Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Toys Once Were Different/More Imagination Required

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, 17 September 1961, page 14.

Toy shops did not exist in the Tri-City region during the early days. Each family created its own play things for children. The stick horse was perhaps the most popular of these play things. It attracted both the male and the female children. A crudely cutout horse head attached to one end of a broomstick, when straddled by a pioneer child, became a real, spirited charger. Its speed and endurance was limited only to the extent of the child’s imagination.

The pioneer girls’ favorite toy was the rag doll. There was no special specification followed in the making of these rag dolls. They were cut out of a four sack, sewed together and filled with sawdust or small pieces of cloth. Shoe buttons were often used for eyes. The nostrils, mouth and hair were sketched on by a pencil or pen and ink. The dolls were very crude.

The pioneers’ babies most beloved play thing was a string of empty thread spools. This string of spools could be shaken and would rattle. The spools could be bitten and thus help the children during teething. It was impossible for the child to receive an injury from them.

The boys’ most cherished toy was their homemade railroad trains. These trains consisted of an engine, freight cars, and caboose. The boiler of the engine they whittled out of a soft piece of wood. A clumsy cow catcher was attached to the lower front end of the boiler. A crude cab made from pieces of a cigar box was built on the rear end of the boiler. A tall spool was used for a smoke stack. Shorter spools were utilized for the sand box and steam dome. There were no bells or headlights on these engines. The tender of the engine was built out of a cigar box. The freight cars were made from blocks of wood cut to the proportions of a freight car. The caboose was whittled from a taller block of wood. It’s lookout windows were sketched on it with a pencil. Safety pins were used to couple the train together. A string was tied to the cow catcher by which the boys pulled their trains. The boys were forced to secure sandy level ground over which to pull their trains. They were required to keep looking backwards to see if the train was right side up and coupled together.

These boys acquired much knowledge concerning the problems of railroad transportation. They were proud of their trains that they had created and took much pleasure in playing with them.

It is quite interesting to compare the pioneer children and their play things wit the children of today and their toys. The pioneer children were reared in an atmosphere of scarcity and want. Their parents had a hard time to secure the bare necessities of life. If the youngsters wanted play things, they must be made with materials that were available. There were no funds to buy them.

The children and their toys of today are very different from the pioneer days because the conditions and environment have changed from poverty and want to wealth and abundance. The dolls of today are almost human. They can walk, talk and go to sleep. Their hair can be marcelled. The latest models require diapers. Doll stores now furnish everything a doll needs. The modern doll owner, if she has the price, can buy anything the doll requires. This is indeed a far cry from the rag doll days of the pioneer girl, who had to snitch a pair of her mother’s worn out white panties, preferably those bordered with tating, knit or crocheted lace. From this material she fashioned her doll’s undies and most of its clothes.

The modern boys’ toy electric train can hardly be compared with the pioneer boys’ crude homemade train. It is such a complete replica of the real thing, so perfect in its functioning, that father vies with junior in playing with it.

Prominent pediatricians voiced their belief that the pioneers’ crude toys, because of their lack of detail, required child’s imagination to supplement the deficiencies and were therefore better than the present day toys. Today’s toys leave little or nothing to the child’s imagination or creative abilities.

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