Before selfie stick microphones and Furbys topped Christmas wishlists, here's what the nation's children hoped Santa would bring them
Game consoles, iPads, and selfie stick microphones are just some of the gifts children are asking for this year. In the spirit of holiday nostalgia, we've used our historic newspaper archive to explore the spirit of Christmas past and see what gifts topped the wish lists of British children in the first half of the last century.
1914 – Toy Soldiers
In the months following the outbreak of the Great War, young boys across the country were gripped by a jingoistic fervour, and this was reflected in their choice of Christmas present. In a Daily Mirror report, the director of a Gamage's department store in London revealed that, 'there never was such a demand for soldiers – toy soldiers; to say nothing of the real thing – in the history of the world'.
He described how, despite working night and day to produce British and German toy soldiers, the store had been completely overwhelmed by the surge in demand. A 'magnificent battlefield' was even set up on the first floor of the store and the Battle of Yser (which had taken place in October 1914 and resulted in an Allied victory) was acted out four times daily. The watching crowds would then, 'rush to buy soldiers – from 5½d to 90s per box'.
Adverts for miniature reconstructions appeared in a number of newspapers. One such ad, printed on 4 December 1914, described, 'The Great Miniature Battle,' as, 'the most realistic thing in Toy Warfare the world has ever seen. Field Guns and Howitzers fired by real gunpowder, trenches and barbed wire all complete.'
Real gunpowder? And kids nowadays think they have cool toys to play with!
1916 – The Model Tank
Two years later the nation's taste in toys shifted in line with developments on the battlefield. In September 1916, tanks had been used for the first time, at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette, and the nature of modern warfare was changed forever. These new-fangled machines were not only a success on the front lines, but also on the high street.
On 21 December, 1916, an article titled, 'Caterpillars - the nursery's favourite plaything,' was printed in the Daily Mirror. It described how, 'war toys,' were still the most in-demand Christmas gifts with tanks now the most highly sought after. Tanks could now be found in nearly all, 'Christmas Bazaars and big shops', with some of the more extravagant models measuring up to, 'four feet by eighteen inches'. The report went on to mention that there was still, 'a steady demand for Teddy Bears, and suchlike pre-war favourites,' and concluded that woollen toys were enormously popular, 'due to the fact that they are all of British manufacture'.
1922 – The Wireless Receiver
As technology developed, so too did the tastes of the British children as the first electric toys began to arrive on the market in the 1920s. On Monday 18 September, 1922, theWestern Morning News reported that, 'The popular toy for clever children will be tiny wireless receiving sets, which are said to be reliable in every way.' Companies such as Marconi were now advertising home 'receiver kits' that provided curious kiddies with the opportunity to experiment with this exciting new technology at home.
Another notable, popular gift that year was the, 'snowball cracker, named from cotton wool; which can be used for a ball game until it breaks.' Sounds rubbish!
1929 – The Princess Elizabeth Portrait Doll
Throughout the late 1920s, savvy toymakers capitalised on the immense popularity of the newest member of the Royal family. Following the birth of Princess Elizabeth (or heir apparent) in 1926 girls were desperate to own their own little princess and, judging by the wide array advertisements from the period, retailers were only too happy to oblige.
On November 21st 1929, the Hull Daily Mail printed the following report:
'One of the most popular toys this Christmas seems to be a new doll with an amazing likeness to Princess Elizabeth. So much has the personality of the youngest member of the Royal family impressed itself on the public, through many photographs published, that toy shops this year found themselves continually being asked for a doll that could express the particular charm of Princess Elizabeth. Accordingly, special models were involved which try to pay special tribute to her curly hair, wonderful smile, and the engaging way in which she waves to the world with her arm and fingers outstretched.
'The most popular model is a doll which stands about eighteen inches high, and is dressed in a party frock. The Queen herself saw one on a recent shopping visit to Regent Street and was particularly interested, and one of these dolls will find its way into the Piccadilly nursery of the small Princess when Father Christmas pays his visit there.'
1931 – The Electric Questioner
By the early 1930s, electronic toys were becoming increasingly advanced and, on December 4th 1931, a report appeared in The Lincolnshire Echo describing how the, 'chemistry set for boys and the electrical instructive toy,' were proving increasingly popular.
'A most ingenious type of the latter that is going to be one of the most popular toys this Christmas is an Electric Questioner. This is an educational toy which gives 288 answers and questions on the subjects of the Great War, Ancient History, General Knowledge, Inventions and Discoveries and so on.'
The report described how Britain maintains the monopoly on producing such toys and went on to declare that, 'this Christmas is going to be a triumph for British Manufacturers'. They wrote, 'Britain always has the pull with travelling toys, models of motor cars, aeroplanes and trains cannot be beaten as far as the detail, faithfulness to the original, and price are concerned. There is only one toy, really, on which foreign manufacturers beat us, and that is the china doll. Germany has still the monopoly on this.'
1943 – Make do and Mend
In 1943, Britain was fighting for its very survival but doting parents weren't about to let a war get in the way of the festive cheer. Newspapers from the period reveal that, while the nation's toy shops may have been empty, the stockings of its children certainly weren't, as inventive parents got crafty and began making gifts at home.
A report printed in the Evening Despatch on Wednesday 10 November described how, 'There will be very few factory-made toys this year but "amateurs", filling in long hours of fire-guard Civil Defence duties, are making more toys than ever before. Soft toys, easiest of all to make, are proving the most popular type for production at home.'
Many parents even found a new use for old flannels (and an un-PC way to recycle black socks):
'Mothers and sisters are stitching together odds and ends of coloured materials to make soft, cuddly animals. An elephant made from father's discarded flannels and stuffed with old socks and a piccaninny from an old black stocking are examples of their ingenuity. Fathers, too, are having a hand in this home toy-making. Even those with little previous experience are setting to with hammer and chisel and producing quite professional looking forts, boats, aeroplanes and dolls' houses and furniture.'