Very nice. How much did it cost?

20th February 1998 at 00:00
KIDS' STUFF: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Gary Cross. Harvard University Press #163;19.95.

My two youngest children were given Teletubbies for Christmas. Brightly coloured, cuddly toys with benign (if somewhat blank) expressions, wide lashless eyes which open and shut in a classic dolly way, shiny patches on their tummies, Hobbit-like ears and odd sproutings from the tops of their heads.

Several talking points there, one would have thought, for any adult anxious to make contact with the children. In fact the first (and often only) question was always addressed to my partner or myself: "How long did you have to queue for them?" Kids' Stuff gives a detailed and fascinating analysis of the conceptual, emotional and commercial developments that have brought us to the point where the purchase, not the product (let alone the giver or receiver) is the focus of social interest.

Professor Cross begins with the first generation after the American Civil War, when parents were eager to rebuild their families. Child-centred theories were coming into fashion, coinciding with a rapid expansion of industry. "Between 1860 and 1920," he tells us, "American manufacturing grew almost fourteenfold while the population merely tripled." Toys could be produced for the mass market, parents were increasingly inclined to buy them, and children had more time to play. All that was needed was marketing.

At the start of the period, Cross describes toys as being sold "like general store dried goods". But by 1906-07 Americans were plunged into their first "commercial festival" - a nationwide craze for "Teddy" bears (named after President Theodore Roosevelt). Similar fads soon followed, for "Kewpie dolls" and "Billikens" (furry cuddlies with intriguingly exotic heads, not so unlike Tubbies).

An early advertisement warned that any child without a teddy "now-a-days is quite out of fashion." And, as mass communication grew more and more sophisticated, so did manufacturers' attempts to manipulate younger and younger buyers into feeling incomplete without the Shirley Temple doll, the latest Disney merchandise, GI Joe, Barbie, Star Wars, Care Bears, He-Man, My Little Pony, Transformers, Ninja Turtles I Alternative marketing throughout this "century of the child" has presented worthy, dependable, educational toys responsibly conceived to enhance a developmental phase, build character or prepare children for desirable outcomes in adult life. Cross shows how the appeal of these playthings, as well as that of the fantasy toys, has been modulated by society's changing notions of what childhood should be.

As he follows American parents through the Depression, the baby boom, the war in Vietnam, he discovers a disabling erosion of confidence. "Adults no longer know how to make the future appear attractive to children," he concludes, sadly. If present happiness is all that can be offered to children in a consumer society, then it may lead (in Cross's view, has led) to an abdication of parental responsibility in the face of cynical marketing.

British parents can take no comfort from the American context. Globalisation came very close to home as I recognised almost every one of the Mattel or Hasbro "managed-fad" toys of the 1980s as having been part of my older children's culture.

Toys 'R' Us won't get queues of parents waiting to buy Kids' Stuff. Which is a pity, because Cross's message is evaluative and realistic: "If there is no escaping the appeal of goods, equally childhood should be more than an education in shopping."

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