they’re small things you can hold in your hand (or teethe on, if you’re young enough), but hobby horses get bigger . . . and also cross back over into both the “physical activity” type of toy, and the “practice adult skills” type.
Toys today are weird. Unlike the many societies with a distinct rite of passage into adulthood that requires you to set aside childish things, the modern West tends to valorize play as a legitimate activity for adults. When a toy’s advertising says “for ages X and up,” the “and up” is pretty much without limits. And this creates the weird subculture of collector’s toys, where people hold onto stuff out of nostalgia, and then the demand creates a market, the market creates value, and the next thing you know, somebody is buying a toy explicitly not to play with it — instead they put it on a shelf, still in its original packaging, lest its value be diminished by somebody actually using the toy.
At that point, I suppose, the archaeologists would be right to label it “for ceremonial use.”