American children's playthings have grown in size, complexity, and number, but small, modest toys endure as a staple -- whether they are homemade puzzles, store bought games, or "surprises" in boxes of Cracker Jack. Although inexpensive, they always have been treasures to children, who know that as soon as you let yourself dream even a little, you gain free passage to the mysterious world inside a tiny box.
You might have to coax a child to sit still long enough to help you make one of these sweet, old-fashioned toys, but once the project is completed he may surprise you by playing with it much more persistently than you ever would. Winning -- as we usually think of it -- isn't necessarily the point. "Look, Mom," a 6-year-old will call out in triumph after focusing for quite a while on making three tiny candy canes hook onto a tiny Christmas tree."I got one on!" Never mind the other two. There's still plenty of time today and tomorrow and the day after that to try again.
Modest, homemade toys have a special place in American society. The Puritans held children to adult standards: Prayer and work were the fate of old and young. Long after privileged European children had fancy dolls and tin soldiers, American children were still playing with homemade rag dolls or willow whistles.
In the late eighteenth century, however, a new vision of childhood gave rise to a wave of educational toys. The English map-maker and engraver John Spilsbury, a self-styled "Dissector in wood, in order to facilitate the teaching of Geography," glued maps onto wood, then cut them apart at country borders. These "dissected" puzzles were instantly popular. Several decades later, the introduction of color lithography made them easy to mass produce. Edifying themes quickly gave way to fanciful designs, charming children, and pretty landscapes. The reservations of all but the most somber parents had been vanquished.
Homemade toys, like lullabies, goodnight kisses, and family jokes, are among the humblest but most intimate and lasting expressions of our affection. These fragile playthings may soon be discarded, yet they will linger in memory as reminders of a parent's love.