There’s a reason we have museums. They show us things from our past that we would otherwise have forgotten, destroyed or left to decay. While certain things should be destroyed, there are other things that shouldn’t be forgotten.

That’s exactly the context in which this collection of images from an 1882 toy catalogue needs to be seen. Published digitally on Project Gutenberg earlier this month, this catalogue from New York-based Automatic Toy Works, which made wind-up toys, is a reminder of the commodities of the cultural imagination of that time.

In an era before intellectual property rights and mass marketing dictated what toys we played with, artisans drew their inspiration from recognisable caricatures of society. In the United States, the lampoonery of the blackface minstrel scene provided plenty of material. The toys in this catalogue predate the wildly popular golliwogs that hit the shelves in the 20th century and the mimicry is not just limited to black people. Also depicted are two pigtailed Chinese laundrymen and a woman’s right advocate as well as more benign characters such as a crawling baby and a mechanised bear.

A warning that most of these images are pretty demeaning. All the same, they shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone who understands the era. What is perhaps more telling is the copywriting. In the 21st century, toys need little introduction – the transcendent cultural capital of Spiderman and a Stormtrooper speaks for itself. Consumers instantly know what they are and why they want them. They have backstories and narratives that are valued at billions of dollars. By contrast, in these 19th century placements, the static sketch and the copywriting are left to do the selling. And in that prosaic explanation of how and why these toys might be amusing comes a disheartening sense of detachment: that these caricatures aren’t representing anything more than a cheap laugh.


“We consider this toy one of the most comically quaint of anything yet made. When seen in motion, laughter is irresistible. The old fellow commences the performance by slowly rocking backward and forward, as if debating what he should play, then suddenly he strikes his “favorite,” and rolling his head from side to side, fiddles in an ecstacy of enjoyment. Funny as it is, there is something almost pathetic in it, too. This toy is well and carefully made, and with ordinary care will last for years.

Price, $2.50.”


“He stands behind a desk, and slowly straightening himself up, turns his head from side to side and gestures vigorously with his arm. As he warms to his work, he leans forward over the pulpit, and shakes his head and hand at the audience, and vigorously thumps the desk. The motions are so life-like and comical that one almost believes that he is actually speaking. The face and dress alone provoke irresistible laughter. He preaches as long as any preacher ought to, and stops when he gets through.

Price, $2.50.”


“Old Aunt Chloe demonstrates that happiness may be found in a wash tub as well as in a palace. She is faithful at her toil, and we commend her to our young ladies as an artist of no mean pretentions, after whom they may pattern if they choose to revive and become proficient in one of the lost accomplishments.

Price, $2.50.”


“This image, with its shaven head, long queue and quaint looking dress, gives a striking and life-like picture of a Chinese Laundryman. When at work, he bends over the tub, and rubs the garment which he holds in his hands with a naturalness so perfect he might easily be mistaken for a real Celestial.

Price, $2.50.”


“In presenting this advocate to the public, and remembering with satisfaction the cordial reception our sterner suffragists and preachers have received, and believing in every respect she is their equal, we shall hope to receive as many calls for her. This woman will not insist upon the last word. Societies supplied with advocates on short notice.

Price, $2.50.”

Some others: