Toys of yesteryear

Toys are fascinating. Not only do they bring back memories of one’s own childhood, but they also track changes in educational and social practices and, as is the case with cars, planes, and model train sets, are often examples of evolving technologies.  



Toys were often used by children in many societies to emulate their observed adult world. In Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland, he described some of the games that were played by the local Indigenous people.


‘One of them, Purru, was played with a ball made from kangaroo skin stuffed with grass and sewn up. ‘Purru’ meant ball. Sides were picked and the women joined in. The ball was thrown up in the air, and caught here and there, each side trying to keep it to themselves or catch it from the opposite one.’


Other games described in the same chapter include hunting and fishing games that would have honed the skills needed as the boys and girls grew into adults.


The children of the early Queensland colonists often worked at a very young age to help support the family. However, by the late nineteenth century, the social changes during the Victorian era in England began to filter through to the colony. By the 1870s and 1880s, people had begun to realise that children who were well nourished, enjoyed good health and received an education would grow into citizens who could contribute more towards society and the economy.


Labour laws were tightened to discourage child exploitation and formal education was encouraged. Children began to experience what we know as a proper ‘childhood’. Middle-class women often took an interest in the wellbeing and education of children. For example, Annie Perry’s (wife of William Perry) obituary in 1917 listed one of her interests as being on the committee of the emerging Creche and Kindergarten Association.


Toys and games reflected the strictly divided gender roles of society at the time. Tea sets and dolls allowed girls to copy their mothers’ routines. Toy soldiers, board games based on war battles and construction sets were given to boys to follow their fathers’ interests.

Some toys did cross the gender divide. The Noah’s Ark (pictured below) would have been played with as a Sunday toy following church. Other toys began to reflect the influence that Darwin and the explorers were having on scientific understanding.




Our current toy exhibition at Miegunyah has been curated to showcase our tea-set collection and the doll’s house furniture. The Noah’s Ark is also on display and is always a popular drawcard. The exhibition will run until Easter 2022.


Article by Jenny Steadman.