Child’s Play in the 1940s

As the possibility of war drew closer in the late 1930’s children’s toys reflected the mood. Boys toys turned to military themes with toy soldiers, tanks and aeroplanes, while girls toys reflected gender expectations at home with dolls, tea sets and miniature home appliances.

This continued into the early 1940’s, though the outbreak of war placed toy manufacturers under pressure as raw materials became rationed and factories were turned over to make ammunition. Teddy bears slimmed down as stuffing became hard to source, and the use of metal for toy making was banned in 1942. Family favourite Woolworths did everything they could to keep toy prices at 6 pence, but children from the poorest families often missed out, relying on pre-loved hand me downs from older siblings.

Still, even in the most difficult circumstances children find opportunities to play. Newspaper, card and wood taken from the home could be fashioned into all sorts of amusing shapes, games like hopscotch, jump rope and noughts and crosses remained popular, along with roller skates, rounders and football in the street. Small toys and games could be used to distract small children during time spent in the air raid shelters.

With the end of the war came a fresh enthusiasm for sports and once again, children’s games reflected the mood of the country. In 1947 a modern classic arrived in the form of Subbuteo, this tabletop football game could be played by the whole family, was cheap to produce and easy to assemble. Lego arrived in British shops the same year, swiftly followed by the board game Cluedo in 1949.

Traditional materials continued to be rationed until 1952 under the government run Utility Scheme but the British Toy Manufacturers’ Association formed to support new and remaining toy producers, holding its first Toy Fair in 1944. As the economy grew children’s toys played a role in education and exports. Secondary school education became mandatory in 1944, followed by the launch of the health service in 1948. Post war Britain began to thrive, and children’s play took one step closer to the kind of toys we see today. Though I think most parents would agree, the simple cardboard box remains popular with most children whatever the decade.

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