Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Poor Polly's Playthings

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IT may at first thought appear an absurdity, but it is, nevertheless, profoundly true, that not least among the many good reasons why England should beware of being beguiled into a war with the rest of Europe is that one of the almost immediate results would be a toy famine in our land. Why it should be would not be easy to tell, but it is a fact that we are no more independent in the matter of toys than as regards our breadstuffs and our bacon, and the hundred other commodities that go towards the sum total of what are called the necessaries of existence. There are some - and they would most likely be the old bachelor portion of the community - who will say that it is ridiculous to speak of mere toys as bearing any relation even to our daily needs; but the only reply that can be made to all such observations is that it is a great pity that those who utter them do not know better.
    A very little reflection should convince us that toys are almost [-78-] as essential to our children's wholesome growth and well-being as the food they eat and the clothes they wear. The melancholy effects of a toy dearth would make themselves apparent in a very short time - ere our present race of small girls and boys became women and men. It is not a mere question of amusing the infant mind. Deprived of their doll and their doll's house, our little maidens would be shut out from influences that are who shall say how valuable in developing characteristics that in after life go so far towards making them inestimable wives and mothers? The waxen image with its pink shoes and flaxen curls is not a mere object to idolise. Were it so, it might be well spared. Children, girls especially, are shrewd observers, and the faculty of imitation is seldom wanting in them. Their treatment is always a more or less exaggerated repetition of their nursery personal experiences, and one, as a rule, finds the parent's or the nurse's method of child management reflected in Miss six years playing at being mother with a sawdust-stuffed baby. She takes an earnest and methodical delight in dressing and undressing it, and in making its bed in the tiny cot. With an expression of countenance indicative of her sense of the responsibility that rests with her she attends to dolly's wardrobe, and so discovers in a practical manner the use of needles and cottons; in its behalf, she sets the Lilliputian house in order, and makes everything within it neat and tidy, so that even mamma, should she peep into it, could find no faults.
    Many an adult might learn a useful lesson were he at times privileged to peep into dolldom when the presiding genius was at home with her waxen and wooden family gathered about her. It is good to be a furtive looker-on when the young dolls' housekeeper, overhauling the contents of the nursery litter cupboard, comes on an old favourite long discarded on account of its infirmities. Accident has deprived it perhaps of its nose, it has become prematurely bald, or a murderous assault by the terrier has incurably crippled both its legs; anyway it has been relegated to obscurity as being no longer presentable in respectable company. But now, as its mistress contemplates it so forlorn and neglected, so dusty and shabby, her old love returns for it in full force, and she bedews its battered visage with remorseful tears and makes humble confession of her penitence to it. Yes, that day at least she will have nothing to say to her new doll, who as yet is spick-and-span and innocent of flaw or defect; she gives herself entirely to the comfort and caressing of the legless one, dressing it in the richest array at her disposal and placing it in the position of honour. Nor does it invariably happen that the newly-fanned flame dies out as quickly as its warmth was rekindled. Often enough it proves that the old affection revived is constant ever after-during doll- hood that is to say-and that, however splendid may be the doll who appears as the reigning favourite, the invalided one is snugly bestowed in the toy box, the doll of dolls, after all is said and done.
    The child doomed to a doll-less existence has an injustice inflicted on her for which no other education can effectually compensate, and the result of the unnatural deprivation would of course manifest itself more markedly if she [-79-] were at the same time deprived of every other kind of plaything as well. Nor does a toyless boy afford a spectacle less to be pitied. Cut him off from bat and ball, from battledore and shuttlecock, from kite and rocking-horse, and from mimic fife and drum and peg-top and whipping-top, and what would life be worth to him? It would be of little use endeavouring to make it up to him by supplying him with an abundance of what are called educational toys - with boxes of wooden " bricks" that he may study the art of bridge-building and the principle of the key-stone, or with magnetic fish and hydrostatic and pneumatic implements and kaleidoscopes, or any other gilded pill of the make-believe plaything sort, by means of which a boy may be beguiled into acquiring a knowledge of scientific laws when he imagines he is simply amusing himself. On the specious plan alluded to they make soldiers in France. In that country miniature guns, swords, and cannons are looked on as almost the only playthings fit for a boy, and the result furnishes significant proof of how great is the influence of the toys of the child on the character and disposition of the man. Take away from an English boy his accustomed playthings and he would mope and be miserable. In sheer desperation he would be driven so constantly to his books that, ere he attained his teens, he would have become so terribly clever as to be a nuisance and an abhorrence to all who knew him: his heart would grow grey while yet his head bore the curly locks of youth, and there would be for him nothing in the world that was not sour to his taste as a green goose-berry.
    There would be danger of this alarming state of affairs coming to pass in the event of England being "Boycotted" by other nations, including Germany, France, and Switzerland, from which countries nine-tenths of the toys placed in the hands of English children are derived. We have not the knack of cheap toy-making. It would be a gain to us if we had. It is not a sufficient reason that we do not give our attention to it; because the scanty pay the women and children toy-makers of Germany and Switzerland receive makes it more profitable to import toys than to invest capital for their home production. I don't know what the rate of pay of a German toy-maker may be, but if she earns less than our lucifer-box maker or our slop tailoress, it is a marvel how she keeps whole - hearted enough to stick to toy-making at all. There are thousands of poor souls, women and girls, residing in the back streets of London, whose average earnings do not exceed sixpence a-day, and such, if they could be taught to move their fingers at toy-making as nimbly as they are compelled to at the starving trades at which they [-80-] at present find employment, the occupation would be far pleasanter, and might be made to pay as well, or better.
    And this idea is the more worth consideration in view of the undoubted fact that year by year the custom of introducing toys at our domestic festivities grows more common. This is due, no doubt, in great part, to our adoption of the German Christmas tree; and it may perhaps be argued that, since we are indebted to Germany for the pretty idea of the tree, we should not begrudge that country the privilege of providing the fruit for it, especially as the crop she assures us is so abundant and unfailing. There is enough for all. Choice fruit, in shape of imitation horses and donkeys, so elaborately made and finished that they cost almost half as much as the living creatures of the common sort, and clockwork peacocks valued at a guinea and a-half and Noah's arks with every animal so true to nature that the price of the whole collection, with the ark to keep them in, is ten or twelve pounds; and farmyards, with sheep that bleat when you stroke their fleecy backs, and tin ponds for the ducks and geese to swim in. These high- class fruits of the Christmas-tree, for those who can afford to indulge in such luxuries, with hundreds of cases, each one as large almost as a two-roomed country cottage, and stuffed full with toys, cheap and common, are such as eventually find their way at Christmas and on New Year's Eve to the fancy shops and the countless toy-stalls that now, on such occasions, may be seen in every street market-place in the metropolis. Cheap and common though they may be, however, the toys of Poverty Market are neither slovenly in shape, nor coarse and vulgar in design. The only exceptions to the rule are those hideous wooden painted dolls, with eyes that invariably squint, and whose matchwood legs, hinged to their square trunks, stretch out with obstinate rigidity and break off short when any attempt is made to compose them. Where these monstrosities hail from, and how it happens that they still find a place in the English toy market is quite unaccountable, unless it is that there are still to be found amongst the more ignorant of the poorer classes, mothers whose reign over their children is a reign of terror, and part of whose system it is to scare a fractious child by thrusting one of these dreadful little bogies before its eyes. But in every other respect the improvement that has taken place in the manufacture of the cheapest kind of toys is as amazing as it is gratifying.
    There was a time, and that not more than a quarter of a century since, when almost the only toy (excepting the squinting penny doll above mentioned) with which a poor man's child was acquainted was the famous "lamb," with its body of clay, cotton-wool for fleece, and five lucifer matches for its legs and tail. Nor was this curiosity of nature to be always obtained. People had to wait for the day when the old woman who appeared to hold a monopoly for their manufacture came round. It was lucky for the old soul that she did not live in these later times, or, with her ringing cry she might have found herself "put down" along with the muffin bell. "If I'd as much money as I could tell, I'd never come crying young lambs to sell," piped up the old woman; and she did such a trade that it is by no means certain that [-81-] the reason why she retired from the trade was not that one day she found time to tell over the money she had accumulated, and, finding she had enough, she gave over lamb-making, and that particular breed for which she was renowned became extinct.
    You may buy a lamb for a penny still on any street market stall, and, with all respect for the memory, of the old woman, it is worth an entire flock of the ridiculous things she used to turn out at the price. You may buy every other kind of toy at an equally reasonable rate-a clockwork mouse for twopence, and a set of doll's tea-things for three- pence, either in china or artistically turned in wood. The ancient and ludicrous spotted hare with his body like a ninepin and his legs mere stumps, has retired in favour of an animal symmetrically shaped and finished; while the long established peg top has found a formidable rival in a self-acting spring spinner of handsome appearance, the price of which is only one penny. The very marbles are not what they were when I was a boy. There were only two sorts then, and they were known as "commoneys" and "stoneys." The first were brittle disappointments in baked clay, and as often as not shattered themselves and our hopes as well at the moment of victory. The others were more durable, but they were exceedingly expensive. You got no more than six or eight for a penny probably. But marbles are moulded in glass now - elegant little globes, curiously threaded and coloured with all the hues of the rainbow - and I saw them the other day in Brick Lane being sold at the rate of ten for a halfpenny, which, one way and another, is evidence of the eternal fitness of things. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." There never was a time when our schoolboy Jacks, and Jills as well, were so hardly worked as now. They require, consequently, a more abundant supply of toys than formerly, and at a price fairly within their means, and lo! here they are.
    In connection with the toy interest there have always been two of its features that I could never understand, nor was anyone I ever yet applied to able to give me any satisfactory information. In the first place, who are the unknown geniuses constantly racking their inventive faculties to produce some new whimsy penny plaything ? and, secondly, by whom is it that the said latest inventions carried hot from the factory (wherever that may be) to the neighbourhood of the Royal Exchange, there to be retailed by a band of gutter speculators who seemingly are engaged exclusively in this line of business ? As to the first question, it is quite certain that the novelties are not all the creation of one man's brain. Any one familiar with the neighbour-[-82-]hood of the Bank of England, the Exchange and Broad Street, with eyes to see and ears to listen, cannot have missed the fact that scarce a day passes without there being "something new in the hands of the penny toymen exhibited and bawled out to tempt those of the crowd that throng the pavement. The variety is endless. To-day it is a magic mousetrap, a marvellous microscope, or a dancing donkey; tomorrow, a Chinese puzzle of rings and links, a Japanese parasol, a squeaking Jack-in-the-box, a jumping frog, or a wonderful bird- whistle. It would occupy at least half a column to enumerate merely the names of these new wares and toy tricks, that sell by hundreds on a Monday, and are represented by something else on Wednesday, becoming at that time so stale and unprofitable that unsold stock represents so much wasted capital.
    What is the system on which the novelties are produced? Are there anywhere in London speculative toy-makers, opulent men who have made much money at the game, and who daily are to be found at their handsome city chambers to give audience to needy inventors with something to sell? Do they wait in an ante-room and crowd on the stairs, there being so many of them, each one jealously hugging in the breast pocket of his shabby old coat the last offspring of his ingenuity in the shape of a comical "grandfather's clock," or a dancing clown, or a magic mirror, and passing one at a time into the great man's presence? One would like unobserved to be a witness of the proceedings. The encourager of genius lolling in his chair at his ease, and with gold-rimmed glasses bestriding his shrewd nose, condescendingly contemplating the "frolicsome donkey" the poor needy wretch of an inventor has brought for his inspection, and which he earnestly recommends as being sure to "take" with the public, while he jerks at the string and shows how by that means the animal cocks its ears and flings up its hind legs, to the dismay of the gay young lady who occupies the saddle. The patron shakes his head. "Not so bad," says he, "but where's the profit to come from, selling 'em to the trade at fourpence-ha'penny a dozen, with all that precious lot of pasteboard and paint to find, to say nothing about the j'ints and the string. I'll say seven and six, if you like, for the notion, but I won't give another shilling." And the inventor of the frolicsome donkey, with a sigh (he had asked fifteen shillings for the article), pockets the money, and retires to make way for a brother genius, who has belaboured his brains for a week past to bring to perfection a guttapercha mouse that squeaks when its tail is pinched.
    I don't of course say that this is the sort of thing that really goes on; it merely occurs to my mind as being possible, because, unless the ingenious little articles one sees offered for sale cost next to nothing [-83-] in their production, it would be impossible for the "trade" to maintain its briskness. It is brisk, undoubtedly, in the localities indicated - in Threadneedle Street, and in the neighbourhood of the Stock Exchange - which shows how much success in the most trifling businesses depends on an instinctive knowledge of the desires and weaknesses of our fellow creatures. As an ignorant and inexperienced person with the last invented jumping frog to dispose of, I should no more think of taking it to the Stock Exchange than to the top of the monument. What on earth should a "bull" or a "bear" know, or desire to know, about jumping frogs? or mice that squeak when their tales are pinched, or frolicsome donkeys? You would never dream they could take delight in such absurdities to see them when they are in the street conspiring iii pairs, or brooding solitary, and using their pencil point as a toothpick, lost to the world for the time in a field of figures. Fancy breaking in on such a man's cogitation by soliciting him to buy a Punch's squeaker. The idea is too ridiculous to be for a moment entertained. There appears to be one way of accounting for the mystery and only one.
    There are mysteries of Mammon's acre, and this may be of them. Everyone is aware how terribly harassing to the mental powers are complicated calculations made offhand, and frequently against time, which has to be beaten by a neck-by half a head, if money is to be made by the speculation. It is possible-nay, probable - that, under extraordinary pressure, the brain even of a bull may become heated and disturbed and a bear be conscious of symptoms that make him feel uncomfortable. The proper and immediate thing, of course, is to resort to some means of tranquilising the nervous system. The simplest remedies are always the safest, and sometimes the most efficacious. Is it impossible, then, that an excited bull, feeling the fit coming on, may hurry to his chambers and bid his faithful clerk make haste and procure him some toy the contemplation of which shall amuse him, though only for a couple of minutes? He knows that if he can but laugh his congestion will be relieved, and he will be himself again. He therefore sends out into Broad-street for a frolicsome donkey, or a Punch's squeaker, communes with one or the other the secrecy of his chamber for a few minutes, and then emerges as cool and self-possessed a bull as ever pastured in a Devon meadow. If I have hit on a correct solution of the matter, the constant craving in the neighbourhood in question for novel toys is accounted for.

source: 'One of the Crowd' [James Greenwood], The Mysteries of Modern London, 1883