When I was small, I would write a note to Father Christmas (he wasn’t ‘Santa’ then), and be allowed to hold it over the fire when it was just glowing – suddenly, as if by magic, my note would swirl up the chimney. I knew that Father Christmas had received it.

“Is it really nearly Christmas?” I would ask, and my parents would assure me that yes, Christmas would be here very soon. Unlike today, Christmas decorations didn’t usually appear in the shops until December, so it seemed a very special and exciting time of year. My ‘wants lists’ weren’t long because there wasn’t such a large choice of toys as there is today. Invariably the note to Father Christmas would say that I would like, please (the ‘please’ was very important),
a new doll, a book, a puzzle and some chocolate pennies. One year, when I was three, I asked for a fluffy white kitten -nowadays, we are told not to buy pets as Christmas, but in the 1950s this advice wasn’t given. I found my white kitten on Christmas morning, but he wasn’t white, he was a smoky grey colour. My parents quickly explained that white kittens carried down chimneys always turn grey from the soot. I didn’t care, I had my lovely kitten and he lived for many years.

Girls usually asked Father Christmas for dolls, prams, cots or maybe a dolls’ house. Other favourites were nurses’ outfits, tea sets and annuals. At the top of most boys’ lists were train sets, and once they had one they would ask for a new engine or maybe trucks or a signal box. Meccano was another hugely popular toy, as were metal toy cars and buses. Boys also wanted wooden sailing boats and kites, and, of course, the ubiquitous annual featuring their favourite comic characters. If we were lucky, on Christmas morning we would find at least one of the ‘special’ toys that we had asked for, and there would be surprise things, too, such as board games, jigsaw puzzles, Kaleidoscopes and a white net stocking edged in red crepe paper filled with sweets.

The Victorians created Christmas as we know it today. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert encouraged family gatherings, and although Christmas trees were already known in Britain, it was the Royal Family who made them fashionable. Charles Dickens defined the ideal Christmas through such works as The Pickwick Papers as a joyous festival which needed a tree, turkey, plum pudding and presents to make it complete. Victorian children would have received such presents as painted lead soldiers, a toy theatre, a wax doll or a hoop and stick. If the family was affluent, then a dappled rocking horse might be waiting under the tree on Christmas morning, or maybe a large wooden Noah’s ark filled with dozens of pairs of animals. Noah’s arks were liked as they were one of the few toys which children were permitted to play with on Sundays; the Sabbath was respected then. Victorian parents approved of scientific toys, so a lucky child might find a telescope, zoetrope or perhaps a magic lantern complete with glass slides. Due to social and economic changes there was an increase in commercial toy making during last few decades of the 1800s, allowing children from poorer homes to receive Christmas gifts for the first time.

By the First World War, dolls made from china had taken over from the wax type, and a new toy had been introduced which was to become a nursery favourite – the teddy bear. Teddy bears first appeared in 1903, possibly intended as the equivalent of a doll for a boy, but girls were having none of that and teddy bears soon became favourite playthings for both sexes. In the early 1900s Frank Hornby introduced Meccano, a toy which allowed boys to stretch their imagination to the limits as they built cars, bridges, trains and cranes using metal strips. After the war, clockwork train sets were in vogue. Wound by a large key, they ratded around their circle of track until the motor ran down. Also popular were toys such as motorboats powered by methylated spirits. Nowadays, these certainly wouldn’t pass our stringent safety tests; likewise the numerous thin metal toys of the period would be seen as dangerous today.

When war clouds gathered once more, many of the toy-making factories were commandeered for the war effort. This meant that new toys were harder to find, so if parents or grandparents were skilled enough, they often made them. Toys such as wooden dolls’ houses or forts, carved farm animals and dolls’ furniture or knitted dolls’ clothes, made very acceptable presents. At this time, many of the dolls were made from composition (a mix of plaster, sawdust and glue) with crudely painted features, but were loved just as much as the earlier china types. Some 1940s toyshops boasted ‘Whatever happens, children will still have their Christmas toys,’ and although stocks of some items were low, smaller items such as marbles, games, puzzles, dolls’ tea sets and various novelties were available.

The war had one positive affect on the toy market – plastics were introduced not long after it ended, a result of the research and innovative techniques developed in those commandeered toy factories. Plastics transformed the toy industry. Now, toys could be turned out in the thousands because liquid plastic could be poured into reusable moulds. Plastic toys were light, brightly coloured, durable and cheap to produce. The 1950s proved a golden era, with manufacturers including Tri-ang, Rosebud, Roddy, Pedigree and Palitoy producing vast quantities of well-designed playthings. Sooty and Sweep, Hank the Cowboy, Prudence Kitten, Archie Andrews and Muffin the Mule were all very much in demand at the time – they were all either glove or string puppets. Puppets were all the rage in the 1950s and 60s, many being made by Pelham Puppets, a company founded just after the war.

Crazes came and went – hula hoops, Davy Crockett hats, pogo sticks, gonks and the spirograph – but the toy that was introduced in 1960 became the biggest hit ever, and is still played with by almost every child in Britain today. The toy was Lego, a Danish invention that encouraged both creativity and dexterity, rather like Meccano, which was beginning to go out of fashion. Then, in the late 1970s, a really big shakeup happened in the toy industry – the film Star Wars was launched and a plethora of related tie-ins were introduced. This was mass merchandising on a grand scale, and very soon My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Transformers, Care Bears and Mutant Hero Ninja Turtles were all vying for their share of the market, fuelled by movie and comic tie-ins. By the 1980s, large out-of-town toy retailer stores were springing up across Britain, and supermarkets also began to stock toys. Nowadays, electronic gadgets are the most desired Christmas items, even among the youngest age group – Father Christmas must long for the days when his workshop was filled with dolls, trains, tin toys and, oh yes, smoky grey kittens.#

Susan Brewer