Toys as History:
Ethnic Images and Cultural Change

Pamela B. Nelson

"Dapper Dan the Coon Jigger," "Hopping Nutty Mad Indian," "Paddy and the Pig," and "The New Game of Ah Sin the Heathen Chinese" are three mechanical toys and a card game which were all produced in the United States within the past 150 years. They all depict blatantly derogatory images of African Americans, Native Americans, Irish Americans, and the Chinese. Although many Americans would prefer to forget such artifacts of our past, the issue of ethnic stereotyping in toys and games is too serious to ignore or simply to write off as one of the evils of an earlier time. Instead by trying to understand the origins and purposes of those negative images within the context of their times, we can learn much about the American past and, in so doing, be better equipped to interpret the messages being conveyed through ethnic images in the toys of today.

Toys, like other artifacts of material culture, can tell us a great deal about changing cultural attitudes and values, and about the exercise of power in society. Mass-produced toys are especially revealing because their designers, concerned with marketability, intentionally try to appeal to dominant attitudes and values. Since the toys reflect the attitudes of the dominant group, they have helped legitimate the ideas, values, and experiences of that group while discrediting the ideas, values, and experiences of others, helping the favored group define itself as superior and justify its dominance.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans and many immigrant groups new to the United States were grossly caricatured in toys. The derogatory stereotypes reflected the fears of Anglo-Americans who felt their power and cultural hegemony threatened by the masses of immigrants flocking to the cities and by the African Americans emerging from slavery. In mechanical toys, a new and very popular innovation of the late 19th century, the mechanical action of the toy and the involvement of the user in producing that action combined to make ethnic insults both attractive and engaging.

"Reclining Chinaman," a mechanical bank produced in 1882, features a smiling Chinese man lying against a log and holding playing cards in one hand. At the base of the log is a rat which the allegedly penurious Chinese immigrants were rumored to eat. When a lever is pressed, a penny falls from the man's hip into the base while his hands move to reveal that all the cards are aces. At the time it was produced, "Reclining Chinaman" reinforced the image of the Chinese as crafty tricksters who cheated American working men out of jobs by accepting lower wages and an inferior standard of living. In the same year that the bank appeared, widespread anti-Chinese sentiment led to passage of immigration laws virtually banning the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States.

I Always Did 'Spise a Mule
I always did 'spise a mule

Toy Knitting Outfit and Map of the U.S.
Toy Knitting Outfit & Dissected Map of the U.S.

"Always Did 'Spise a Mule," another late nineteenth-century mechanical bank, portrays a grossly caricatured African American boy riding a mule. When the player pushes a lever, the mule bucks, throwing the rider over its head onto a log on the ground. By involving the player in pretend violence against an African American and implying that such violence is fun, "Always Did 'Spise a Mule" contributed to a cultural climate in which violence against Blacks was (and still is) acceptable.

A third mechanical bank, "Paddy and the Pig" (1882) shows an Irishman eating with a pig. When the pig kicks a penny onto Paddy's outstretched tongue, Paddy rolls his eyes as he swallows. "Paddy and the Pig" employs image and action so as to trivialize a "threatening" group by rendering it as ridiculous as possible, and by associating that group with animals.

In contrast to the stereotypes engendering hatred, violence and derision toward emerging ethnic groups, turn-of-the-century images of Anglo-Americans and assimilated northern Europeans fostered admiration and respect. Successful men, sweet children, and harmonious families prevailed in such toys and games as "Office Boy" (1889), "Toy Knitting Outfit" (ca. 1910), and "Puzzle Parties" (ca. 1910), associating Anglo-Americans with success, beauty, and happiness.

Thus far the picture is simple--a threatened dominant group transmits in the toys it produces for children fear and contempt toward those whom it considers threatening, while it cultivates admiration for itself. Yet on closer examination the picture is less clear-cut. Certain toys and trends of the period did not fit the pattern.

Contradictions and inconsistencies are a reality of the past, Folklorist Henry Glassie stresses that historians must pay attention to the complexity of history.

As writers of the past, contributors to our own national mythos, we must not shy from confusion, contradiction, and complexity. Complexity is the inward and outward, cultural and social, reality. It is the essential precondition for change and, therefore, for history itself.(1)

Complexity arises because society is never static or closed, but is constantly changing. In a multicultural society such as the United States the dominant culture interacts with and is influenced by subordinate cultures. So, historian T. J. Jackson Lears points out, "The line between dominant and subordinate cultures is a permeable membrane, not an impenetrable barrier."(2)

Dark Town Battery
Dark Town Battery

In surprising contrast to other mechanical banks of the period, "Dark Town Battery" (1888) depicts a relatively realistic scene of African Americans playing baseball. The image and action do not demean or ridicule, and no one gets hurt. The pitcher throws a coin to the batter who misses; the catcher gloves the coin and drops it into the interior of the bank. A mechanical bank such as "Dark Town Battery" can be interpreted as a clue to historical change, as an early indicator of a shift in dominant cultural perceptions about Blacks, especially since its manufacturer, the J & E Stevens Co., created many banks with derogatory caricatures including "Reclining Chinaman."

During the 1880s when "Dark Town Battery" was produced, racial segregation in baseball was not as complete as it would become by the start of the twentieth century, and it apparently was acceptable for a short period to depict positive images of Blacks as athletes. Although the segregation of baseball after 1900 caused the nascent image of the African-American athlete to disappear temporarily from popular culture, "Dark Town Battery" foreshadowed the portrayal of African Americans in toys of the late twentieth century. From baseball cards to one of 1989's most popular lines of action "Starting Line-Up" (Kenner, 1988), the African American as athlete is part of today's mainstream cultural image of Blacks.

Another apparent inconsistency is the lack of Jewish and Italian-American images in turn-of-the-century toys. One of the largest immigrant groups at the time and commonly stereotyped in other areas of popular culture, Jews rarely were depicted in toys. The author is aware of only two toys from the period which depicted Jews--a mechanical "Breadwinner's Bank" and a board game, "Bulls and Bears." Both toys played upon the stereotype of Jewish avarice. Italian Americans, although numerous among immigrants and frequently stereotyped in advertising, comics, and film as simple-minded street peddlers and menial laborers, likewise rarely appeared in toys and then only as organ grinders.

The lack of Jewish and Italian images stems from the basic function of toys. A successful toy must delight and interest children. Consequently, ethnic groups associated with characteristics that are "fun" are those most likely to appear in toys. African-American images predominated in early manufactured toys in part because the white-created stereotype of African Americans as comical, entertaining, and child-like was particularly suited for use in toys. The stereotyped Jew, on the other hand, being associated with money and business, was less comical and therefore less likely to appear in toys. Among Italian-American stereotypes, the image of the organ grinder was especially compatible with childhood pleasure and, therefore, a suitable subject for toys. This is evident in an 1892 Marshall Field & Co. advertisement for a mechanical toy.

The Organ Grinder

Men in motion, the Italian leisurely turns the crank, while Jocko takes off his hat, in thanks for the coin. This is a well known and always pleasing scene for children.

Color Plate 6
Color Plate 6

Even today, Nintendo's popular Mario Brothers, although not organ grinders, are the same stereotypically jovial Italians--short and round, with big, dark moustaches and wide smiles [Color Plate 6].

Ethnic stereotyping in late nineteenth-century toys was more complex than it first appears, but in the early twentieth century inconsistencies grew more obvious as toys promoting derogatory images were marketed alongside toys featuring increasingly positive images. Negative caricatures, especially of African Americans, persisted well into the twentieth century, as an advertisement in the 1928-29 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog makes clear.

Chicken Snatcher

One of our most novel toys. When the strong spring motor is wound up the scared looking negro shuffles along with a chicken dangling in his hand and a dog hanging on the seat of his pants. Very funny action toy which will delight the kiddies. Nicely lithographed metal.

Nevertheless, the 1920s witnessed a definite shift in how toys depicted ethnicity. Cultural attitudes toward ethnic groups apparently softened as World War I and the passage of extremely restrictive immigration laws brought massive immigration to an end by 1924. With assimilation well underway in real life, rather than attacking and degrading groups, toys encouraged assimilation and supported token expressions of ethnicity.

In 1920 a series of paper dolls printed in Woman's Home Companion featured new ethnic American friends for the magazine's Anglo-American paper doll "Margery May." Margery May's Japanese-American friend, Tamaki, was described in the accompanying text as "a pretty little girl with pink cheeks, and the blackest hair, and the blackest eyes, and the most fascinating slanting eyebrows." She also obviously was well on her way to being Americanized.

When Tamaki goes to school with Margery May and Suzette, she wears American clothes, because her Japanese costume attracts so much attention. "American clothes are more comfortable anyway," says Tamaki, although her Japanese costume is much prettier, and she loves to wear it when she dresses up for a party. She knows how to handle her fan in the most bewitching fashion too. It makes her laugh to see her little American friends try to imitate her.

Alphies ABC block Advertisement
Alphies ABC Blocks ad

Likewise during the 1920s, Schoenhut Co.'s "Alphie" alphabet blocks depicted African Americans, American Indians, and East Indians in non-derogatory ways, but minimized their ethnic characteristics. The ethnic characters were marketed in a set of blocks which portrayed other characters with various occupations (conductor, soldier) and hobbies (golfer, tennis player). Differences of ethnicity, occupation, and recreational activity were indicated only by dress and accessories (i.e. the golfer carries golf clubs, the Black carries a watermelon). Otherwise all the characters looked remarkably similar with the same round face and big eyes. The implied message is that differences in ethnicity are no more significant than differences of occupation or hobby. Underneath their clothes the ethnic Alphie block characters are in fact the same as the others-- assimilated and thus acceptable.

The Alphie blocks reflect another historical development that resulted in fewer derogatory ethnic images in toys by the 1920s; play had become educational. As early as 1897 the influential psychologist G. Stanley Hall argued in his Study of Dolls that play had an important role in the socialization and education of children.(3) By 1930 the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection declared that every child had a right to play and that play was serious business.(4) Toy manufacturers took advantage of this new insight by touting the educational value of their toys. In a 1921 catalog advertisement for its popular "Humpty Dumpty Circus" poseable figures, the Schoenhut Co. declared:

These toys are also educating (sic), as they teach the children patience and perseverance, to think, to create new ideas, to accomplish objects (sic), thus broadening their minds and thereby making other studies easier, all of which is accomplished while the child is innocently at play.

Color Plate 8
Color Plate 8

Bye-Lo Baby
Bye-Lo Baby

The educational emphasis led manufacturers to produce realistic, life-like toys, for instance, working toy, steam engines and child-size replicas of modern kitchen appliances. In the same vein, a series of paper dolls appearing in the Ladies' Home Journal in 1922 depicted realistic images of children from a wide range of groups--Mexican, French, Irish, Eskimo, Dutch--complete with their respective costumes [Color Plate 8]. Although, except for the Eskimo, these dolls did not represent ethnic Americans, they did celebrate cultural differences in a way that might have led children to accept more readily the traditions of their ethnic neighbors.

In the early 1920's a remarkably realistic Black infant doll was designed by American Grace S. Putnam, produced by one of the major doll manufacturers in Germany, and distributed in the United States. It and a similarly realistic white doll were known as "Bye-Lo babies." Although many Black dolls were manufactured during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they usually were stereotyped as mammies or pickaninnies. The Bye-Lo baby was typical of the new trend toward realistic play, and despite the manufacturer's fear that the dolls were too realistic to sell successfully, they became top-sellers.

Despite the realistic portrayal of ethnicity in a variety of toys in the 1920s and 30s, from World War II through the mid-1960s the trend toward ethnic assimilation in toys progressed to the point that, with the notable exception of American Indian images, ethnic images all but disappeared from toys. The myth of American cultural homogeneity was an important part of the post-war American dream. Naturally, that myth maintained its power not by ridiculing ethnic differences but by ignoring them. The popularity of dolls such as "Barbie" indicated that the American female standard of attractiveness was Anglo-American. Likewise, a family of dolls marketed in 1960 idealized the n family. "Tammy," the blonde teenager of the family, was described in the manufacturer's catalog as "created in the perfect image of today's teenager from the top of her hair down to her white sneakers." Mom was "the ideal of every girl and a glamorous companion to Dad." "Chutes and Ladders," "Candy Land", and other classic children's games from the period invariably pictured white children on the box and playing board.

Ubangi Target Advertisement
Ubangi Target Ad

Of course exceptions were inevitable. "Ubangi Warrior Pop-Up," manufactured in 1957, embodied a Black stereotype every bit as derogatory and hostile as those produced in the nineteenth century with huge lips, bug-eyes and ears pierced by bones. When hit by suction darts, the warrior's head popped off. A 1962 yarn doll kit featured "Unga Bunga Doodly Witch Doctor" with a bone in its hair. These figures demonstrate that historical change is never clear-cut or complete; images persist long after the cultural values that produced them have changed. Yet both of these toys caricature Africans rather than African Americans, indicating that by the 1950s and 1960s it was less acceptable to demean African Americans than it had been earlier in the century.

A group that regularly was stereotyped in toys during the "years of homogeneity" was the American Indian. During this period, Anglo culture was promoted in the various genres of popular culture by means of the TV and film western. Brave Anglo frontiersmen conquered the West for the benefit of "all" Americans so that the nation could grow and prosper. Portrayed as enemies to American progress, Indians began to appear as subhuman savages. Thanks to television, "Cowboys and Indians" became a favorite children's game while the Davy Crockett craze resulted in a avalanche of toy tom-toms, tepees, and feather headdresses. The new toys and games stereotyped American Indians in a grotesque manner. The board game "Wa-hoo!" depicted a large-nosed, one-toothed Indian whooping and hopping, and in two wind-up drummer toys, Indians were represented by a chimpanzee and by a savage with bloodshot eyes and a maniac grin. Toys and games also depicted Native Americans as comical and child-like. Native Americans ceased to be acknowledged as intelligent, adult human beings, and, as Arlene Hirschfelder argues, their drums and other sacred cultural materials were turned into playthings for white children.

Remco advertisement
Remco Ad

G.I. Joe American Hero (Chinese American, African American, American Indian
G.I. Joe American Hero

Only in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement did multi-ethnic images return to American popular culture during the late 1960s. In 1969 Remco boasted in Playthings, a magazine of the toy industry, about its new line of "Negro" dolls:

We've learned that Negroes don't take kindly to imitations. We don't blame them. A white doll painted black is just that. That's why Remco is so successful Annuel McBurrows, who designed our line of authentic replicas of negro babies, was deluged with fan mail.

By the 1970s indications of ethnicity had become commonplace in toys and overtly derogatory images were rare. There now are African American, Asian American, and Latin American Barbies, while "G.I. Joe" has been joined by a host of ethnic-American fighters, each with a biographical sketch that reveals his or her ethnic identity.

File Name: Lee, Nicky
Code Name: Tunnel Rat

Tunnel Rat's family tree is Trinidadian Chinese with branches of Irish, Spanish and Indian thrown in. He grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, got tough on the Ranger Course at Fort Benning and honed his skills in Grenada. He is a qualified expert with all NATO small arms and is familiar with most Warsaw Pact explosive devices.

Color Plate 7
Color Plate 7

"Chutes and Ladders" has been repackaged to depict children of diverse ethnic backgrounds, while "trivia" games actively promoting ethnic pride and games such as "Kosher Land," a Jewish version of "candy Land," are available through stores and catalogs. [Color Plate 7].

This country's new attitude towards ethnicity reflects disenchantment with the notion of cultural homogeneity. When assimilation takes place, it robs individuals of a sense of identity, and sends them searching for any experience that might give a sense of meaning or authenticity to their lives. The multi- ethnic toys of the past few decades can be interpreted in this light. Some of the most popular toys of the 1980s have been those that catered to the quest for authenticity, for example, the Cabbage Patch dolls, each one unique with its own adoption papers. The Wall Street Journal reported that in producing the ethnic G.I. Joe figures Hasbro Bradley was employing "a new form of marketing now sweeping the toy industry. Toy makers create a 'personality' for every toy."(5) A line of dolls called "Rice Paddy Babies" (ca. 1986) was designed to blend ethnicity with the Cabbage Patch gimmick of adoption, using the pretext of immigration sponsorship to attract children and parents to buy. Of course, each Rice Paddy Baby has its own personalized passport. In general, ethnicity and individuality now enhance a toy's attractiveness.

Another important reason for the increase of positive ethnic images in toys is the growing number of companies owned and run by ethnic Americans for the express purpose of producing toys that instill ethnic pride in children. The Schoenhut Co., a Philadelphia toy manufacturer founded by German Americans in the late nineteenth century, crafted some of its famous jointed dolls with Germanic features and gave them names such as Schnickel-Fritz, Max, and Moritz. Now in the 1980s African-American owned toy companies including Golden Ribbon Playthings and Olmec have successfully marketed toys with positive images of Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and African Americans.

Arab Puppet
Arab Puppet

Nevertheless, some derogatory stereotypes persist. In the 1980s American Indian images in toys are noticeably fewer, but remarkably unchanged from those of mid-century. In addition, the Arab has emerged as a totally new figure of derision . In 1989 an informal investigation of Halloween costumes for sale in several New York and Philadelphia stores revealed that the only ethnic masks available were stereotyped Arabs. The "Sheik" mask, a particularly grotesque caricature, was withdrawn from the shelves of Spencer Gifts after vocal protest from the Arab-American community.

The images in mass-produced toys are rich indicators of cultural change. In revealing new trends, as well as the tenacity of entrenched attitudes, they reflect the complexity of history. More specifically, the ethnic images in 19th and 20th-century American toys and games reflect how embattled Anglo-Americans first achieved cultural dominance, then promoted the myth of homogeneity, until successfully challenged by the Civil Rights Movement and a new surge of ethnic awareness in the 1960s.


(1) Henry Glassie, "Meaningful Things and Appropriate Myths: The Artifact's Place in American Studies," in Material Life in America 1600-1860, ed. Robert Blair St. George (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988), 76.

(2) T.J. Jackson Lears, "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities," American Historical Review 90:3 (June 1985), 574.

(3) G. Stanley Hall, Study of Dolls (Worcester, MA: T. Kellogg & Co., 1897).

(4) Bernard Mergen, Play and Playthings: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 214.

(5) "Hasbro Bradley Scores with Its 'Terror' Toys. . . ,"The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 13, 1984.