Old toy trains and sprawling dollhouses connect imaginations through the span of years. Curator Jan Gilliam has the happy task of laying them out.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Joining me in the studio today is Jan Gilliam, and at Colonial Williamsburg, she's manager of exhibit planning and, the best title I've ever heard: associate curator of toys.
Jan Gilliam: Yes.
Lloyd: That's wonderful. As associate curator of toys, you have an exhibit going on that I really, to tell the truth, have not seen. You have brought a book of pictures, about which I'm very happy. Are there that many toys from the 18th century? I hate to show my ignorance, but I guess there were.
Jan: Well actually, there were toys in the 18th century, but our collection of toys is with the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, and therefore the majority are 19th- and even early 20th-century century toys.
Lloyd: You don't really hear about 18th-century toys, although if there were 18th-century children, there were bound to be toys of some kind.
Jan: There were definitely toys, and we do have a few dolls from the 18th century that are in this exhibit. They had a lot of outdoor-type games they played. Kids will always make things up, whether they take a rock and put fabric around it and make it a doll, or do something like that, they find ways of making their own toys.
Lloyd: I've found that when you go out and buy your child an expensive toy, he would rather have the box. He can make the box anything he wants it to be.
Jan: That's right.
Lloyd: Kids have always had wonderful imaginations, which I am afraid they manage to lose by the time they get to be adults.
Jan: Yes, I think so.
Lloyd: When people come to see toy collections, what are they looking for?
Jan: I think some of it is they're looking for remembrance of the past, and what it was like to be a child in the past. One of the reasons this exhibit is called the "Child's Eye View" is because the toys reflect the adult world. Even today, they do the same thing. Dolls are dressed as astronauts, or doctors or lawyers or whatever. In the 19th century, the toys reflected the times, as well. You get a sense of the past by just looking at the toys children played with.
Lloyd: Oh yeah, of course you would. Children tend to make things up as they know them.
Jan: That's right.
Lloyd: So whatever is today is what they're fiddling with.
Jan: That's right. We have a lot of toy carriages with horses, but then we also have a few toy cars. When it's that time period in the late 19th, early 20th century, we're shifting to automobiles and trains. That shift is reflected very much in the toy field.
Lloyd: Ah. How about animals? Animals pretty much stay the same.
Jan: Yes, but every generation makes their own. We have toys that are squeak toys, and that means that when you press them, they actually make a little noise. Those are from the mid-19th century, and they are bulldogs, they are sheepdogs, they're monkeys, they're elephants, they're birds.
Lloyd: What do you find most interesting? You, as curator of toys – what do you like about toys?
Jan: Often you don't find the toys in the best of shape, but I kind of like that, because it reminds you that these things were really played with. Small children once held these and played with them, and loved them, and cared for them, or not, depending on what they are. It's just fascinating to look at the toys and think about who played with them.
Lloyd: They do get worn. It would be fun to think, "How did they play with this? How did they make use of it? What entertained them?" If you really let your imagination go, you could have a lot of fun with that.
Jan: We always do. When we put these exhibits up, it's very fun.
Lloyd: How long does it take to mount an exhibit of toys?
Jan: We start the concept probably two years in advance, thinking about what we're going to do. Then we start writing the labels and gathering information. Actually mounting and building an exhibit can take anywhere from three to six months.
Lloyd: Two years ago, did you know that you had all these toys available to you, and you set out with a specific goal in mind?
Jan: I have some storage areas that have all the toys laid out. I can go in there and look at them and decide what I want. It's sometimes really hard to pick the theme that I want to do. That takes a while to figure out – what it is that we want to base the theme around for this particular exhibit, and selecting the objects that best fit that theme that would mean something to visitors as they walk through.
Lloyd: You've got a whole book of pictures. I want to see some of them.
Jan: Yes. One of the nice things we have is a great collection of dollhouses. We have one from the 1830s that was built in Virginia, and has come down in the family and was donated to us by that family. We have a few pieces like the Virginia dollhouse, and then we have the Rumford dollhouse, which was built in Philadelphia in the 1820s and donated to us by that family. It's a four-room dollhouse that we've had for a few years now. It's always fun to share because it has such a great family history.
Lloyd: That one, I can see says it's four feet high. Isn't that big for a dollhouse?
Jan: You want to be able to play with it with your dolls in there. They have to fit. This is actually big. The Long Island dollhouse, which we acquired in '69 and was built in about 1900 in New York, it's 12 feet long and has about seven to 12 rooms in it. All the rooms are about two feet high by two feet wide.
Lloyd: I could live in there. Twelve feet long.
Jan: You could. It's a beautiful house, well furnished. There are some really nice houses, but not everybody was able to afford something like that. Those were often special builds.
Lloyd: OK, let's get back to something that a middling family might own, and it's not going to be a 12-foot dollhouse. Four feet high – how long is this, do we know?
Jan: Yes. This one's probably about five feet wide.
Lloyd: And a couple of dormers, and one, two, three, four, five windows across the front top. Four windows across the front bottom, and a front door.
Jan: This is a very classical house. Sort of like the Wythe house in town, with two rooms above, two rooms below, and the center passage. This has nice space.
Lloyd: Does this roof lift up, or something?
Jan: It did originally. Over the years it's been modified, but originally, the back of the roof was hinged so that you could get into the attic as well and play with it.
Lloyd: Do you have any mechanical toys?
Jan: We do have some that are mechanical. Mechanical toys, especially in the latter part of the 19th century, the American toy field takes off. You get mechanical toys – tin toys in particular – and cast-iron toys. We have a great alligator. He winds up, and he is wired such that as he rolls along the floor, his tail and his head are hinged, so that they wiggle as you go along the floor.
Lloyd: And his mouth opens?
Jan: It stays open permanently. He's all wood with the mechanism under him.
Lloyd: OK, a gray alligator with a hinged tail – one, two, three, four, five pieces. And one, two, three, four pieces on the front, on wheels. You said American toys took off, and I sort of let you get by with it because I wanted to see the alligator. Was there a great toy period for American industry?
Jan: Yes. In the earlier 19th century, the toy world was centered around Germany. Germany was exporting the wooden toys in particular. We have toy villages, we have Noah's Ark, we have kitchens that girls could play with. That's where a lot of the toys were coming from. They were made so inexpensively in such quantities that they could be shipped to America at a low cost. It was very hard to compete with that. In the latter part of the 19th century, tin toys and cast-iron toys came along and were more popular. American industry was able to sort of take the lead in that area. So those toys, America started building up in that area first, then creating their own toys as the toy industry made its way.
Lloyd: I remember when I was a kid, all the six-shooters – and all the boys had six-shooters – were all metal. No plastic.
Jan: No, today you wouldn't get away with some of them. You have such sharp edges, and lead paint – all sorts of things.
Lloyd: One of my good friends took his little metal six-shooter and whacked me upside the head pretty good. I wish that had been plastic. Actually, I remember in the Army, there were American toy manufacturers who made cheap submachine guns that the Army could afford to give its troops. They were called grease guns, and looked for all the world like a grease gun. But they were stamped out by American toy manufacturers.
Jan: The toy manufacturing industry was very interesting. Particularly a lot of people know Lionel trains, which began early in the 20th century. Again, they became the leader in the toy train field certainly, and still are. During the first World War, they gave up making toy trains for the war, but they made paper trains so that boys could still have that Lionel name. As soon as the war ended, they were back into making toy trains again. So the industries had to adapt.
Lloyd: How do you make a paper train? You can't roll it along tracks and go "choo-choo."
Jan: No, you can't. But it's a train. Before electric trains, you had to just deal with rolling trains, but we even have a wooden train that doesn't have wheels. It's got flat bottoms. They hooked together, and kids could pull them along the floor. Kids will make of it what they want. If it's a train, they'll make it do what they want it to do.
Lloyd: I had never considered a paper train, or a train with no wheels. Bet I'd have fun with those.
Jan: A lot of people do, they are great trains.
Lloyd: Do you have to caution people to keep their hands in their pockets? The temptation to pick up a toy is just …
Jan: It is, and that's why most of our toys are behind glass, or some way that you can't get to them, but you can get right up to them in the glass. It's very tempting.
Lloyd: Unfair question: do you have a favorite piece?
Jan: I don't know. It changes depending on what I'm working with at the time. I have to love the toy trains. I think we have a great collection that was donated to the museum. It's fabulous. It's fun to look at those and set those up.
Lloyd: You don't have to answer this if you don't want to. You are now setting up an exhibit, there's no one there to stop you – do you play with them?
Jan: I probably shouldn't answer that. I keep my gloves on, and yes, I do.
Lloyd: I don't see how you could resist the temptation. I couldn't.
Jan: I think that's one of the very appealing things about why it's fun to do a toy exhibit. You know the visitors will respond to it. Everybody looks at it and has some sort of response. A lot of times it is, "I remember when grandfather played with something like that," or, "Can you imagine them playing with something like that instead of the Barbie of today?" There's always some connection that the visitor finds with the toys. They're just very appealing.
Lloyd: Make plans to see "A Childs-Eye View" on display this winter. That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.