In her research for "German Toys in America," an exhibit at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Jan Gilliam scoured pages of American newspapers from the late 19th century.
She found that toys have long captured children's imaginations, and drained parents' wallets, at Christmas time.
"Every December, there's an article about these German toys, and they talk about where they've come from, they talk about who's making them and ordering them," said Gilliam, longtime curator of toys at Colonial Williamsburg. "Christmas was a big deal then, too."
Visitors will find excerpts from several such articles within the exhibit's labels — "At the toy stores are where the sights are to be seen. The children know where to take their pestered parents to show them what they want," according to an 1884 article.
Some things never change.
Still, much has changed since the 19th century, and in Gilliam's mind, toys reveal an important, sometimes hidden, aspect of history.
"There's not a lot that you can look at that gives you a sense of the children. They're not leaving a lot of diaries, they're not writing letters," she said. "The toys are something that really gives a little bit of an insight into childhood."
Open since late October, "German Toys in America" is the first major show of its kind at the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, featuring 50 hand-crafted wooden and papier mache toys from Germany — the "Toy Center of the World" throughout the 19th century.
The exhibit largely revolves around a rare German toy catalog from 1840, donated to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1970s along with several toys pictured in the catalog, Gilliam said.
The engraved, hand-colored catalog contains more than 2,400 toys, each beautifully illustrated. In the 19th century, such catalogues would've been sent around the world by German toy distributors, then perused by toy sellers, Gilliam said.
"The interesting thing about the toys is they can tell so many different stories," Gilliam said.
She said the toys reveal not only what children at the time valued, but also the values of parents purchasing the toys. For one, a large wooden Noah's Ark set occupies the central area of the exhibit. Gilliam said the set, dating from 1840 to 1870, includes around 125 animal pairs.
"Noah's Arks were pretty much the quintessential toy at that time," she said. "Sometimes it's actually referred to as a Sunday toy, because (the children) could play with it on Sundays, when technically they were supposed to be thinking about more religious aspects."
Then, of course, there's the story of toys as an industry. And with 19th-century German toys in particular, the toys tell a story of countless German families who formed the backbone of the industry, hand-crafting these wooden toys before they were assembled into sets and shipped by distributors.
"In this age of electronic playthings, these handmade animals, vehicles and figures can still stir the imaginations of our visitors, both the young and the not so young," Ronald Hurst, the foundation's vice president for collections, conservation and museums, said in a news release on the exhibit.
Gilliam said Colonial Williamsburg's toy collection numbers at least 1,500, if not more. It recently grew by 182 tin trains, carriages, cars, ships and planes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Select toys from this gift by June S. Hennage will display in the museum's Penny Court, near the cafe, through Jan. 2. Though the display includes tin cars made in Germany, many of the tin toys are American-made, a window into the growing American toy industry of the time.
Visitors will also find toys from the collection in the museum's annual "A Carolina Room Christmas" display and an ongoing "The World Made Small" dollhouse exhibit.
"Kids were around. They were always around," Gilliam said. "You get caught up in an adult story like of the Revolution or Civil War or something like that, and you kind of forget about all these other people who had to go through it as well."
Gilliam recounted a story from a colleague, Kim Ivey, the foundation's textiles and historic interiors curator, about a young girl forced to leave a beloved doll behind in escaping approaching soldiers during the Civil War.
"Kids have been a part of the whole history, and it's hard sometimes to get them into the picture," she said.
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.
Want to go?
When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m., daily
Where: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, 326 W. Francis St.
Museum single-day tickets are $12 for adults and $6.49 for children ages 6-12. Admission also included in Colonial Williamsburg passes. For more information, call 757-220-7724 or visit colonialwilliamsburg.com.