On view January 20 through July 15, 2018.

A (Tiny)History of Play

As long as there have been children, there have been toys. However, what children have played with and how they play has changed over time. Discover how toys and play have evolved, and consider what you can deduce about a particular point in time by looking at playthings from that era. See a colorful variety of toys from the Historical Society's collections, learn about the rise of playgrounds, and find out how Washington has made its mark in toymaking history (the Slinky Dog was invented here, for one!). 

In the early 1800s, toys weren’t easy to get in the United States. Children spent most of their time outdoors, playing with homemade toys. Because of the rise of American manufacturing during the Civil War (1861-1865), mass-produced toys became more easily available in the 1870s. Children played with dolls, games, and other items that were available for purchase at local mercantiles, stores, and mail-order businesses.

In the 1900s, as a result of child-labor laws, children began to work less and play more. Parents gave toys not just for holidays and birthdays but also to reward good behavior. In the 1920s, it became popular for children to save money to buy their own toys.  

By the 1960s, television made a major impact on children’s play. Programming and advertisements changed how children played and the toys they chose. Playtime became more structured as families enrolled children in classes and organized activities. 

Today, there is a growing preschool movement in the Pacific Northwest encouraging free play and nature-oriented education for young children. Video games and mobile phones have also changed how and when children play, making playtime available at the press of a button.