Christmas is coming, which means it’s time to gripe about the materialism of the holiday. But can you really imagine Christmas without toys and games for children? In a 2013 paper, the historian Joseph Wachelder explains how giving toys for Christmas first became a thing, in early nineteenth century England. Before the Industrial Revolution, Christmas in England was a “public, exuberant, turbulent feast,” Wachelder writes. With the harvest complete, it was a time for laborers to celebrate and for patrons to present their servants with fresh meat and plenty to drink. But by the early nineteenth century, more people were earning their livings through wage labor, and that kind of carnival-style holiday was on the decline. In this new social reality, Christmas transformed from a public holiday to a family one. Where gifts had been for servants, now they were for children.
What sort of present is right for a child? Now, the obvious answer is a toy. But at the very start of the nineteenth century, Wachelder writes, the concept of “toy” as we understand it now didn’t exist. The word might describe any small object—a cheap hairpin, a fancy snuff box, or a bauble for a child.
Wachelder writes that the 1798 book Practical Education by Maria and Richard Lovell Edgeworth helped define toys as objects for children. Drawing on Enlightenment ideas about child development, the Edgeworths wrote that toys could help boys and girls “exercise their senses of the imagination, their imitative and inventive power.” They called for parents to give their kids cheap toys rather than expensive miniature objects intended just for looking at. That way, the kids could really play with them, and if they broke them, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.
Looking at issues of the London daily newspaper The Morning Chronicle published between 1800 and 1827, Wachelder found a steady increase in advertisements for children’s presents. In 1800 and 1801, he found no ads mentioning gifts or presents. By 1816, there were 30, mostly for children’s gifts and almost all in December or January issues of the paper. Half the ads specifically mentioned Christmas.
Among the playthings advertised were “a New Geographical game,” “Chinese Puzzle No. IV,” chemistry sets, and kaleidoscopes. Toy theaters, invented in 1812, also became a popular gift, as did toys that created optical illusions, like the thaumatope and the kaleidophone.
In these years, merchants began selling their wares with display windows in toy stores and heavily decorated Christmas sales. An 1823 advertisement for the Western Exchange Bazaar promised that “the Alterations, Ornaments, and Decorations of the Establishments are nearly complete, preparatory to the great influx of Nobility, Gentry, and the Public, usual at this season of the Year.” The Christmas shopping season had been born.