As the public school is the lever by which the improvement of society must be worked, every effort to provide means of training for those who would otherwise be without it—every endeavour to give the children of the poor useful knowledge of common things—merits the support of every educational influence. And this brings us to the practical observation that toys ought to be made to advance education, whereas a majority of those furnished to children in this country do more harm than good. At least half of them should be burnt ignominiously as early corrupters of public taste.
George Stephenson had few if any toys, but as intelligence dawned upon him he took the materials provided by nature and fashioned them after the things about him. Isaac Newton made mills and telescopes for toys. The father of the inventor of the steam hammer, who was not only an able artist but also a man possessed of much constructive skill, provided his sons at a very early age with saws, hammers, and other tools, and set them to the task of constructing their own toys. Many instances might be added of eminent men whose talents have been awakened in earliest childhood by some such means as this.
Look thru a collection of toys in the average city store and you will find them flimsy and inartistic in the extreme. Many of them are hideously ugly, others made as if expressly to break—an evil in more ways than one, since they may actually engender a habit of destroying. Some of the toys in the foreign bazaars display more artistic quality; the carts and drays are exceedingly well made, and the horses full of spirit.
Some of the best toys made are imported from Switzerland, the animals being cut in soft white wood and beautifully formed, with special disregard, however, to proportionate size. Whole families employ their time in the manufacture of these articles. One man is famous for his antelopes, another for lions, some for cats and dogs; and they often go on from youth to old age carving the animal of their choice. Indeed, some toys have afforded employment for several generations; and it is noticed that the gaily painted Swiss milkmaids and similar figures have not been altered in the slightest particular for a century or more.
In many other articles deterioration is evident. Compare the nut-crackers most frequently seen to-day with those common in the days of Queen Elizabeth or Charles II. The latter were not remarkable for purity of design or beauty of workmanship, but they show that quaint feeling which existed in former days, and which caused the old-time workmen to adapt, with different degrees of finish, picturesque and artistic forms to the most ordinary objects.
In examining the table vessels of the middle ages one is struck by the extent to which this feeling of design was carried out. Vessels were shaped like bears, lions and other animals, and when filled with the beverages of those days they were almost as powerful in the overthrow of man as the animals represented.
Some would have us leave the taste of the young to take its choice. “Thelwall,” says Coleridge, “thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion and be able to choose for itself. I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. ‘How so?’ said he, ‘it is covered with weeds.’ ‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.’”
The School Journal – December 19, 1903