Sometimes it’s the little details that make a postcard stand out from similar ones. This is certainly true of Christmas cards that show the toys children might expect from Santa Claus in the early 1900s. The toys spilling out of Santa’s bag tell a story all their own and add to the charm of the artwork.
Postcards and toys have one big thing in common: The earliest and best ones were made in Germany. In fact, the toy industry began long before the postcard craze of the early 1900s. As early as the 14th century wood carvers in the southern part of the country were turning out animal figures to be sold by peddlers.
Early toys were manufactured to teach children how to become adults. In the 18th century that meant tin armies for boys and miniature kitchens for girls, but toys were mostly given to the children of the wealthy. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that middle class children might own a manufactured plaything. Cheap composition doll heads and lithographed paper on play sets put toys within the price range of people of more modest means.
By the late 1800s, a more affluent middle class meant that children were given time to play. While the offspring of the poor still labored on farms, mines and factories or cared for younger siblings, the more fortunate might play with building blocks, miniature tools, dolls, or scaled down household implements.
The first decade of the 20th century was the Golden Age of postcards, but it also saw a great demand for both imported and American-made playthings. As more children were freed from the work force, the market for toys grew. A middle class home might have board games, card games, toy trains and other vehicles, crafts, and toys that demonstrated scientific principles. There was a definite gender division with girls expected to like baby dolls best.
In 1906 a new craze hit the toy market just in time to be shown on postcards: the Teddy Bear. It was a cuddly stuffed toy that a child could cherish for a feeling of security. Based on the story that Teddy Roosevelt spared the life of a baby bear while hunting, the new toy became an instant hit. A Teddy Bear on a postcard can date it to post 1906.
Toys can be found on many Santa postcards as well as those that show angels delivering gifts.
Toys under a Christmas tree aren’t quite as common, but these scenes can include larger toys like rocking horses that wouldn’t fit well in Santa’s bag. Some especially charming postcards picture children playing with their Christmas toys.
Santa is well loved by collectors, but when he has a bag overflowing with the toys children played with in the early 1900s, his popularity should soar.
Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for more than 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working on her 51st book in partnership with her daughter.
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