Society spends a lot of time, money and energy on children. How they’re raised, educated and fed is at the forefront of a lot of discussions privately and publicly. It’s no wonder children, and their well being, are vital to any community’s future.
Mount Airy Museum of Regional History has exhibits on many facets of childhood but today I want to look at that most basic of childhood activities: play.
At the end of the Victorian Parlor exhibit is a case of toys dating to a decade or two on either side of 1910. There are wooden blocks, jacks, marbles, a tiny punched-tin kitchen set, a xylophone, a plush dog on wheels with much of his fur loved off. Each of the items belonged, once upon a time, to a child who treasured it.
They were crafted and given in a time when most children received only one or two toys for a special occasion such as their birthday or Christmas. A new pair of socks, a shirt or dress, a hair brush or an orange would have been special gifts as well and cherished by children who knew such items cost cash money and valued that because they participated in earning it for the family. Most gifts would likely have been made by family members, a much less expensive option than buying from a store.
Luxury or fancy-goods items would have represented very little of most store’s inventory before the 1880s. As families’ economic circumstances improved in the Surry County region, a manufactured toy became a more common part of children’s lives, still exceptional and to be greatly cherished, but not unheard of.
Toys were often very gender-specific. Dolls, carriages, and tea sets for girls; vehicles, axes, and guns for boys. As soon as children were old enough to stick to a task they were given chores appropriate to their age level. The toys they were given often reflected the sorts of tasks they’d expect to do when they were older.
Girls helped prepare and preserve food, keep the home, and care for younger siblings. Boys would gather wood, and split it, help with farming, and care for livestock. Childhood as we think of it today, when children were pampered with nothing to do but play, is really a 19th-century invention and more for the affluent families than those with less. Play was still important, even in work.
Children haven’t really changed much and they don’t always remember instructions they’ve been given, so songs were used to help them focus. Most of you probably learned one growing up.
Yarn, once spun, needs to be measured into a skein. This is done by winding it onto on an apparatus called a niddy noddy or weasel. A young child could be set to this task but might lose count which would mess up the measurement so standing niddy noddies have a gear mechanism with a wood piece that pops on the 40th turn, the measurement of a skein. The song that helped children remember to stop when it popped was, “Pop! Goes The Weasle.”
Today in the Museum we recognize it’s still important for children to play, even when they’re learning, so we have two galleries designed specifically for kids – and kids at heart – to play when visiting the museum. One is our third-floor Hands On History gallery where our collection of 2,800 miniature cars is housed along with a child-sized Victorian house, Lincoln Logs, stage, and Saura Native hut.
The other is in the basement in our fire department exhibit where we have a firefighter’s suit and helmet to dress up in. We also have a segment of the fire pole from the Mount Airy Fire Department for little firefighters to slide down.
Because playing is fun and an important way to learn.