Historical Society - A brief history of playtime

Drawing and coloring books and an early toy baseball game can be traced back to the early 20th Century and the Victorian era. (Patrick Fisher Photo)

Playtime will be featured by The New Prague Area Historical Society with its current display. The various items can be seen at the New Prague Public Library, 400 Main St E.

"These are what kids would have played with before there was television, computers and video games," said Dennis Dvorak of the historical society.

Dvorak, Joan Winn and Judy Conn were among those who helped set up the exhibit. He noted that many of the items come from the 1950s, although there are also those from the Victorian era and the early 20th Century. Some are toys that generations of children enjoyed and still play with, including Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and the game Cooties. There are puzzles and coloring books featuring characters such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, those from classic stories, such as Sleeping Beauty. One also features western star Gene Autry. The display also has paper dolls of entertainers Debbie Reynolds and Pat Boone.

Dvorak said various items besides toys were found at general stores. They were also known as variety stores, dry goods, and five-and dimes. "Dime stores were essential back then," said Dvorak. "There were no shopping centers. People depended on local stores to provide things."

"New Prague had two to three of them (general stores)," he noted. "These were places where children had access to paper dolls, comic books, and other items. It provided an inexpensive past time for them." A close look at one book shows that it sold for 29 cents.

Many of the toys also taught children. With paper dolls, youngsters developed their manual dexterity and a steady hand while learning how to use a scissors.

Paper dolls also provided a lens on the time period they came out. "You easily see what the fashions were like then," said Dvorak. "Paper dolls had the most fashionable clothes of the period."

Different versions of paper dolls and even a paper village are among the toys from the early 20th Century. Another toy that made the jump between ages was the view finder. An earlier version was the stereoscope. Both took two photos and combined them into one.

The various toys often provided children long hours of entertaining themselves. Unless a child had siblings, they, especially those in rural areas, didn’t have playmates. Dvorak noted many still had chores, particularly those on farms.

Dvorak noted how some of the toys are older than 100 years. "Children had very few toys and what they had they took care of." Often the playthings were handed down to siblings or cousins.

The toys also represent a shift in how childhood was looked at. The early ones are from the era where childhood was shorter. Children were often expected to help bring in income. It was also a time when many youth left school early, many didn’t finish the eighth grade. To find jobs, young women would go to Minneapolis and St. Paul and worked as domestics such as nannies or maids.

After World War II, childhood was prolonged as long as possible. It was not uncommon for girls in middle school to still be playing with dolls.

"All these things reflect a time of innocence," he said.