Walk into a household with at least one child today, and it will come as little surprise that the global toy market is estimated at over $80 billion. Kids, it seems, can’t get enough of toys—and parents (and grandparents) can’t seem to resist the urge to buy just one more for the little apples of their eyes.
If this sounds at all familiar—or if the holiday rush has just got you nostalgic for the days when toys came wrapped with your name on them—then be sure not to miss the exhibit “Swedish Wooden Toys” at the Bard Graduate Center (18 West 86th Street, New York City; www.bgc.bard.edu), currently on view through February 28, 2016.
Though we might not give it a second thought, the modern concept of childhood emerged in Europe during the 17th century, when the period from infancy to puberty became recognized as a distinct stage in human development. As the status of childhood gained social importance, children acquired their own material goods; special furniture, such as cribs and feeding chairs, and amusements, including rattles and dolls, became increasingly common in elite and middle-class European households. The notion of the innocent child who learned through play was fully established by the middle of the 18th century, and toys began to gain importance as a means of demonstrating family status and as tools for teaching children and preparing them for adulthood.
In 18th- and 19th-century Sweden, wooden toys were the ordinary amusements of the poor. Carving small animals from the country’s natural resource—wood—was a traditional occupation for rural Swedes. By the middle of the 19th century, as the cult of childhood innocence surged, the Swedish toy industry produced wooden animals, carts, dolls, sleds, and furniture for a rapidly expanding domestic market.
Curated by Susan Weber, Bard Graduate Center founder and director, and Amy F. Ogata, professor of art history at the University of Southern California and former professor at Bard
Graduate Center, “Swedish Wooden Toys” is the first in-depth study of the history of wooden playthings in Sweden from the 17th to the 21st centuries. Remarkable doll houses, puzzles and games, pull toys, trains, planes, automobiles, and many other delights demonstrate Sweden’s grip on wooden toys. Germany, Japan, and the United States may have historically produced and exported the largest number of toys, but Sweden’s angle on the market has remained uniquely tied to its fosterland, or fatherland—forest-land, even, if you will.
Walking through the exhibit is like taking a journey through shifting cultural embraces of the wooden toy, and what it has come to stand for over time—endurance, quality, and tradition. The midcentury French critic Roland Barthes touched upon the “warm” and “reassuring” qualities of wood for children’s playthings. He was hinting at something larger, which becomes apparent in the face of all these masterfully crafted toys on display: there’s no mistaking a markedly essential and natural connection between wooden toys and children—between organic things. That’s sure to leave parents with a little room for thought—and kids with plenty of room for growth.