Play Things: Children’s Racialized Mechanical Banks and Toys, 1880–1930



The reproduction of racism and class-based oppression are taught to children through various cultural media, including toys and games. Between 1880 and 1930, the popularity of racialized toys and banks were fear-based responses to the perceived encroachment by “foreign and exotic” migrations of African American, Chinese, Irish and Native Americans into the cultural landscape of white middle-class America. This article analyzes how artifacts associated with children, such as mechanical banks, clockwork figures, and other toys are part of a larger cultural structure that viewed race and class as inseparable, and that these objects were essential in the development of a learned habitus that exposed white middle class children in the Victorian era to a racially and class oriented world. We argue that these objects reflect both the times in which they were made, and illuminate the relationship between adults and a newfound emphasis on children and childhood, in which toys serves as symbolic mediators of culture.


Toys Racism Racialization Victorian America 


Children and childhood have increasingly become a popular topic of archaeological research (i.e., Baxter 2005; Dommasnes and Wrigglesworth 2008; Lillehammer 1989; Sofaer Derevenski 2000). Within historical archaeology, most of this research has centered on toys recovered from Victorian working-class archaeological contexts (see, for example, Engmann 2007; Wilkie 2000; Yamin 2002). In this paper, we examine toys that were made and sold specifically towards white, middle-class Victorian consumers and which depict racial stereotypes of African Americans, Irish, Chinese, and Native Americans, and, significantly, which are unlikely to be found in traditional archaeological contexts. While much work has been devoted to the stereotypes and motifs depicted on racial toys (i.e., Barrett 2003; Wilkinson 1974), less has been done to explain these objects as the products of both cultural values and larger sociocultural movements emerging in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As items made specifically for children from a defined socioeconomic middle class, and a “white” race, from what historical context do these items emerge, and how are they connected with larger social and demographic movements? In what capacity do they serve as a medium of communication between adults and children, as an avenue of racial socialization? The purpose of this paper is therefore twofold. First, we seek to trace the emergence of these toys from a particular time and place, the United States from approximately 1880–1930. Second, we will analyze these toys as objects used by adults to expose children into a class based, racist culture. As the historian Doris Wilkinson (1974, p. 100) put it:

Play objects are not merely items for fun, but function directly and indirectly to maintain existing beliefs and behavioral systems. They are not material trivialities…Both games and toys provide a looking-glass reflection of the larger society; and one cannot offer a meaningful commentary on these cultural artifacts without evaluating them in the broader network of the systems in which they were constructed and in which they were played.

The Roots of Modern Racism

American constructions of racism solidified during the Victorian period (1837–1901), defined by years of the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria (Howe 1977). These decades were a time in which the wonders and promises of technological progress coexisted with the very real social problems associated with capitalism, industrialization and urbanization. Within the United States, the vast numbers of immigrants flooding into American cities resulted in a new awareness of the differences between middle class practices and values, and those of the new immigrant populations. The construction of the “white” race within American society was based on such migrations of people who were phenotypically and cultural perceived as different from the white middle class. In a world that was becoming less concerned with identifying people as being either “Christian” or “Non-Christian” the application of labels such as Red, Black, Yellow, or Irish were used to perpetuate inferiority in contrast to the “White” race in America (Paynter 2001, pp. 134–135). This awareness, or “cultural self-consciousness”, as Howe (1977) terms it, is ultimately reflected in the toys depicting racial stereotypes that were produced during this time. Howe (1977, p. 24) further suggests that Victorian racism was a “tragic contradiction,” an amalgam of “traditional ethnocentric habits” combined with nationalism and racism. This “tragic contradiction” inherent in white Victorian culture manifested itself in hostility towards outsiders: that is to say, all those peoples and cultures that did not fit easily into the tightly ordered (white, middle-class) Victorian cosmology. In addition, the development of Darwinism and eugenics based scientific perceptions of racially defined categorizations perpetuated widely held ideologies of white racial and cultural superiority. The ability of social structures, such as racism, to reproduce over time is based on the recreation of designed responses through subsequent generations (Orser 2007, p. 57–58).

Exposing children to racialized toys is but one facet of the white, middle-class Anglo-American habitus (Bourdieu 1977), intended to make children of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries maintain both unspoken and explicitly held beliefs on the superiority of their biologically defined “white race,” enabling children to identify practices, beliefs and behaviors that were considered to be outside of white middle-class America. When situations change, the responses and reactions to other “races” would continue to be products of the habitus of children who have been socialized within the structures of racism. Further work is needed in uncovering how such oppressive structures are reproduced and modified through time and space. In the following sections we show how the mass production of racialized toys is part of a large epochal structure reacting to migrations and perceived threats to “White,” middle class America.

There are a few points we wish to clarify before going further. Although we will suggest that the high cost of these toys would have made them available predominantly only to people with disposable incomes, that is to say, the white middle class, these objects lack a firm archaeological context, which precludes clear statements of gender or class association and possession of the toys mentioned here. This includes their ownership by the very groups which the toys presume to depict. Meaning is dependent on context, and because these objects have been pulled out of their contexts of their original child owners, if they ever had a child owner at all, make it extremely difficult to examine the role these toys played in dialogues of the (re)formation of identity between adults and children. That said, we believe that the “salvage principle” (Wylie 1996), wherein artifacts taken out of context can still be excellent sources of information about past beliefs and practices, is a suitable defense for both of these stipulations, and a defense whose suitability will become self-evident throughout the course of this paper.

Methodology and Data

Toys, in the modern sense of mass-produced objects made specifically for and used exclusively by children, are products of the Industrial Revolution. The mass manufacture of toys in the United States began during the mid-nineteenth century, piggybacking upon technological innovations in other areas of industry. Sheet metal stamping, cast iron manufacture, improved ceramic molding techniques, lithographic printing and cardboard making enabled the cheap and efficient mass production of a large variety of toys such as dolls, trains, books and board games (Chudacoff 2007). Toy manufacture quickly became big business in both Europe (Ganaway 2007), and the United States: for example, in 1850, the number of toy manufacturers in the United States was 47. By 1880, that number had nearly quadrupled to 173, and included now-familiar names such as Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers (Chudacoff 2007, p. 74).

Toys serve as medium of communication between children and adults, and suggest and reinforce norms of behavior (Wilkie 2000, p. 105). Victorian toys were profoundly didactic objects, meant to reinforce notions of gender roles, moral values, and a strong sense of nationalistic pride (Somerville in press), and virtually all toys from this time were intended for children of one sex or the other (Calvert 1992, p.110–111). Ganaway (2007) suggests that mechanical toys symbolized middle-class notions of order and, for mechanical banks in particular, the public sphere and commerce; that is to say, very masculine ideals. As such, these toys were likely made explicitly for, and marketed towards, boys rather than girls.

As noted above, it is difficult to know precisely how these toys were collected and displayed by children in the past because they lack the controlled provenience of traditional archaeological finds. To be sure, they have entered a new stage in their lives from children’s playthings to relics coveted by adult collectors. Presumably, however, parents purchased these toys, especially mechanical toys, for special occasions. Parents would have discovered these objects in advertisements in popular magazines, trade publications, and catalogs put out by merchants and manufacturers. The Shepard Hardware Company, discussed in greater detail below, even created full-color trade cards to promote their mechanical banks, a practice which other manufacturers later copied (Norman 1982).

How these toys were played with, curated and displayed by a child owner is also difficult to discern. Board and target games were of course used by groups of individuals, but the use of mechanical toys are more difficult to distinguish, especially since most Victorian children preferred toys of their own creation over more formal, manufactured toys (see Calvert 1992; Chudacoff 2007; Croswell 1898; Mergen 1982). It is reasonable to assume, then, that because they were fairly expensive objects, they would be highly curated objects as well. They perhaps would have been received at special occasions and given a prominent place in the child’s room as a visual reminder of the prosperity of the child’s family, and would not have been brought outside where they might be damaged. A high degree of curation may therefore explain why so many of these objects exist today and why so few end up in traditional archaeological contexts.

A sample database of 103 toys exhibiting racial caricatures or stereotypes was compiled using data acquired from antique dealer and collectors’ websites, period advertising and catalogs, patent papers, and museum collections. From these sources, the data collected included toy type (i.e. mechanical bank), description of the toy from period advertising if applicable, name of the manufacturer (or distributor if the manufacturer is unknown), date of first manufacture/appearance in advertising, and price. This data established the approximate temporal boundaries of the study, which in turn enabled an examination of the sociocultural contexts in which these objects were manufactured and used.

This is perhaps a nontraditional way of conducting a material culture study and, of course, the reliance on auction and collectors’ sites necessitates the recognition that the objects found within were likely to have had multiple owners over the years, and tracing such a path back to its original child owner would have been impossible. However, the use of these sources was necessary for a number of reasons. Because many of these objects are collectors’ items, their value is contingent on their physical condition. As such, gaining permission for physical examinations was largely out of the question. However, the documentary evidence, in the form of the large number and high quality of photographs present on these sources, was sufficient to analyze these objects. In addition, collector and auction websites bring together a large number of toys into a single place. This greatly facilitated data collection, and many of these objects would not have been found otherwise as neither patent information nor were period advertisements readily available.

The breakdown of this 103 toy sample is as follows: 48 mechanical banks (46.6%) (three of which are mechanical/clockwork hybrids), four still (non-mechanical) banks (3.8%), 32 clockwork (windup) toys (31%), three mechanical push/pull toys (2.9%), four target shooting games (3.8%), five cap pistols (4.8%), three dolls/doll sets (2.9%), two costumes (1.9%), and two board games (1.9%). All of these toys range in date from 1879 to 1934.

Based on the number of styles and their variants, the mechanical bank appears to be the most common form of the racialized toy, and “is a peculiarly American phenomenon” (Lederer 1940). Although James Serrill is commonly credited with patenting the first mechanical bank for a wooden bank with a “disappearing coin action,” (Morphy 2007) it appears the very first patent for a mechanical bank was granted to Kellis Horde in 1867 (Horde 1867). The toy bank, a didactic object in itself used to teach the virtue of thrift (Somerville in press), was an incredibly popular toy with over 600 different varieties and 280 mechanical variants produced between 1875 and 1910 (Emerine 1941), with a minimum of 10,000 individual toys produced from a single mold (Lederer 1940).

As noted above, the mechanical bank is a product of nineteenth-century industrialism, commonly made of cast iron which was a relatively new technology and comparatively inexpensive to manufacture in large quantities, although other materials such as wood, papier maché, tin, and lead were also used (Morphy 2002). The vast majority of mechanical banks were patented and produced by just three companies: the Shepard Hardware Company of Buffalo, New York, Connecticut, the J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut, and the Kyser and Rex Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to Griffith (1963a), the J. & E. Stevens Company was the most prolific of these manufacturers, responsible for approximately one third of all known mechanical bank designs. However, the most prolific inventor of mechanical banks was Charles Bailey, a toymaker who designed or patented at least 29 different banks, 10% of all known examples, including several banks with racial themes including “Darkey Fisherman,” “Chinaman in Boat,” “Dentist,” “Darky and Watermelon,” and “Bad Accident,” and who also worked at J. & E. Stevens for nearly 25 years (Griffith 1963b).

Toy manufacture was a comparatively late enterprise for these companies, who were engaged in the manufacture of tools, steam engines and industrial machinery (Once a Month Advertiser1866). Shepard Hardware, in particular, did not begin making banks until 1882, prior to which they were makers of industrial machinery and steam engines. The company sold its bank line to other manufacturers, most notably J. & E. Stevens, in 1892, and that company continued to produce Shepard banks for several more years, including the popular “Jolly Nigger” bank (Norman 1982). Similarly, clockwork toys were produced by a comparatively small number of manufacturers, including the Ives Corporation of Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Jerome B. Secor Manufacturing Company, also of Bridgeport, and the Ferdinand Strauss Corporation of New York City.

Despite their apparently large numbers, mechanical toys of all kinds were expensive (Cross 1997; Ganaway 2007; Museum of American Heritage 1998). Most mechanical banks cost between $.45 and $1.15, excluding postage, and averaged approximately $.85 and up. Indeed, the prices for these objects were considered “rather steep” for the times (The Antiques Journal1961), making them available only to relatively affluent customers. (Briefly to compare, between October 1901 and September 1904, the foundry workers at the J. & E. Stevens factory earned, on average, $1.92 a day for piecework based upon the weight of usable parts each worker produced each month [J. & E. Stevens Ledger, 1901–04]. On the other hand, between January 1874 and August 1875, the eight female workers at the J. & E. Stevens factory who painted the banks earned $.97 while working between two and ten hours per day [J. & E. Stevens Ledger, 1874–75].)

Interestingly, it was rare for the outward appearance of the bank to be patented. Almost always, it was the mechanism itself or any technical improvements to the actual mechanism of the bank which were patented. In fact, several patents of toys with racial themes actually suggest other ways in which the outward appearance of the mechanism might be presented. For example, in Alfred C. Rex’s 1884 patent application for the “Baby Mine” bank, which depicted a seated black woman spoon feeding a grotesque caricature of a small black child, Rex noted that “If desired, the figures may be animals in place of human beings, the essential feature being the feeding [action]” (Rex 1884). Similarly, James Bowen’s 1882 patent for his “Two Frogs” bank, in which a reclining frog threw a coin backwards into a larger frog’s mouth, shared its mechanism with the “Paddy and the Pig” bank, also introduced in 1882 (Bowen 1882). Likewise, the “Jolly Nigger” bank, one of the most popular banks, shared the same mechanism with the “Humpty Dumpty” bank, which depicted a circus clown (Griffith 1975). Clockwork toys, those using gearing mechanisms to produce some form of movement or action without any further input from the child, were also popular. For example, 1921’s “Alabama Coon Jigger,” a black man doing a funny dance, sold 8 million units (Cross 1997, p. 99). As might be expected, clockwork toys were even more expensive than banks, costing upwards of $4.25 for the “Freedman’s Mechanical Savings Bank,” a hybrid mechanical/clockwork bank.


The toys discussed in this article vividly illustrate the divide between what Baxter (2005, p. 46) terms the “imperial practices of adults” and the “native practices of children.” Adults perceive toys much differently than children do. Children are much more fluid than adults in what they consider to be toys, and a stick found in the yard quickly and easily becomes a sword or a magic wand. On the other hand, adults usually think of toys as a rigid class of object which is made exclusively for and given to children (Calvert 1992). Although Wilkie (2000, p. 100) is correct when she states that oftentimes “children’s artifacts are discussed as byproducts of parents’ attempts to instill values into their children, not as statements made by children,” the practice of marketing directly towards children did not emerge until the twentieth century (Cook 2004, p. 71; Jacobson 2008, p. 4). Therefore, these racialized toys are much more reflective of adult views and values, and were made to appeal to adults who would purchase them.

On a deeper level, however, Victorian toys “reflected a culture that respected the past, mechanical innovation and utilitarian objects” (Cross 1997, pp. 25–26), and, consequently, adult conceptions of what was fun and what a toy should be. Racialized toys are no exception, and the preponderance of mechanical objects as a medium for racism deserves closer scrutiny. While mechanical figures date to antiquity (see Asimov 1984; Bedini 2002), their transformation into toys, that is to say, objects made exclusively for children, and their eventual ubiquity reflects both a fascination with novelty and mechanical innovation (Cross 1997, pp. 25–26) and “the desire to simulate life by mechanical means” (Bedini 2002, p. 1). This is reflected in period advertisements, which stressed the “lifelike” nature of the mechanical movements. Furthermore, toys with racial themes can be said to “deanimate a stereotype, to arrest [it], to render it in three-dimensional stasis, [and] fix a demeaning and/or romanticizing racism with the fortitude of solid form” (Brown 2006, p. 185). The form of the mechanical toy, including banks, cap guns and clockwork toys, ensured that there could be no room for alternative forms of play facilitated by the child’s imagination. The mechanism of these toys was such that the mechanical parts create a rigidity of function, as each part of the mechanism fit together in a precise and specific way to produce a desired action, and no other action or output besides that intended by the manufacturer was possible. Put another way, the fixed mechanical systems of these toys produced a fixed outcome: the “Jolly Coon Jigger” could ever only do a gangly jig, “Paddy” could only ever take a penny off a pig’s nose, and the “Reclining Chinaman” could only ever grin mischievously and flash five aces. The mechanical toy, therefore, was a contradictory object: it arrested the stereotype which it depicted, while simultaneously bringing it to life in a mechanical form, and served a utilitarian purpose (conveying stereotypes about “outsiders”) while also retaining a sense of novelty. In short, the Victorian fascination with the mechanical, along with the Victorian fascination with children and childhood (see Calvert 1992; Cook 2004), came to join with the Victorian fascination with “The Other,” those peoples and cultures who did not fit into Anglo-American conceptions of social order.

In industrial capitalism, manufacturers are quick to capitalize on popular issues, and as objects of mass manufacture, toys are often highly topical, and can serve as temporal markers of the obsessions of popular culture (Strong Museum of Play 2010). In this regard, toys are a sort of barometer and it is not coincidental that racial toys were popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time in which white culture was on the offensive against the intrusion of the “exotic other” onto the American landscape. Hence, racial toys also serve as temporal markers, reflecting undercurrents of popular attitudes towards immigrants and non-whites. For the projection of racialized images onto toys and mechanical banks the manufacturer must be able to reproduce a stereotyped representation of the group being depicted that the audience can easily identify. In doing so the manufacturer of toys recreates perceived phenotypic stereotypes as to how an Irishman, Chinaman, Negro, or Indian should look and act, and were “designed to prompt negative emotions, feelings of power at abusing an outcast character, which was pictured as uncivilized, insignificant, and foolish” (Cross 1997, pp. 98–99). The racialization of these groups, therefore, followed similar trajectories such as competition for employment, phenotypic inferiority based on science, differences in religions and finally, differences in social organization contrary to that of white middle class America.

Native Americans

Eight toys (7.6% of the total sample, see Appendix) show depictions of Native Americans. Beginning in the post-Civil War era and continuing well into the 1930s, the depiction of Native Americans on artifacts intended for children represented in two distinct forms in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: as violent heathens who were impeding the progress of White America and as the “noble savage.” As the United States grew into a capitalist society that emphasized individuality and materialism as hallmarks of social progress, Native Americans became stereotyped by middle-class white America as the antithesis of capitalism and mainstream values. The post-Civil War perception of Native Americans reflected racist stereotypes and ideologies of Native Americans as blood thirsty clannish savages who were obstacles to the United States in fulfilling its Manifest Destiny. These beliefs of the savagery of Native Americans are reproduced onto children’s toys in the form of shooting gallery targets (Fig. 1.) such as the Popgun and Exceptional Shooting games of 1923 and 1929, respectively, in which cardboard figures of Native Americans were included alongside safari animals as the targets for white children.
Fig. 1

Exceptional values in shooting games, Sears and Roebuck, 1923. (Barlow 1998, p. 196)

The second racialized stereotype of Native American to be projected onto children’s toys and banks is that of the defeated “noble savage.” This depiction finds its origins in the Romantic Era and its rejection of rationality and industrialization. As Native people’s populations decrease due to the actions of genocide conducted by the United States government and the threat of these uncivilized hordes of heathens diminish; the stereotype of the “Injun” begins to shift into a nostalgic remembrance of an era before the industrialization. Defeated by white America’s encroachment onto the Great Plains Native Americans came to be seen as pawns to be moved by the U.S. government. This is illustrated by “The New Game of Migration” (Fig. 2) in which the player moves a group of Native Americans from one corner of the board to a reservation on the opposite. Thus, the child user learned that the proper place for Native Americans was to be stashed away in a corner (or reservation), far away from the white world.
Fig. 2

New game of migration board game (Marshall Field & Co., 1890–93. (Barlow 1998, p. 73)

Native Americans also became emblematic of the imagery of the Wild West, a largely mythical construct of a open landscape free from the overpopulation, urbanization and restrictions on personal liberties that came to characterize late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Rather than violent obstacles to America’s progress, Native Americans became a reminder of an unattainable past (Yellow Bird 2004). The Noble Savage was in tune with Nature and free to live life in accordance with the rules of the natural world. Hence, this imagery manifests onto children’s toys and other artifacts as reminders of a lost age of innocence and freedom. In the “Game of the Wild West,” the iconic images of Native Americans and Cowboys on horseback in the open plains followed the theories of cultural evolution put forth by Lewis Henry Morgan and E. B. Tylor. Here, Native Americans were relics of a simpler time before the overburdens of industrialism had taken its lethal grasp on the Great American continent. Consequently, the production of Native American iconic representation in “Game of the Wild West” was based not only in Orientalist ideologies of “Us vs. Them” but also a fictitious view of the past.


A single toy, the “Paddy and the Pig/Shamrock Bank” mechanical bank, (.9% of the total sample) portray a stereotyped depiction of the Irish (see Appendix). The racialization of the Irish is largely based on British constructions of the Irish being an inferior, uncivilized horde (Brighton 2008; Orser 2007; Shackel 2003). Within the United States, Nativist attention on the Irish as a threat to White American was rooted in employment competition, biological evolution, and religious concerns over Catholicism. Following the Great Hunger (Great Famine) beginning in 1843, almost 2 million Irish migrants came to the United States in search of a new home. The majority of Irish immigrants were poor rural farm workers with limited economic and social capital. Without industrial occupational skills, the Irish in America served mainly as cheap labor or domestic servants. Such low paying jobs resulted in the Irish being forced into poor ghettos that subsequently became synonymous with crime and unsanitary living conditions (Yamin 2002; Orser 2007; Shackel 2009).

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was widely held that economic and social hardships were the results of individual failings (see Howe 1977). Irish cultural practices of communalism and lack of individual desire for progression were viewed by “White” America as contrary to American values (Orser 2007, pp. 89–92). Given that so many of the Irish individuals were categorized as being poor because of perceived laziness and the willingness to work cheap, the Irish as a collective were viewed as inherently linked to a lower race. In racializing the Irish as inferior, the process of confining them to the “lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs available” was made easier (Orser 2007, p. 92). In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Irish comprised 87% of the free unskilled labor force in the U.S. (Brighton 2005, p. 109). As a result, during this period of economic depression that plagued the middle of the nineteenth century, the Irish were viewed as the scapegoats for the nation’s economic problems (Brighton 2008, p. 142). Because the Irish were denied admission into higher paying jobs they were perceived by White America as willing to work for wages on which no white man could maintain a high standard of living. During depressions and job shortages, anti-Irish sentiment by Nativists centered on the perception that the Irish would work for next to nothing and was, accordingly, a threat to white middle class America (Orser 2007; Brighton 2005, 2008).

The connection between the Irish and African Americans was not only based on their low end positioning but also rooted in phenotypic stereotypes. Ignatiev (1995) documents Nativist references of the Irish being “niggers turned inside out” as well as African Americans being “smoked Irish” (quoted in Orser 2007, pp. 89–90). In creating a connection between the poor Irish and African Americans, white Americans solidified and justified the subjugated position of inferior races through phenotypic stereotypes. With the rise of scientific race based typologies the Irish came to be viewed as a subcategory of human that had yet to fully evolve. The British compared the Irish to white chimpanzees, and “the Irish were seen as the missing link between apes and humans, an idea that developed in the 1840s and did not die out until the 1920s” (Shackel 2003, p. 4). The Irish phenotype of red hair, pale skin, large protruding brow ridge, and recessed chin was captured in toys such as “Paddy and the Pig” (Fig. 3). These phenotypic stereotypes represented the Irish as uncivilized, brutish, and ape-like, and reaffirmed the notion that the Irish were not only inferior because of their economic and social positioning but that such inferiority could be demonstrated scientifically.
Fig. 3

Paddy and the pig mechanical bank, 1882, J. and E. Stevens Co., Cromwell CT photo courtesy of < Live>

Finally, the last threat that the Irish signified for White America was their wide spread practice of Catholicism. As proclaimed in the Congregationalist Pacific in 1867, “The Roman Catholic element in our population is certainly an element of trouble and danger. A Class of people largely ignorant, degraded, and vicious is a burdensome class and demands care, patience, and watching,” (quoted in Paddison 2009, p. 512). Given the United States’ Protestant origins, the mass migration of Irish Catholics represented an ever growing population that was viewed as being idolatrous, superstitious and, most importantly, incapable of surrendering their loyalty from the Pope to the President (Brighton 2008; Orser 2007; Paddison 2009). In sum, “Irish Catholics were thought to be part of a priest-controlled machine,” incapable of individual thought or action without the direction of the Catholic Church (Brighton 2008, p. 42). Protestant America became so engorged with Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Irish sentiment that “‘everything Irish’ was repugnant to Protestant Americans” (Orser 2007, p. 111).

However, at the turn of the twentieth century “the rise in the fortunes of some Irish meant that the social position of the Irish in the United States was transformed, [and] by the end of the nineteenth century, when it was clear that the Irish were willing to be Americanized, nativists began to view them as part of the white race” (Orser 2007, p. 110). Much of the Irish ability to thwart marginalization through racialization was based on their own devaluing of other nonwhite races. In one political cartoon from the time commenting on the harsh treatment endured by the Chinese a stereotypic Irishman was depicted as the antagonist (Orser 2007, pp. 110–111, 155). In time, Nativist hostility towards the Irish was forgotten: As Griffith noted in his discussion of the “Paddy and the Pig” bank:

In closing, a rumor from some years ago that still persists here and there today about Paddy and the Pig…has to do with the period in which the bank was made. Supposedly some Irish Society members felt that the bank was somewhat insulting to the Irish race and requested that production be stopped…It is a very attractive, clever savings device and it would take some stretch of the imagination to find it in poor taste or any way derogatory toward the Irish (Griffith 1975).

The lack of toys depicting the Irish appears to coincide with the greater political and social clout achieved by the Irish through their support of the Democratic Party. The anti-“new” immigrant rhetoric of the Democratic focusing on groups from eastern and southern Europe, and the migration of African Americans helped to shift attention away from the non-white status of the “Irish” race (Orser 2007, p. 90).


A total of ten toys (9.7% of the total sample) depict Chinese stereotypes (see Appendix). Following the 1849 California Gold Rush, the migration of Chinese into the United States aroused steadying ire until Nativist legislation through the Chinese Exclusionary Act halted legal immigration. The vast majority of the Chinese population living in the U.S. was economically oppressed males who had fled China following the Opium Wars (Orser 2007). As a result of such hardships many of these Chinese immigrants were employed as unskilled laborers working in mining camps or on railroads. At first, the Chinese were welcomed as a source of labor for the sparsely populated West. However, as the United States continued to fulfill its Manifest Destiny by populating the continent; the Chinese became viewed as a threat, embodied in the popular rallying cry of “The Chinese Must Go” (Farmer 1889, p. 138; see also Griffith 1955).

Like that against the Irish, the racialization of the Chinese in the nineteenth century by “white” America was largely based upon three key factors: phenotypic stereotypes, religious difference, and employment competition. A recurring element that was used by toy manufacturers to make the consumer identify that the toy was of a “Chinaman” was the presence of the queue, the distinctive long “pigtail” worn by Chinese men as a symbol of masculinity. Even though the practice of wearing the queue was not a true phenotypic expression, it was a cultural practice that Americans viewed as a consistent marker of Chinese male immigrants. This is reflected in our data sample as well: of the ten toys depicting Chinese stereotypes, eight (80%) of them are of men with queues. Anglo-American culture so strongly stereotyped and objected to the queue that in the 1870–80s several petitions by Nativist groups demanded that the United States government to outlaw the Chinese queue (Paddison 2009, pp. 541–542). The unwillingness of male Chinese immigrants to conform to white America’s views on hair length resulted in the widespread belief that the Chinese were unable to ever become “true” Americans.

Another frequent threat perceived by White Americans of the Chinese was based on religious practices. Anti-Chinese groups loudly proclaimed that “Chinese Paganism Has, By Its Fruits[,] A Practical Immortality Fouler By Far Than That known among any European or Christian People,” (Nast 1871, quoted in Orser 2007, p. 155). Furthermore, the association of the Chinese with gambling, as depicted on the 1882 “Reclining Chinaman” mechanical bank (Fig. 4), the point of which, Griffith (1959) suggests, was to show “the fact that the Chinaman holds all the aces and couldn’t lose,” also likely reflected both the religious and secular abhorrence of gambling, which was considered immoral in both spheres, and subsequently the belief that the Chinese were incapable of good moral character. In a lecture entitled “White Man or Chinaman-Which?,” Jesuit priest James Buchard resignedly remarked that “I have very little confidence that any considerable number, if any one at all, of the Chinese population will ever be converted to Christianity here (California)…This inferior race (Chinese); these pagan, these vicious, these immoral creatures, are incapable of rising to the virtue that is uncalculated by the religion of Jesus Christ,” (quoted in Paddison 2009, p. 506).
Fig. 4

Reclining Chinaman mechanical bank, J. and E. Stevens Co., Cromwell, CT, 1882 photo courtesy of mechanical bank Collectors of America 2010

Finally, the most commonly uttered complaint against the Chinese in the Victorian Era was that “White” America viewed the Chinese as inferior based on employment competition. Given the economic hardships endured by many Chinese immigrants as a result of both the Opium Wars then institutionalized American racism, the Chinese were relegated to low-end economic employment, and the Chinese worker therefore became synonymous with the railroad industry, that is to say low paying, manual labor. With the rise of union activism in the United States many companies used Chinese immigrants as strikebreakers, consequently infuriating white working-class Americans who viewed the ever-growing Chinese community as a direct threat to their livelihood, resulting in cries that the “Importation of Chinese Barbarians into the Country Must Be Stopped by the Ballot or Bullet,’” (quoted in Orser 2007, p. 155). Nativist reactionary responses to the influx of Chinese labor included violence as well as political action (Paddison 2009). The rise to prominence of the Know Nothing party and their Nativist agenda brought the production of toys such as “The Chinese Must Go!” cap gun, (Fig. 5) which depicted a Nativist holding a Chinese man’s queue, and when the trigger is pulled the Nativist kicks the Chinese man in the behind, setting off the cap in Chinese man’s mouth. Such toys taught children that not only were the Chinese a threat but the use of political and physical force was warranted to protect white America. For nineteenth-century America, race was inseparable from class, and many toys from the time depict the Chinese as not only being phenotypically stereotyped but also categorized into class based employment, which in turn reproduced a semiotic connection between the race and class and created a habitus of a race- and class-based social hierarchy.
Fig. 5

Chinese must go cap pistol, Ives Co., Bridgeport, CT., ca. 1879. Photo courtesy of Live

African Americans

No racial group was depicted more frequently on Victorian children’s toys than African Americans, a fact reflected by our data sample: of the 103 toys, 83 (80.5%) depict African Americans (see Appendix). Indeed, “Of all the American popular genres using African-American imagery, children’s games have been among the most uniformly negative” (Mercier n.d.). The process of African American racialization has been discussed at length elsewhere (see, for example, Berlin 1998; Orser 1998, 2004, 2007). While phenotypic differences played a major role in the racialization of African Americans, issues of stereotyped culture and class were also vital in the formation of the “Black” race.

Following emancipation, African Americans were still considered inferior to whites, an inferiority rooted in stereotypic phenotypes and class. When “scientific” applications of human evolution were applied to “the negro race” they, like the other groups discussed in this paper, were deemed to be biologically inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race. As one observer of the time noted, “’The Negro is poor because he is black; that is obvious enough. But perhaps more importantly, the Negro is black because he is poor’” (quoted in Orser 2007, p. 46). African Americans were economically and socially oppressed by a white culture that create both informal and formal institutions of racism in attempt to keep African Americans from obtaining capital. As a result of such racism and oppression African Americans were largely employed with in economically low end employment. Ten (12%) of the eighty-three toys depict African Americans working in menial jobs such as washing, portering, and sharecropping. This projection onto the toys and banks of children not only reflects the stereotyped way an African should look; but also associated African Americans with low paying low status jobs. “The Negro Porter Pushes His Cart (1921)” and the game “Tip the Bell Boy (1929)” (Fig. 6) where the players shoot a ball at representation of a black bell boy, are not only portrayals of the stereotypical African American job of manual labor and low paying” but were also responses by white America to the influx of African Americans migrating from the South into Northern urban areas. The “Great Migration” represented the exodus of several thousand African Americans leaving the South in hopes of finding employment in the factories of the North. Though many were refused jobs due to racism, this black wave of migration represented a threat to middle class white labor. Hence, the projection of African Americans on children’s toys reflects the “true” category of employment for African Americans (e.g., low paying manual labor).
Fig. 6

“Tip the Bell Boy” target game, 1921. (Spero 1988, p. 66)

Another example of note is that of a mechanical toy depicting an African American woman holding a white child, aptly named “Old Nurse” (Fig. 7). Much like contemporary depictions of Aunt Jemima, African American females were stereotyped within class- and gender-based categories. Interestingly, although the set of 1905 “Comical Head Shaking Dolls” includes a female Chinese doll, of the four groups discussed in this article only African American women are depicted in any significant number on toys, comprising six (7.2%) of the 83 African American toys.
Fig. 7

Old Nurse clockwork toy (Barlow 1998, p. 66)

Another toy showing the intersection of class and race is the “Moving Apple Man,” a “very comical toy. Represents cloth dressed negro sitting in apple cart, with painted apples” (quoted in Barlow 1998, p. 139). Street vendoring is discussed by Mullins (2000) as an African American practice used to combat the racism apparent in the workplace. In being self-employed as street vendors, African Americans would not have to deal with the racial and overt economic hardship of those employed by whites. As a result, whites commonly viewed black street vendors as being lazy and mischievous, creating a contrasting view of their ideas of white American values. This depiction of the Moving Apple Man (Fig. 8) is the embodiment of such reactionary responses by white middle class America meant to socialize children into ideologies of racism and classism.
Fig. 8

Famous Alabama Coon Jigger, 1922. (Barlow 1988, p. 85)

In their depiction on children’s toys African Americans were viewed as being lazy, greedy, mischievous, and jovial (Barrett 2003). A common theme is the portrayal of African Americans either dancing or playing musical instruments. For example the, “Old Colored Fiddler” possessed a “face and expression [so] natural and so funny, that they provoke laughter wherever shown. There is a ‘point’ to each, fun for old and young alike” (Marshall Field & Co. 1890–93, quoted in Barlow 1998, p. 85). Another wildly popular mechanical bank was the “Alabama Coon Jigger” (Fig. 9), “[a] realistic dancing negro who goes through the movements of a lively jig…Children can be influenced to save while amused” (quoted in Spero 1988).
Fig. 9

Moving apple man mechanical toy, 1911. (Barlow 1998, p. 139)

The Jolly Coon Jigger exemplifies the intersection of economic and social habitus among white, middle-class America at the time. Children were taught not only the value of economic capital in a capitalist society but also the reproducing stereotype of the jovial dancing African American-a race to be viewed by white children as their social inferior. Much of the habitus of socialized racism manifested on children’s toys and banks was meant to poke fun at the different racial groups being represented. In making African Americans appear as dancing fools with over-exaggerated physical features, a semiotic connection between the middle-class white children, the toy and African Americans was created. Thus, the inferiority of African Americans was not only based on class oppression but a socially constructed ideology of concrete racial differences.


As Baxter (2005, p. 40) notes, “The link between the social and material is inextricable, and material items do not constitute a separate superstructure to social worlds.” Toys are not simply objects for play, but are also a medium of communication between children and adult. For Victorian America, ideologies of race and class were inseparable (Roediger 1991). This juxtaposition of social constructs reproduced perceptions of white dominance within white Victorian America, of which their remnants are visible today. The learned habitus of such oppressive ideologies are recreated through time and space. We have discussed how the habitus of white, Victorian America was represented in the form of artifacts associated with children. Toys and mechanical banks are but one way to observe how children became socialization in to race/class based oppression, and such a medium of racism and its reproducing socialization can be readily observed within the archaeological recorded. The mass production of toys and banks depicting racialized imagery shows that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there existed not only a demand for such products but that the people were well versed in the stereotyped representations of the depicted racial groups. These toys and banks were reactions to perceived threats envisioned by white America in the form of migration movements, ideologies of racial purity, and employment competition from a distinct “Other.”

Wilkie (2000, p.101) observes that, “Within historical archaeology toys and children are a constant and recognizable component of the material record…therefore we must ensure that we see these artifacts as more than playthings.” Racialized toys say much more about the deeper cultural composition of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America in which these toys were created, and the adults who purchased them, than the children who received them. Constructions of race and class social constructs reproduce ideologies of white superiority which contrast with “inferior races.” Such ideologies can still be easily observed today. Historical archaeologists, in particular, are in an excellent position to uncover how such ideologies are reproduced and altered over time and space. Although Victorian racialized toys are only one specific cultural medium of socialization, it is through this work that we can create discourse to see how such ideologies of racism persist in the present. In doing so, we hope to promote a better understanding of the development, reproduction, and alteration of the construction of race and identity in the United States.



Chris thanks David G. Orr, the anthropology department at Temple, and my loving wife Jess. Kyle thanks Sissie Pipes and Güner Coşkunsu. We jointly thank Robert L. Schuyler for his guidance and support throughout our careers. Lastly, we give our sincere gratitude to Chris Fennell, Chris Matthews, Charles Orser, and two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on various drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyState University of New York at BuffaloBuffaloUSA

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