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July 8, 2020

Some Pretty Distasteful Toys From the 19th Century

In an era before intellectual property rights and mass marketing dictated what toys we played with, artisans drew their inspiration from recognizable caricatures of society. In the United States, the lampoonery of the blackface minstrel scene provided plenty of material.

The toys in this catalogue, from New York-based Automatic Toy Works, predate the wildly popular golliwogs that hit the shelves in the 20th century and the mimicry is not just limited to black people. Also depicted are two pigtailed Chinese laundrymen and a woman’s right advocate as well as more benign characters such as a crawling baby and a mechanized bear.

A warning that most of these images are pretty demeaning. All the same, they shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone who understands the era. What is perhaps more telling is the copywriting.

In the 21st century, toys need little introduction – the transcendent cultural capital of Spiderman and a Stormtrooper speaks for itself. Consumers instantly know what they are and why they want them. They have backstories and narratives that are valued at billions of dollars. By contrast, in these 19th century placements, the static sketch and the copywriting are left to do the selling. And in that prosaic explanation of how and why these toys might be amusing comes a disheartening sense of detachment: that these caricatures aren’t representing anything more than a cheap laugh.

1. The Mechanical Bear.

“This wonderful toy imitates the movements of a bear, by means of clock-work, in the most life-like manner. The bear rises up on its hind legs, turns its head from side to side, growls, moves its paws, and snaps its jaws together. At intervals it gets down on its fore-paws and goes through similar motions. It runs a long time, and while going it is difficult to believe it is not alive. It is elegantly made, and covered with fine fur. The mechanism is so strong and perfect, that only the greatest abuse can put it out of order. It amuses old as well as young, and is exceedingly attractive for a show window. It is conceded to be one of the most ingenious toys ever invented, on account of its variety of motion and resemblance to nature. Made in black and white fur.

Price, $4.25.”

2. Mechanical Sewing-Machine Girl

“A little girl is seated at a cabinet sewing-machine. On winding up the mechanism her feet begin to work the treadle, and the sewing-machine begins to sew rapidly; she leans forward, puts the work in position, watches it, occasionally rising up and bringing the work up to examine it. These movements are repeated for a long time. The little figure is elegantly dressed in the latest fashion. It combines the attractiveness of a beautiful French doll with the interest of life-like motion.

Price, $3.50.”

3. Old Uncle Tom,

“We consider this toy one of the most comically quaint of anything yet made. When seen in motion, laughter is irresistible. The old fellow commences the performance by slowly rocking backward and forward, as if debating what he should play, then suddenly he strikes his “favorite,” and rolling his head from side to side, fiddles in an ecstacy of enjoyment. Funny as it is, there is something almost pathetic in it, too. This toy is well and carefully made, and with ordinary care will last for years.

Price, $2.50.”

4. The Celebrated Negro Preacher.

“He stands behind a desk, and slowly straightening himself up, turns his head from side to side and gestures vigorously with his arm. As he warms to his work, he leans forward over the pulpit, and shakes his head and hand at the audience, and vigorously thumps the desk. The motions are so life-like and comical that one almost believes that he is actually speaking. The face and dress alone provoke irresistible laughter. He preaches as long as any preacher ought to, and stops when he gets through.

Price, $2.50.”

5. Our New Clergyman.

The description on the opposite page applies to this brudder also.

Price, $2.50.

6. Old Aunt Chloe,

“Old Aunt Chloe demonstrates that happiness may be found in a wash tub as well as in a palace. She is faithful at her toil, and we commend her to our young ladies as an artist of no mean pretentions, after whom they may pattern if they choose to revive and become proficient in one of the lost accomplishments.

Price, $2.50.”

7. The Old Nurse.

“This mechanical toy is made to imitate an old negro nurse with a child. Her motions are as natural as life. She holds the child in her hands and when the mechanism is started, (by being wound) she leans backward and forward tossing the child up and down in a most surprising manner. This is a very pleasing toy for children and is very popular.

Price, $2.50.”

8. Fing Wing,

“This image, with its shaven head, long queue and quaint looking dress, gives a striking and life-like picture of a Chinese Laundryman. When at work, he bends over the tub, and rubs the garment which he holds in his hands with a naturalness so perfect he might easily be mistaken for a real Celestial.

Price, $2.50.”

9. Ah-Sin.

“This piece is similar to the Laundryman represented on the opposite page. It shows Ah-Sin with a smoothing iron, putting the polish upon a gentleman’s linen. The mechanism of these novelties is so perfectly made, that only the greatest abuse can put them out of order.

Price, $2.50.”

10. The Coaster.

“A simple and attractive toy for small boys. Represents a colored boy on his sled, which, by means of a mechanical movement, when wound up, goes skimming along in a direct line, or in circles, according to the setting of a steering apparatus, attached to the rear of the sled. Nicely packed in a neat wooden box.

Price, $1.00.”

11. The Drummer Boy.

“This is also an attractive piece for small boys. It consists of a three-wheeled carriage, which supports the figure of a little man with cymbals and drum, which are alternately struck and beaten as the wheels revolve by propulsion.

Price, $1.00.”

12. The Scissors Grinder.

“A man grinding scissors. When wound up he holds his scissors against the rapidly revolving stone, at the same time working the treadle with his leg. He stoops over his work, at intervals straightens up, and examines the scissors. It is very entertaining.

Price, $2.00.”

13. The Woman’s Rights Advocate.

“In presenting this advocate to the public, and remembering with satisfaction the cordial reception our sterner suffragists and preachers have received, and believing in every respect she is their equal, we shall hope to receive as many calls for her. This woman will not insist upon the last word. Societies supplied with advocates on short notice.

Price, $2.50.”

14. The Artist at his Work.

“This figure represents an artist in his studio in an effort to surpass Raphael. He is dressed in his morning gown and smoking cap, and appears to be very much engaged with his painting. He surveys, in different lights, his incompleted work of art, which rests on a small easel, and then commences to paint with all the confidence of one of the old masters. This is a deservedly popular toy.

Price, $3.00.”

15. Grandmother Rocking Cradle.

“This domestic picture is perfect in miniature. No grandmother, with all her experience, ever rocked a cradle more naturally or with more tranquilizing effect. While she rocks the cradle with her foot, with one hand she fans the infant sleeper, and with the other hand wipes her face with the handkerchief, and occasionally turns her head and views the situation with approval.
This is a combination of the toys most coveted by little girls.

Price, $3.50.”

16. The Italian Organ Grinder.

“This devotee of classical music discourses several popular airs, in perfect imitation of his larger brethren. While turning the crank he occasionally shakes his head at the monkey which dances upon the organ, and frequently passes his little cap for contributions. The musical instrument is of the best Swiss manufacture.

Price, $6.00.”

17. A Wonderful Creeping Baby.

“This unique toy, when wound up, creeps and imitates the movements of a baby in the most natural manner, moving its hands and feet alternately as it passes along, and as it occasionally turns its face towards the spectator, the resemblance to life is almost startling. Delights and pleases both old and young. Durably and elegantly made. Each doll is carefully packed in a substantial wooden box. Parents and friends of little girls send for one of these delightful dolls.

Price, $6.00.”

(via Sam’s Holmespage)


  1. Whoever is running this site has no sense of decency or propriety.
    While these images hold undeniable historical interest, this is clearly not an appropriate time or format in which to post them.

    1. Love how you judge 19th century people by 21st century values. Grow some thicker skin, snowflake.

    2. Fun fact: No person who uses 'snowflake' unironically has ever moved out of their parents' basement.

    3. Another anonymous - Grow up, the anonymous above you is right. You sjw of today are too sensitive.

    4. Simmer down, culty.

  2. So what? Those where the times then, without this stupid and boring "political correctness" and hypocrisy like today.

    1. Boo hoo, so sneering rich snobs are finally getting called out for punching down. GOOD!

  3. Is it any wonder that when most houses got electricity, one of the first things they did, even before they bought an electric fan, was to convert the existing sewing machine from trundle to electric?




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