Nature Bulletin No. 737 December 21, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
When a farm family moves away from the old homestead where its
folks may have lived for generations, it is customary to sell the farm
implements, livestock and household goods at a public auction.
Then, for the first time in many, many years, the contents of the attic
are brought out into the light of day. Broken furniture, trunks packed
with out-of-style clothes, dusty books, odd dishes, old pictures and a
hodgepodge of knickknacks are heaped on the lawn and sold in mixed
lots. It seems like a violation of privacy to have these poor treasures
exposed to the eyes of the curious -- and none more so than the
cherished toys of children -- children now grown old or gone away or
A rocking horse, perhaps made in some wood shed with a few simple
tools, has remnants of a tail and mane made of real horse hair. The
scratches and worn spots show that, over the years, it had been ridden
hard and repainted several times. A doll's cradle, or a two-story doll's
house with an open side, sleds with oaken runners, and little farm
wagons -- all of them homemade -- are stored in many an attic.
In times past, youngsters made many of their own playthings with a
little help and advice from their elders. Games were played with balls
wound from yarn unraveled from worn-out wool socks, then tightly
stitched to hold their shape. Kites were built and flown but good kite
strings were scarce. Wooden spools empty of sewing thread were
prized possessions useful wherever wheels or pulleys were needed.
Small fry rode stick horses with shouted "Giddaps" and "Whoas".
Older and bolder boys and girls got up in the world on stilts --
sometimes only a pair of slender ash saplings with crotches at the right
height for the feet.
With a little know-how and a sharp knife several kinds of noise-
makers could be created. Willow whistles were made in spring when
the trees were full of sap. A straight piece cut from a branch or a
sprout was tapped on all sides until the tube of bark was loosened
enough to be slipped off of the woody core. With a mouthpiece formed
at one end, and the slippery core slid in and out of the open end of the
tube, a skilled performer could play Yankee Doodle.
A popgun that shot paper wads was made from a piece of elderberry or
sumac stem. The center of soft pith was punched out and a wooden
plunger whittled to fit it. To fire the gun, a well-chewed paper wad
was pushed almost through the tube and then a second one was
rammed through. Air compressed between the two shot the first wad
out with a satisfying bang. A smaller model made from the hollow
quill of a large goose or turkey feather shot pellets cut from a slice of
A bull roarer was a flat thin piece of wood, about six inches long and
as wide as two fingers, with a yard of twine attached to one end. When
whirled rapidly around the head it rumbled like an angry bull.
Indian youngsters, like pioneer children, shared in making the family's
livelihood and were too busy for much idle play. They learned by
imitating their elders. Just as the men of the tribe hunted big game,
Indian boys hunted rabbits and other small animals with bow and
arrow. In some tribes they practiced marksmanship in a game played
by throwing darts or shooting arrows through a rolling hoop. Girl's
mimicked the work of the squaws. They had doll papooses and among
the Indians of the Great Plains, the girls built doll teepees for them.
Young Americans of this Atomic Age have more toys and more time
to play with them than any other children, past or present.
Unfortunately, they are still cheated because the toys are factory-made.
They miss most of the fun and the sense of pride that comes from
building their own.
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Update: June 2012