These days many kids are used to solving puzzles on an iPad or reading along with a DVD. But our holiday exhibit, Batteries Not Included: Toys and Trains at the New-York Historical Society, shows you don’t need an electricity source to have fun! The New-York Historical Society has a collection of approximately 3,000 toys and games, primarily from the nineteenth century, which document the leisure pursuits of American families. By the nineteenth century the middle class in America was growing, making the ideas of leisure time. Also, child labor laws made it such that many children did not need to spend their time working, and instead could do what we now expect children to do: play. Let’s look at how they did that:

Locomotive engine, ca. 1900-1910. Painted metal. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Conrad Milster, 1956.19

Wooden toy soldier, ca. 1840-1870. Painted wood. New-York Historical Society, The Folk Art Collection of Elie Nadelman, 1937.501

Mechanical bank, Owl with turning head, ca. 1880-1920. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Henry M. Lucas, 1940.467

Cast iron toy, One-horse sleigh (with woman driver), ca. 1900. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Lila Luce and H. Christopher Luce in memory of Henry Luce III, 2007.18.1.3

Floor train, 1875-1885. Painted iron and tin. New-York Historical Society, X.465a-d

Of course, many children received toys like these as gifts from Santa. And did you know Santa Claus was a New Yorker? The modern Santa was born in the imagination of Clement Clarke Moore, a scholar who penned a whimsical poem about St. Nicholas, the patron of old Dutch New York, for the amusement of his six children at Christmastime. Soon after the publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—popularly known today by its opening line, “Twas the night before Christmas…””—St. Nicholas became a popular feature of American Christmas celebrations. At the request of the Librarian of the New-York Historical Society in 1862, he wrote out a manuscript copy of the poem, which the New-York Historical Society still holds in its library. Read more about it here!

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