Child's Play

Child's Play

© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2006, collection numérique

An abundance of toys... this is undoubtedly one of the strongest contemporary symbols of Christmas, which has developed gradually since the 19th century. This image fills children with hope as they dream about Santa Claus and the workshop operated by his elves. Yet, Christmas has not always been like this. In the past, for many children Christmas meant the birth of a child in great poverty, joyful family gatherings, good meals and a few gifts received on New Year’s Day, mostly small treats, useful objects and, occasionally some toys. Along the same lines as the changes in this holiday, children in the past had very few toys compared to those of today. However, this did not prevent them from playing! It’s surprising how a few very simple objects, imagination and playing companions can result in so much pleasure.

The holiday season will soon be upon us and this series of chronicles gives you an opportunity to plunge into one of the sweetest topics pertaining to childhood: the history of games and toys. Since the days of New France, games and toys have evolved in number and shape, although frequently the basic principles have hardly changed, to such an extent that it is highly likely that the children of the past and those of today could share and trade their toys without too much difficulty.

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First episode
Children and games
L’enfant et le jeu

© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2002-2006, collection numérique

For centuries, in rural societies in Western Europe, life was viewed as circular in nature. As in the case of the cycle of seasons, life was seen as eternally starting over, and the collective destiny was more important than individual destiny. In these societies, children were not there just to enjoy the pleasures of existence, but to ensure the continuity of village life.

Also, childhood was very short since children were expected to fit into the adult world quickly. This view of life started to change as of the end of the 16th century, when more importance was placed on individual destiny. Nevertheless, it was still a long time before childhood was acknowledged as a particular moment when playing and amusement were important.

From the Renaissance to the Century of Lights, educators looked down on toys, saying they were “useless”. Toys were viewed as superfluous luxuries. At the very best, these educators felt that it was acceptable for children to play with objects in their environment. Some, such as Fénelon, believed that toys interfered with education if pleasure was associated too closely with toys and boredom too closely with studies. Games, namely collective activities with precise rules, were more acceptable since it was believed that they gave children an opportunity to develop their physical or cognitive abilities. Adults often enjoyed them as well.

Toys had few supporters in the 17th century. One supporter was the Czech Jan Amos Komensky, also known as Comenius, the father of modern education. According to Comenius, games were essential for the development of the child and their entertaining aspect could not be ignored. For example, toys were often miniature reproductions of objects found in everyday life and they gave children an opportunity to gradually get used to the world of adults. Viewing toys as “useful” was rather rare, however, before the second half of the 19th century.

French-Canadians were no exception when it came to the place reserved for children. Left to play on their own until the age of about 4, children then generally started to help their parents. At the age of about 7 or 8, they had to contribute to the subsistence of the family, taking part in supportive tasks such as setting the table, washing the dishes or sweeping and they were gradually introduced to the work of the adults, such as textile work for girls and agricultural work for boys. In Native societies, children took part in daily tasks at an even earlier age, namely as soon as they could walk. Children were expected to become autonomous at about 12 of 13 years of age. Very often, toys were intended to initiate children to adult tasks.

Despite the relatively limited place allotted to playing during childhood, it is still true that, during all periods in time, children have played and several traces of old-fashioned toys have lasted. These toys include replicas of objects that would enable children to imitate adults. To learn more about the world of dolls, wooden horses and other toys, we invite you to come back on November 28, 2006.

  • CHAUMELY, Jean et Michel NOËL. Arts traditionnels des Amérindiens, Montréal, Hurtubise HMH, 2001, 175 p.
  • GÉLIS, Jacques. «L’individualisation de l’enfant», dans Philippe Ariès et Georges Duby, dir., Histoire de la vie privée: de la Renaissance aux Lumières, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1986, pp. 311-329.
  • MANSON, Michel. Jouets de toujours: de l’Antiquité à la Révolution, Paris, Fayard, 2001, 382 p.
  • PROVENCHER, Jean et Johanne BLANCHET. C’était le printemps: la vie rurale traditionnelle dans la vallée du Saint-Laurent, Montréal, Boréal Express, 1980, 236 p.

Second episode
A child-size Word
Un monde à sa mesure

© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2006, collection numérique

It’s a well-known principle: children learn a lot through imitation. They imitate their first playmates as well as their older brothers and sisters and they mimic their parents’ actions, playing make-belief. Many of the old-fashioned toys used in Quebec are small-scale replicas of animals, people or objects that enable children to create a world their own size.

The small world of dolls

One of the most popular toys with little girls as well as very young boys is without a doubt the doll. During the time of New France, dolls and their accessories were mentioned in certain inventories

The French word for doll, poupée, comes from the Latin puppa which means “little girl”. In the 18th century, in France as in New France, the doll was occasionally referred to as a catin, a diminutive of Catherine. The first dolls were made of materials such as wood, stone, ivory, wax, plaster or fabric. As of the 19th century, dolls were also made of earthenware, porcelain and paper-maché, occasionally covered with wax. The first plastic dolls appeared at the very end of the 19th century. For a long time, dolls represented adults, then they gradually took on the clothing of little girls. The first baby dolls only appeared at the start of the 20th century, at the same time as a close relative of the doll, the teddy bear.

In Quebec, dolls were made by hand for a long time. Most frequently made of fabric, they had faces that were embroidered; buttons were often used as well. Clothing, quilts and furniture were also made by hand for them. The universe of the doll was filled with miniature buffets, cupboards, chests of drawers and even commode chairs. In the case of the Native people, little girls would make the clothes for their dolls on their own, from undergarments to moccasins, learning how to sew at the same time.

Little boys like to play as well...

In the case of little boys, who were not interested in playing with dolls, several toys gave them an opportunity to imitate their elders. In the rural areas, they played with miniature agricultural instruments and replicas of harrows, carts and tractors (depending on the period) as well as with miniature animals. Those who lived in coastal areas often played with small boats, which they pulled through the water on strings. Young Native boys, future hunters and warriors, played with small bows and arrows, knives and bark canoes.

Wooden horses

Children are fascinated by horses and, since the Middle Ages, the wooden horse has enjoyed a place among their toys. Wooden horses in Quebec were generally made by hand. At the outset, the horses were mounted on wheels so that they cold move about easily. When rocking chairs became popular in the 19th century, people started making wooden horses on curved rockers. Some wooden horses even have small backs, like chairs do. Much later, despite the trucks, cars and trains that replaced the wooden horse, they can still be found in the toy room.

Watch out for the cannon!

Although military toys were popular in France, they were rather rare in Quebec. The first metal soldiers appeared at the end of the 19th century, representing the zouaves or those who fought in the Boer War. Some military toys have, however, set tongues wagging. Thus, in 1838, guards at the Montreal prison were informed that the patriot inmates were making weapons and preparing to escape. After serious consternation and intensive searches, imagine how surprised they were to discover that the weapon in question was... a toy. Intended for a little boy, the small, 4-inch cannon was made from the remains of a pipe that had been blocked and mounted on wheels!

Well before the 20th century, children owned a few toys that were suitable for individual games and enabled them to create a child-sized universe. There were very few of these toys compared to today. On the other hand, children of the past had a very large number of toys that could be used for play with other children. To learn more about marbles, jacks and other games of skill, we invite you to return on December 12, 2006.

  • RENAUD, Louise et Katherine TREMBLAY. Les jeux et les jouets de Place-Royale, [Québec], [Publications du Québec], 1990, 212 p.
  • SÉGUIN, Robert-Lionel. Les jouets anciens du Québec, [Montréal], Leméac, 1969, 107 p.

Third episode
Do you want to play with me?

Since the time of New France, games have been very popular, not only with children, but also with adults. For adults, cards, dominoes, dice and checkers were viewed as opportunities for social discourse. Children were also familiar with numerous games and were allowed to participate as soon as they could follow the rules. Here are some examples.


Marbles is a very old game. During antiquity, people used knucklebones, acorns, chestnuts, olives or even hazelnuts as marbles. The Latin expression nuces relinquere meaning “leaving your nuts behind” was used in Rome to mean leaving games and childhood behind. In Quebec, the use of stone marbles was popular as early as the 18th and possibly even the 17th centuries. Later, marbles were made of clay, porcelain or even glass and came to be called marbres in French, based on their English name.

Certain marbles were considered more valuable than others and were kept to increase a bid when the stakes were high. The most important marbles, also called Alleys, were larger than the other and were often decorated with stripes or a central design. In some games, the players must hit the alley whereas in others, as many marbles as possible must be shot into a hole, with all the marbles still outside the hole being given to the player who shoots the last marble into the hole.



There are several variations to this game of skill, which has been around for centuries. One involves spreading the jacks on a table then throwing a ball. The player must pick up a jack before catching the ball. Players start by picking up two jacks, then three, four... Another version involves throwing one jack, then two, three into the air and then catching them alternatively on the back or in the palm of your hand. Lamb bones from the butcher provided good accessories for this game. The Native people also had a game similar to jacks. In a large plate, they would shake small, smooth, flat bones that were painted black on one side and white on the other. Each player would select a colour and the largest number of bones of the same colour indicated the winner.


Although it is possible to play with a top on your own, the presence of a group makes this game all the more exciting. Also called moine in French, the top can be thrown using a string and one game involves having the top land and spin inside a circle drawn on the ground. In order to avoid elimination, the successful player must stop his top before another does. If the top spins outside the circle, the player is given the opportunity to stay in the game by using his string to throw the top into the air and catch it. If he fails to do so, his top is immobilized in the centre of the circle and he can only play again if another player dislodges it.

Cat and mouse

Several old-fashioned games required few accessories and left few material signs behind. One example is hide and seek which was played by both Native children and young French-Canadians, as well as skipping, for which numerous songs exist. Another familiar example is cat and mouse. For this game, the players stand in a circle holding hands. One player, the mouse, stands in the circle and another, the cat, stands outside. When the cat wants to go into the circle, the players block his way. But if they are thwarted, they make an opening for the mouse to escape. The game ends when the mouse is caught.

Most toys and accessories for games were made by hand for a long time. At the turn of the 19th century, manufactured toys became increasingly popular. To learn more about toy making in times past, we invite you to return on December 26, 2006.

  • RENAUD, Louise et Katherine TREMBLAY. Les jeux et les jouets de Place-Royale, [Québec], [Publications du Québec], 1990, 212 p.
  • SÉGUIN, Robert-Lionel. Les jouets anciens du Québec, [Montréal], Leméac, 1969, 107 p.

Fourth episode
Making toys
Making toys

© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec 2006, collection numérique

Today, since toys are abundant, easy to obtain and affordable, few people think of spending a few hours making a toy. Yet, for centuries, the toys a child owned were usually made by members of his family or by the child himself. It was unthinkable for most families to spend a portion of their tiny budget to buy toys, considered “useless luxuries”. Despite the very limited market, toy manufacturers and merchants have existed since the 15th century.

Knick knacks and haberdashers

In France the first toy makers were called bimbelotiers. Related to the word bibelot which refers to “small unimportant objects”, namely knick knacks, the word bimbelot refers to a “child’s toy”. Occasionally, these early toymakers called on other artisans to make various toy parts, such as assigning turners to make drum rims. In the 17th century, they competed with doll makers to make dolls. Goldsmiths and silversmiths also made toys such as rattles or small animals in gold or silver, intended for the elite. In general, toys were sold by merchants traveling from village to village and at fairs. In Paris, in the 17th century, certain haberdashers sold toys in their shops.

In New France, there were no craftspeople who specialized in making toys, although certain sculptors did produce some. This was the case, in 1796, of François Baillairgé who was assigned to make a horse on wheels for the son of Mr. John Gragy. The horse was given to the young boy before it was finished and then returned to the sculptor to be completed. Certain well-off families bought imported toys such as crystal, silver and ivory rattles or, in the 19th century, miniature china. It was even possible, as of the 18th century, to buy European bells at a modest price to entertain babies.

Industrial toys

Around the turn of the 19th century, toy making was gradually industrialized. One of the first toys to be produced in this manner was the marble. In Germany, starting in the 18th century, a large quantity of marbles was produced by erosion. This involved cutting stones into small cubes, placing them between two grindstones with sand and water, and operating the device for 6-8 hours, until the cubes changed into marbles. Certain marbles were polished further in a turning barrel to which dye could be added. In about 1870, clay, porcelain and glass marbles became increasingly popular. Marbles that were glazed or made of porcelain were made from molds. Since it was harder to make glass marbles, they were generally made by hand between 1850 and 1920, after which time manufacturers took over. Metal toys, such as trains and miniature stoves, also appeared during the industrial era.

The toy market was dominated by Germany until World War I, although large firms were founded in this sector in several countries, such as the French firm Jumeau, which made dolls. Toys gradually become more accessible as several middle-class families saw their buying power increase, enabling more and more children to own manufactured toys. During the 19th century, the commercialization of Christmas also made a significant contribution to the growth of the toy industry.

Simple, home-made toys

Although certain manufactured toys were found in Quebec in the 19th century, people still preferred home-made toys most of the time. For example, it was relatively easy to make a rattle using small bones or to purchase certain toy parts, such as porcelain heads and hands to which a fabric body was sewn in order to make a doll. Very simple tops could also be made at home from a thread spool, by cutting it and adding a stem.

Children made certain toys themselves. This was the case of the grimpant (climber) this toy was made from a spool with saw-toothed edges, in which an elastic would be inserted, held on one side by a match and on the other by a stick measuring about 10 cm long. A ring of soap or wax would be inserted between the spool and the stick. The toy is operated by turning the stick, which twists the elastic. Then the device is placed on a smooth surface and it starts to move on its own.

The Native People were familiar with toys made from natural items. For example, they played with balls and cups made of bones and with noisemakers made of a strip of leather to which a bone would be attached. Swinging this toy made noise. In 1691, a Récollet father also described a 30-cm rattle to which animal claws were attached and which was decorated with porcupine quills. The Native People often made toys with items they received from the fur trade and took pleasure in attaching necklaces, porcelain bracelets and bells to their babies’ cradles.

This is the end of the series of chronicles on Child’s Play!

  • CHAUMELY, Jean and Michel NOËL. Arts traditionnels des Amérindiens, Montreal, Hurtubise HMH, 2001, 175 p.
  • LESSARD, Michel and Huguette MARQUIS. Encyclopédie des antiquités du Québec: trois siècles de production artisanale, Montreal, Éditions de l’homme, 1971, 526 p.
  • MANSON, Michel. Jouets de toujours: de l’Antiquité à la Révolution, Paris, Fayard, 2001, 382 p.
  • RENAUD, Louise and Katherine TREMBLAY. Les jeux et les jouets de Place-Royale, [Québec], [Publications du Québec], 1990, 212 p.
  • SÉGUIN, Robert-Lionel. Les jouets anciens du Québec, [Montréal], Leméac, 1969, 107 p.


These merchants sell all kinds of small items, particularly sewing materials.
The Boer War
War conducted by England between 1899 and 1902 against the states in Southern Africa colonized by the Dutch.
Fashion emissaries
The word doll does not necessarily refer to a toy. In fact, certain dolls were intended for other purposes, such as making fashion known. As early as the 14th century, doll clothes illustrated the trends at the French court and spread them around the world. Created as a fashion doll, Barbie is one of their descendants.
François Baillairgé
Architect and sculptor, like several other members of his family, François Baillairgé (1759-1830) also made statues and produced paintings. He worked on the decorations for numerous churches and also supervised the construction of the prisons in Quebec City and Trois-Rivières.
The Pope’s Soldiers
The Zuavi Pontifici (papal zouaves) were infantrymen assembled at the request of Pope Pius IX to resist Garibaldi’s forces, which wanted to unify Italy. From 1868 to 1871, 135 French-Canadian zouaves rushed to the Pope’s rescue.