The story of toys closely mirrors the history of the modern world. The simple toys of yesteryear may have been replaced by objects of remarkable technological variety but the underlying purpose and pleasures remain the same—toys are fascinating social documents.
In the years before the Second World War most children had few toys, all treasured, valued and protected.
In the 1950s the growth of plastics and cheap imports meant toys became radically cheaper. Toys became part of a consumer society’s wares—desired, acquired and rejected with ease. In the 1970s the producers of Star Wars and other such films and TV series wilfully created characters that could be turned into marketable toys, designed in scales and ranges calculated to create insatiable demand. Crucially, the buying of toys changed to being in the decision making hands of children, no longer satisfied to rely on adults making choices on their behalf. Amongst other critical forces, in a century of remarkable change, adults started to buy products for themselves that they described as toys, whether cars, computer games or memories of romantic pasts. The gap between toy and real world object has become blurred.
The primary purpose of toys hasn’t changed though. A good toy is a safe way to experience the world—it’s a model of what a child will find in later life. Good toys help children tell stories, create worlds and develop identities in public and private ways at minimal risk. A successful toy creates risk without being too risky, challenges without jeopardy, promotes cognitive and physical growth and importantly, becomes a valued part of the journey from childhood to adulthood—adults remember their best toys as central to their growing lives.
Toys have remarkably diverse uses. Some are important as devices for displacement—hideaways from life. Others build logic and thinking. Others create opportunities for social growth. Most serve all these purposes and more. Perhaps every toy, unless purposefully destructive, has a positive learning value.
Djeco, the French toy company specialises in toys with high educational value. Established in the 1960s, when there was a backlash against cheap plastic imports, the firm both drew on traditional designs and started to question the learning purpose of their toy ranges, introducing richly coloured, image filled surfaces and finding ways of making wares at decent prices. Object & line stocks a large range of Djeco products including jigsaws, classic games, wall stickers and musical instruments.
O&l also stock small ranges by Janod and Vilac, also long established French toy companies. Both specialise in painted wood and have their factories in the Jura—the forested, mountainous area of France where toy making is a tradition. Janod’s superb, contemporary toys sit alongside Vilac’s more classic, almost sculptural cars, vans and lorries.
Amongst our favourites, Janod’s iconic rocket with its Tintin look alike astronaut, Djeco’s Animo drum with drawings of dancing elephants on the side, and any of Vilac’s small painted wood cars—all treasures.
How to tell a great toy? There are simple rules: Is it immediately attractive? Is it cleverly thought through? Has it got lasting value? Does it have a high level of design? Is the price right? Is it a token of affection?
PS. Djeco’s wall sticker The Poem Tree was prominently featured on the CBBC studio wall for several years.