Wooden Horses & Toy Soldiers: Polish Toys Through the Ages
What were the kids up to while the adults were busy? The Museum of the Origins of the Polish State in Gniezno presents toys and games throughout the centuries. Their exhibition is a fascinating lesson in the archaeology of a Polish childhood.
Amongst the over 300 items on display at the exhibition, once can find miniatures from wood and clay, figurines of animals, toy weapons, spinning tops, warkotki (a special Polish spinning toy on a string), rattles, dolls, soft toys, game pieces and accessories. The oldest ones date back to the 11th century, but there are also rarities from contemporary toy collections. Culture.pl selects some of the most interesting specimens, which we would mind having in our toy chest!
Knights in shining armour
Let’s start with the oldest toys. Magda Robaszkiewicz, curator of the exhibition in Gniezno, says:
It turns out that despite enormous technological possibilities that we have today, nothing new has been invented. Most toys have been known since the Middle Ages, but their origins go back much further.
These are treasures from excavations in the Old Town in Elbląg. The wooden horses above, relics from the 11th, were a ‘must-have‘ in all medieval nurseries. Each horse was made out of a single piece of wood. Illustrations from the time suggest different ways they were used: kids pretended to be in a knights tournament or staged puppet duels. Some of the horses could also be used as whistles, thanks to the holes made in the wood.
In turn, military toys from Gdańsk, Elbląg and Szczecin prove that archery and shooting crossbows were a favourite pastime during the reign of the Piasts.
Wooden knives, hatchets, sabres and bows were supposed to prepare young warriors for adult battles. Apparently, an order imposed by Freiburg City Council in 1489 prohibited children to play with weapons on the street. So what would little boys do in their free time? They would, for instance, float little boats made out of bark in a pond or a puddle.
In the kitchen
Pewter trinkets appeared in Poland around 16th century along with the western fashion of dollhouses. Miniature dishes, bowls, jugs, furniture and clocks were unique objects among Polish finds. One can find their counterparts in archaeological museums in the United Kingdom, Germany and Holland. Basic kitchen accessories seem not to have changed much since the Middle Ages.
Madame Paderewski's Dolls
This modest doll once enjoyed international popularity. The Cracovian ragdoll was created in a French workshop run by the Polish painter Stefania Łazarska, who, assisted by Maria Mickiewicz, organised aid for Polish artists in the post-World War I Paris.
Łazarska’s dolls were exhibited, in many places, including the Section of Decorative Arts at the Louvre. They caught Helena Paderewska’s eye and she asked the artist to design toys which could be sold for the benefit of the Polish Victims Relief Fund which supported the victims of World War I. These patriotic dolls, dressed in Polish national garb, went down in history known as ’Madame Paderewski Dolls’. They gathered 25 thousand dollars for the Relief Fund.
Just 100 years ago, armies of toy soldiers fought historic battles in almost every boy’s room. The leaden figurines were hand-painted and very detailed. Toy soldiers are still can still be found in toy stores today, but with smartphones and video games do today’s boys still want them?
Everyone needs a teddy bear
Colargol is a fictional bear created by French writer Olga Pouchine in the 1950s. In the 1960s, Albert Barillé enlisted Polish animator Tadeusz Wilkosz and the Se-ma-for animation studio in Łódź to create an animated series about the bear. Miś Colargol (Collargol the Teddy Bear as he is known to all Polish and French kids, while he is Barnaby in the UK and Jeremy in Canada) was an instant hit and was beloved by the youngest Polish audiences. It’s hard to believe that this classic character is almost 50 years old! Toys from popular TV shows, children’s plays and stories, such as Bolek and Lolek, the Moomins and Rumcajs are still beloved by a whole generation of Poles.
Funny characters are one thing but everyone needs a teddy bear. The Gniezno museum boasts a teddy bear whose story dates back to 1877. Margarete Steiff, a German craftswoman, at first made plush elephants which were originally used as pincushions. 20 years later, her company produced around a million toys annually.
Home sweet home
Here’s something for design lovers! This miniature set of furniture is from the turn of the 1970s and 1980s. In girls rooms, we would find tonnes of dollhouse furniture – everything from bathtubs from the 1920s, washing boards, irons, little beds, even a porcelain tea set. And of course, the dollhouses residents...
Not only Barbie
The exhibition curator Magda Robaszkiewicz notes, these earliest dolls hardly resemble people and today’s children may not fall in love with them at first sight:
Dolls from the first Polish factories (one of them, in Kalisz, produced dolls already at the end of the 19th century, the second one in Katowice a little later) do not usually evoke positive feelings among the youngest, although they are willingly purchased by collectors. Polish name ’lalka‘ originates in the 18th century. Earlier, the word łątka was used in Polish literature and it refered to a doll made from rags and plant stalks. Due to the impermanence of these materials, today we can only admire fragments of doll bodies which were made of wood or clay.
Celluloid figurines and the best ‘explosives’ for just 1 Polish złoty – these treasures could only be found at a kiosk! Post-war kiosks were created to foster reading habits. However, other than reading material, they offered a better range of toys than most general stores. Only stalls at church fairs could compete with kiosks in the array of goodies for the youngest. These water pistols, rooster whistles, cat brooches and other plastic treasures from the private collection of Kora Kowalska, come from the 1980s.
Sources: Museum of the Beginnings of Poland on Gniezno, originally compiled by AL in Polish; translated by MF, edited by NR, May 2017