Fremont County, Iowa

Homemade Toys
by Evelyn Birkby
View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
February 9, 2015

Back in pioneer days much was homemade to make life easier, prettier or more comfortable and out of necessity. There were no Macys or WalMarts to go buy stuff. Children’s toys were almost exclusively homemade. Toys were not a necessity and families did not have extra money. Parents created their children’s playthings out of whatever was at hand

One of the more famous toys from the past is the corn cob doll treasured by pioneer children. Many were fashioned with no carved or painted faces. Clothes were made from scraps of cloth or even corn shucks, Dolls were also made just from the corn husks. These were usually softened by soaking in water and then shaped into a head and body to form a doll.

Another doll was made from a clothespin using a lot of imagination. Rag dolls with embroidered faces and yarn hair were stuffed with scraps of fabric or wool or cotton when available.

Fathers often built simple doll beds or other miniature furniture from scrap lumber or wooden cigar boxes. A small wooden ironing board that mimics an adult one introduced girls to that chore. Small cupboards would hold cracked hand-me-down dishes or eventually, a real set of toy dishes--sometimes glass, sometimes tin.

Other uses for scrap lumber were blocks, toy sleds and wagons. Sticks became horses. Boys could carve a slingshot.

You can recreate a popular pioneer game by finding the biggest button you can get your hands on. Take a long length of thread and thread it through both holes, until there is plenty of both threads on both sides of the button. Tie off the string. Wrap the strings over themselves until they become tightly wound. You then pull on the edges, which still have your fingers in them, and you see how many times you can get it to wrap and unwrap.

Children enjoyed taking hoops off barrels to roll with a forked stick. Fathers who could whittle made especially nice toys. We have in the Museum a trapeze man who was made to go ‘round and ‘round when its wooden handle was turned. We also have hand-carved tops.

A log cabin is on display. To construct it a father made notches at the end of each stick and then fit them together in the same way a big log cabin is built.

Many a pioneer girl learned sewing by starting with the rudimentary stitches as she fashioned a doll quilt from the scraps her mother saved for her from her full-sized quilt- making projects, or her clothes sewing.

Making handmade marbles of local clay was a favorite way of creating toys. Sidney had a clay area east of town where bricks were made. (In the museum we have a set of molds in which the bricks were formed.) The local children would go and dig out some clay, take it home and shape it into marbles. They were known as “commies” (common).

These are just a few of the toys on display in the Fremont County Historical and Rodeo Museum in Sidney that provided hours and hours of fun in years past.

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