Archaeological evidence suggests ancient toys were the same kind of playthings that children use today. Centuries ago Roman, Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian children had balls, rattles, dolls, animals, hoops, kites, marbles, stilts and tops. Some had traditional games like dominoes and checkers.
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an estimated 2000 year old Egyptian rattle shaped like a cow with some stones inside in its collection. A baker kneading bread figure, a crocodile snapping its jaws and a dog with moving tail and jaw have also been found from this era.The World's oldest board game is believed to be The Royal Game of Ur, which was played in Babylon for over 5000 years. The traditional board game Mancala may date back to as far as 3000 BC.
Archaeology really helps to identify timelines and locations. For example clay tops were found in the ancient city of Ur dating from 3500 BC (Ur is modern day Muqayyar, 187 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq). Ceramic spinners made of terra cotta were found at Troy (Turkey) 3000 BC. Carved wood whip tops discovered in Egypt are aged between 2000-1400 BC. In China, whip tops were found dating from 1250 BC. Fired clay tops were found from Thebes in Greece dated at around 1250 BC. Greek pottery, from around 500 BC, is decorated with scenes of men and women playing with both whip and twirler top varieties. While many would have been made out of wood, it appears that ceramic tops could have been votive and used to honour the gods. Some may have also been a sign of affluence and were sometimes put in tombs as to be taken into the afterlife. Roman tops from 27 BC were found made of bone.
Many early toy-like objects (dolls and animals) were closely related to religious beliefs and it can be difficult to tell the differences between these and those for children's play. One of the oldest official and clearly identified toys were found on a site of a 3300 year old temple in Iran. They are small pull along figures of a lion and a porcupine carved in limestone mounted on wheeled platforms and pulled along by a string. Another early discovery is a crude doll with movable arms and legs, which kneads bread or grinds corn when a string is pulled. The traditional Yo-Yo is believed to be the second oldest toy in known history. Some toy historians believe the yo-yo was originally used for hunting purposes.
Pre 16th century American native children played with cornhusk dolls, small bows and arrows and leather balls stuffed with feathers. In 1585 the members of the Roanoke Expedition took dolls in Elizabethan dress for children they expected to find in the new country. The oldest surviving doll in the United States is called Letitia Penn after the daughter of William Penn, who brought the doll from Europe to Pennsylvania in 1699. In 1658 Jan Amos Komensky, a Czech educator wrote the first picture book for children and it was realized that illiteracy was a disadvantage in an expanding world and growing concern with education was felt. In the 1700ís a freer intellectual atmosphere was felt. Parents began to think in terms of their children's happiness as well as their moral wellbeing. This new attitude was reflected in an expanding toy trade and toy shops began to appear. The USA president Benjamin Franklin wrote about a toy store in Boston in 1713 where, for a few coppers, he was able to buy a whistle. In 1785 an advertisement in the Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia had dolls, drums and toy harps for sale.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution changed the character of toys due to being able to manufacture them in larger quantities. Wooden toys, straw and stone were rapidly displaced by iron and tinplate. Children could get manufactured toys at reasonable prices instead of having to make their own, a growing trend that accelerated factory production and distribution. Toys also became more and more sophisticated and by the end of the 19th century construction toys were appearing. Then by the early twentieth century electric trains and powered mechanical toys became very popular. Production was hampered during wars and sometimes ceased altogether as a result of shortages of both materials and labour. World Wars 1 and 2 were memorably disruptive, with many toy manufacturers converting all production to materials for war. Following World War 2 production gradually changed. Space toys with plastic parts such as robots and rockets became popular. Most of these were made in Japan. Electrical and battery operated toys have gradually come to replace those animated by spring-driven motors. The growth of television and video games has also affected pastimes and traditional games. But the longing of some parents and children for more conventional toys has led to a resurgence of the wooden toy and stuffed toy industries. Today's toy industry remains a blend of the revolutionary and traditional toys in many ways changed, but in other ways much the same as it was fifty or a hundred years ago.