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A Colonial kid's life

Playtime was limited for children in early America, but simple toys still generate fun

Playtime was limited for children in early America, but simple toys still generate fun

September 19, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

Television, iPods, video games ... of course those weren't available during the mid-1700s.

And while Harry Potter and Tom Sawyer hadn't been "born" yet, even reading was not a "for fun" activity for many children during the French and Indian War era.

"One of the first things I like to tell schoolchildren is, 'Children's lives in the 18th century were very tough,'" Walter Powell said.

Powell isn't mean. It's just part of his job as executive director of the Conococheague Institute in Welsh Run, Pa., to let visitors know what life was like during the French and Indian War era.


The institute is hosting a Colonial Faire and Muster this weekend and will be selling colonial-style toys during the event.

But the reality is children didn't have a lot of playtime back then as they were, from a very young age, expected to help with chores, Powell said. This often meant domestic chores for the girls and physical labor for the boys.

Girls would learn to make clothes from spinning and weaving flax or wool, while boys would learn to hunt, fish and work in the fields.

"They were viewed as young adults very early on," Powell said. Folk art would show children with adult-like faces.

Making your own fun

Anne Garside, spokeswoman for the Maryland Historical Society, said even in the mid-1800s, the poorer children still weren't nurtured and coddled the way they have become today; often working in factories.

Like in today's Amish or Mennonite farming communities, Powell said, having fun in the mid-1700s was reserved for large get-togethers of settlers during which a house was being built or families were sharing chores.

Those occasions would include some downtime. Also, work was set aside for the entire day on the Sabbath, Powell said.

"While it was not made for merry-making, it was a time families spent away from work," he said. Often that time, even after church services, involved religious education in the form of reading religious texts or singing.

Reading for many settlers would have meant reading the Bible or teaching children important biblical stories in the process of their learning to read, he said.

Some of the wealthier families in the Conococheague Valley had more books, so those children might have been exposed to reading more than the Bible, Powell said.

Colonial toys and games

Toys of the time included wooden spinning tops typically made by someone in the family, rag dolls or cornhusk dolls (some without faces) and handmade wooden animals used to re-create scenes from the Bible, Powell said.

The institute will sell replicas of Colonial-style toys this weekend. These include propellers, spool tractors and cup-and-ball-toss toys.

Faire organizers will also sell equipment for graces, a throw-and-catch game in which each player has two wooden sticks and a wooden hoop, about the size of an embroidery hoop.

A child would hold two sticks that were crossed with the hoop over tips of the sticks, said Patricia Samford, director of the Maryland Archeological Conservation Lab. When the child quickly pulled the sticks apart, the hoop would fly up; the other child would have to catch the hoop on his or her crossed sticks.

A lot of fun can be had with simple supplies. A burlap sack could have been used for sack or three-legged races. A stick and an old barrel hoop led to barrel-hoop races. Sack races, barrel-hoop rolling and blind man's bluff - a form of hide-and-seek with the seeker blindfolded - are among Colonial-style games John Bryan has researched. Bryan is historic sites facilitator for the City of Hagerstown and curator for the Hager House in Hagerstown's City Park.

Of course, no toys are needed for running around, racing and chasing each other, Garside said.

Other games from that era included a game similar to bocce balls, Samford said, and rounders, which was similar to baseball. To get the batter out in rounders, you had to hit the batter with the ball, which was made of tanned hide stuffed with fabric. The bat was flat like in cricket, and the bases were rounded in the opposite direction of baseball.

Samford said a number of toys from the French and Indian War era have been dug up at various archaeological digs throughout the state. They include red, fired-clay marbles, usually unglazed; metal toy soldiers and cannons; and broken copper and brass buttons.

When the eyes on the large buttons broke off, kids used them to make whizzers, Samford said. They would make two holes in the center of a button, then wind a string through the holes and tie the string to create a loop. Holding the string taut with the button in the center and perpendicular to themselves, they would spin the button around quickly, then pull the string tight, creating a whizzing noise.

American Indian playtime

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