[Editor’s Note: “Lessons from Toyland” is a holiday essay to be published in three installments: Part I, December 22; Part II, December 26; and Part III, January 2, 2022. Many thanks to the imaginative author for this Christmastide contribution.]

Part I

By E. Wesley Reynolds, III

Rocking Horse, c. 1900. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Of all the places which imagination has born unto the world, none remains so poignant as that world of play called Toyland. For to enter Toyland is to play, but after a certain fashion. The adventures in that country are unique to every pilot who voyages there, and yet, all of the adventures have the marked sense of good taste. Whether on the stick-horse, or pulling a coach-and-six, or marching out a brigade of toy soldiers, or dancing with a feathered cap and flute, those who play in Toyland do so out of simple merriment.

Play is fast disappearing in this world, as boys and girls prefer rough excitement to pure delight. We should not wonder that children should wander from the path, for adults deserted the way many long ages ago. Children are simply following their elders, as we so often tell them to. But we have entirely lost our way. Only the most astute writers have managed to return to that wonderful land and its many delights, among them Swift, Stevenson, and Barrie.

Toyland exists independent of the toy-folk who inhabit it, possessing hedged roads, well-kept pastureland, babbling brooks, shining castles, rocky shores, and dark forests. Some have mistaken Toyland for Mother Goose’s country, and while they are markedly similar, Mother Goose and her neighbors are a far older and more profound people than the whimsical and ephemeral toy-folk. Still, Toyland is rightly likened to the thatched villages of Germany, France, and England, or even to the secret mountainous retreats of China. And it is this enchanted land which gives rise to good taste and honest humor, so necessary for adventure in Toyland.

The many characters of Toyland and their varied humors, fashions, and pursuits are all in some way derived from the pasture, or else from the court. There are no exceptions, unless they be the gentlemen of fortune who plunder the high seas. Of course, there are townsmen and townswomen in Toyland, and also country women and country men. From the first arise the formal manners and wit of Toyland and from the latter are displayed its spirited knavery and rustic good nature. To play in Toyland is to write a storybook. It is the very same art.

In fact, the manners and fashions of Toyland roughly correspond to the ages from the twilight of chivalry, “The border-land of old romance,” to the age of Napoleon, with its accomplished militarism and natural classicism. The time of shining armor is really over in Toyland, but it is still a recent memory. It is the age of gentility, of the rapier and of the saber, of Orlando and Rosalind and all the fair folk of the greenwood—those gentler followers of Theocritus and Horace, of Versailles, of Kultur,[1] of Sir Hudibras and the cavaliers, of the Three Musketeers, of Cinderella and the German castles, and of the great London wits, when “gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy and taffeta.” It is the time when Volksgeist is in its richest vogue among the mountain villagers of the Alps, when nannies whisper stories from the forest to children under thatched roofs. Venice has just risen out of the dark ages and is bringing the novelties of silk, fine china, tea, coffee, and nutmeg to the merchants of the world. These became the basis for the fabled wealth of Toyland, and toy-folk prize the perfume of cinnamon over the clank of golden coins.[2] It is the time when the East is opening to the West, and when the West begins to apprehend and appreciate the high art and civilization of the East on its own terms. Nowhere is this more the case than in the art of porcelain, Toyland’s finest, most intricate contrivance, for from the Chinese masters Europe could only copy in low imitation some of its forms, such as the willow pattern.[3] Bamboo and origami are everywhere. And gardens, what gardens are to be found in Toyland! They are all laid out in the French formal style, with théâtres and chambres of greenery, diagonal salles, leaping fountains, water steps, tulips, jonquil, cyclamen, lily, and rose blossoms, and Greek statuary set amid chestnut and acacia trees. Life in Toyland cannot be held to the strict primitive ways of medieval Europe. It has risen to a finely cultivated, universal taste.

Toyland is not Eden. It is a world of many beautiful things, people, and places, but also (inevitably) some selfish and disreputable characters. I think the good toy-folk would prefer to say of these others, “There’s always one in every bunch.” Their struggles may be more wholesome to us large people who can stand over these small inhabitants and watch all of their peculiar ways with curiosity. But within, there are real adventures to be had and affairs of honor to be fought and won. Though we often enter with an air of confidence, we are bound, like Gulliver, to the shores of their wondrous country, and are carried from court to court observing Toyland’s varied customs, as from Lilliput, to Brobdingnag, to Laputa. Yet their world is somehow less harsh than ours, less blunt than the struggles faced in our more complicated world. An affair of honor is undertaken more as a game and for the sheer fun of it than out of spite or animosity—for such motives would inevitably spoil the fun. This is true even of the bad toy-folk, who are simply mischievous and nasty rather than brutish and naughty. Cheaters are somehow always spirited away out of Toyland.

A host of humors, fashions, and characters roam free in Toyland, so varied as to make any classification of their ways impossible. There are however, three toy-folk who are most welcoming to children at play: the China Doll, the Toy Soldier, and the Rocking Horse. Why these are the most genial in Toyland, I shall never know. They are more concerned with leading their visitors on to an adventure than answering questions. Depend upon it, though, they are always there to greet guests in the nursery and whisk them off to Toyland. No real nursery is complete without them.[4] Soldiers are natural escorts and dolls are natural companions. The horse is a bit unusual a creature for having so hospitable a reputation. Perhaps it is in the “fitting” of the horse to his rider that justifies his always being there. Jack-in-the-Boxes, Dancing Men, and all of the acrobatic sorts in Toyland are soon to follow these three into some adventure, but levity is required only after the initial curiosity of an adventure is satisfied.

China dolls are our companions; they make a home for us in Toyland. They are the most endearing of all toy-folk and the closest to our own wants. They take us on tea parties and long summer’s day walks. They dress in any fashion we wish and are polite according to the manners of any era we are in; Elizabethan, Louis XIV, Georgian, Regency, Parisian, or Viennese. They are lovers of peace and quiet, and though they often go to balls and celebrations at the palace, they are the mistresses of the more domestic virtues. They preside over the ceremonies of home. They understand the finer points of cup and saucer, fork and knife, cream and cake. They have brought tea into their world and ours, and with it, the aromatic qualities of perfumed steam, for hot water is one of the most pleasant comforts of life. The teapot with its merry exhalations refreshes and sustains us for life’s many journeys. China dolls understand that ceremony is nothing without the pleasant regularity of the clock and some sacred place in which to dwell, to form our habits in life. In this way, I am not sure that China dolls are not the most cultivated people in the whole country of Toyland. Their homes of fine porcelain and floral patterns provide sanctuaries for the wayworn, and many a hasty traveler is saved from a reckless end. For like the fairy godmother, China dolls remind the foolish of the doom which awaits those who forget the stroke of midnight.

Toy soldiers are the most steadfast in all of Toyland. They hold out against all odds. They allow us to start the adventure by ourselves sometimes, but they are always there at the climax. They march to our rescue in good order, in rank-and-file, and in trim uniforms. The younger soldiers belong to the age of Napoleon, and they never lose the luster of their confident smiles, but the elder soldiers are all veterans from Fredrick the Great’s Prussian grenadiers. While some of the fancier tin and pewter soldiers ride splendid horses, wear bicorn hats, work the artillery, and blow bugles, the standard infantry of Toyland are of wood and carry only their trusty muskets and bayonets. They are brightly painted in red, green, or blue uniforms.[5] Their own chief glory is their unadorned round bearskin cap, marking their service in the royal or imperial guards. They snap into action at the first sign of trouble and bang away with their little guns until the enemy has left the field. When they face off with each other, the contest becomes a game, and then ensues all the formal arts of warfare, with its strict adherence to rules of engagement and taking of prisoners, for no brigade is left unaccompanied by its gentleman officer. The rules of civility are strictly enforced. When they are keeping the shoreline safe from marauding pirates, they take cover behind trees and hills like the militia. In manning the castle walls or laying siege, they are more judicious in their use of ball and powder, and deploy espionage and diplomacy. Toylanders are fascinated with the fizz-boom of black powder and the smell of saltpeter. Why, we do not know, but there is always something oriental in their tastes, and they adore fireworks. It is the favorite entertainment at court. At the grandest displays, officers escort their ladies to the ball and touch off the roman fountains and firebombs from their enormous gold-tipped cannon. Soldiers stand at the ready in lines as the dancers waltz late into the night.

The Rocking Horse carries us over hill and dale in Toyland, just as a coach-and-six with plume-crested steeds takes us to the ball. We prefer the company and talk of the trusted Rocking Horse when we are venturing far and wide. He will let us ride at leisure, and see the heather; either fast or slow as we call. And he will tell us something of what we might meet in our excursion into Toyland. He is not overdecorated, nor under-decorated; just right in his checkered blanket and whitewashed or sky-blue rails. His manners are becoming of the court of Charles I and his cavaliers who would venture far afield in their maying expeditions. Rocking Horse is for the hunt, when we ride to hounds. Stick Horse is the warhorse, and on him we ride in front of a company of soldiers. There is no such thing as a plow-horse in all of Toyland, or if there is, it usually keeps to itself and does its own work. As the old rhyme goes, “Chain me not to the plow. Set me free to find my calling.”[6] Crops spring out of the ground perhaps by virtue of enchanted soil.

E. Wesley Reynolds, III, PhD, is Director of the Wilbur Fellows Program at the Russell Kirk Center, Instructor of History, Northwood University, and author of the forthcoming book in January 2022, Coffeehouse Culture in the Atlantic World, 1650–1789 (Bloomsbury Academic).


[1]. The term Kultur was first introduced by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 1–10, 51–69, 93. For a larger discussion of the rise of sociability and politeness, refer to Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1991), 1–2, 10, 14–15, 22–23; Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 66, 69, 116–117, 199–203, 381; Lawrence E. Klein, “Politeness and the Interpretation of the British Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Dec., 2002): 873–887, accessed Oct. 29, 2013; Klein, “Coffeehouse Civility, 1660–1714: An Aspect of Post-Courtly Culture in England,” Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 1 (1996): 30–51 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press, accessed Oct. 20, 2016, 4; Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982), 2–12, 21–24; Dena Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 53, 90–95, 99; Klein, Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral discourse and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 5–21, 42, 138, 190.

[2]. Toy-folk spin gold into embroidery, or gild their halls with it; they do not mint it. The only gold coins to be found there are those which merchants and pirates have brought from other lands.

[3]. There are other motives to exoticism than imperialism and colonialism. The postcolonial orientalist narrative is in great need of revision. It is overly concerned with power at the expense of culture. It sees only stereotypes and not archetypes. It often creates a victim paradigm that oversimplifies East and West into a false dichotomy of the exultant “self” and the subjugated “other.” See Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (Harmondsworth, 1991 [1978]); J. M. MacKenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts (Manchester, 1995), 103; P. J. Marshall, ‘Taming the Exotic: The British and India in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,’ in G. S. Pousseau and Roy Porter (eds.), Exoticism in the Enlightenment (Manchester, 1990); Chandra Mukerji, From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism (New York, 1983); R. J. Barendse, “Trade and State in the Arabian Seas: A Survey from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of World History, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Fall, 2000): 173–225, accessed Jan. 14, 2011; Bruce W. Holsinger, “Medieval Studies, Postcolonial Studies, and the Genealogies of Critique,” Speculum, Vol. 77, No. 4 (Oct., 2002): 1195–1227, accessed Jan. 11, 2011.

[4]. We are fast losing our nurseries. The “playroom” of the modern home is no substitute, and I doubt very much that it ever led to Toyland at all. Playrooms are testing centers for new techno-fads in entertainment and social experiments in child developmental psychology. The great old nurseries were, by contrast, “well furnished” rather than “outfitted.” The fashioning of the nursery brought the tastes of high European art into miniature: doll house furniture, wallpaper, curtains, and ornamented toys running the gamut of Classical, French Rococo, Italian Renaissance, and Gothic motifs. These nurseries came into their own during the second half of the nineteenth century, after the strict Georgian schoolmasters had been expelled from the nurseries of Europe and before parents began encouraging their children to take their nursery toys into the outdoors during the 1920s. Nannies guarded the nurseries from outside interference, encouraged mothers to come and join their children on the inside, and turned the whole room into a refuge from the burdens of childhood; school labors, exclusion, and bullying being chief among them. The sad fact, though, was that already these decorative toys were mass-produced imitations of memories left behind by the great old toymakers of Europe, who mastered their trade from the dawn of Venice to the day Josiah Wedgwood built his first trinket manufactory.

[5]. I cannot yet find a real manufactory of these wooden soldiers anywhere in the world. They are simpler in painted features than our nutcrackers, though they stand the average height of one foot or a little more. One can find them in all of the old Victorian storybook illustrations, as well as in such productions as John McCormack’s Little Boy Blue (1929) and in Cathy Rigby’s Peter Pan (2000).

[6]. The only exception I can find is expressed in these few oft-quoted lines:

Call up your friends, dilly, dilly
Set them to work
Some to the plough, dilly dilly
Some to the fork

This is only an apparent contradiction. It must be strictly understood as incidental and not prevalent or widespread, for the barefoot boys and sprites who inhabit Toyland are said elsewhere to be “kissed by strawberries on the hill” with “festal dainties spread.” They rise from a “sleep that wakes in laughing day … rich in flowers and trees, / Humming-birds and honey-bees.” They boast that they have “Laughed the brook for my delight / Through the day and through the night.” Even in the above, it is the “friends” of Toyland who are set to work, while the singers are busy being king and queen and with finding a home.

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