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The author’s approach is basically chronological, starting with pre-european Maori toys, and then the early colonists. Toys were important in Maori culture for both children and adults. Once the Europeans arrived the two peoples played together, sharing their toys and ideas. It is hard to believe that when my knuckle-bone champion sister made me practice with her we were playing a version with features of both European knucklebones and Maori koruru.
Toys came with all arrivals to New Zealand, and of course were made here, often by the users. Shanghais, bows and arrows, trolleys and dolls were often crude, sometimes dangerous. More refined toys were imported – before the First World War they were imported mainly from Germany.
Depression and both World Wars changed the toy world of course. The 1950s and 60s were possibly a golden age, then the toy market became more international. The author takes the story right up to the current tsunami of cheap plastic from China and the development of virtual games. He includes many asides, with snippets on landmarks from cereal box toys skateboards and protests against war toys. The author comments that he made a special effort to understand girls’ toys but this coverage is perhaps a little light apart from the dolls.
Its great fun to wallow in the nostalgia captured here. I found once again the toys that I had many decades ago – and those that I envied when my friends had them. Then later, the toys that my children played with, and even later those my grandchildren enjoy. But the book is more than a collection of stories about toys: much more. Two themes stood out for me.
First, the important role that toys have played in our lives both as children and as adults. Toys were intended, by adults at least, to amuse, to educate, and to tame children. Marketing tricks were used to capture children’s imagination: the Hornby Railway Company was world wide and seemed to be run by children. Of course adults did not always have the last word, and at times children took control as the many broken ceramic insulators on power lines can testify.
Second, the ways in which our economic fortunes have changed our toys. Wealthy colonists brought toys with them and the less well-off made their own. As the economy developed we began importing toys in colossal volumes, mainly from Germany and Britain. After the great Depression, these imports stopped, driving the development of a local toy industry, which became increasingly sophisticated. And following the magic of the Rogernomics reforms, toys became another global product, closing local factories once again.
David Veart is a historian and archaeologist, who has done a great job of digging up stories both large and small. We meet the schoolboys who helped support their family by making jigsaws in a bedroom. And the Auckland store that hosted the largest Meccano club in the world, with over 1000 members in 1927. And the strange, to me at least, practice of “Barbie Torture”, which turns out to pre-date Barbie dolls by many decades.
The book is lavishly illustrated, and there are suggestions for further reading as well as a full set of notes on the sources.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
Hello Boys & Girls: A New Zealand Toy Story
by David Veart
Published by Auckland University Press