Monday, December 17, 2018

Simple Christmas Toys of the 1800s

Nearly everyone has a childhood Christmas memory – whether pleasant and nostalgic or painful and not-so-stalgic. Such memories have the power to flavor Christmas holidays for the remainder of our lives.

My dad was an “older” father, so his memories went farther back than those of my friends’ parents. He was also a farmer, so his joys were simpler.

He used to tell about how thrilled he was to get an orange in his stocking at Christmas when he was growing up. Peppermint candy was also a plus, especially ribbon candy. And maybe a little money. As in loose change.

I don’t recall Daddy talking much about childhood toys. Life centered around work because work kept the family eating. But a little research reveals what simple toys might have meant to children at Christmas a century before my father, particularly during the Westward expansion of the 1800s.

Toys were not as common as they are today. However, children of every era and culture have entertained themselves with games and toys as simple as balls made of leather, animal bladders, or bundled rags. Hoops and sticks were also a common plaything, but what type of toy might a pioneer child have found in his or her Christmas stocking? More than likely, those surprises would have been homemade.

Fans of Little House on the Prairie may recall the new tin cup, small cake, peppermint candy, and shiny penny that Laura Ingalls thrilled over receiving one year.

A yarn doll I made commemorating the yarn dolls from my Christmas novella, Snow Angel, and a button spinner.
Other gifts could have been simple dolls for the girls made from corn husks, rags, or yarn. Boys might have received hand-carved soldiers or animal figures. Wooden trains, wagons, or spinning tops were also favorites, as were cup-and-ball toss toys and “buzzsaws” or spinners made from wooden disks or large buttons and string.
A buzzsaw or spinner, sometimes called a Sunday toy.
Embroidered hankies and knitted or crocheted scarves, mittens, and hats were welcome gifts that also served practical purposes.
These miniature mittens decorate my modern Christmas tree as replicas of what children 
and family members may have a received as Christmas gifts in days gone by.
Jumping ropes, marbles – and if the year had been profitable – maybe even a book which would be read over and over again in the coming months.

More affluent families might have afforded tin soldiers or whistles for the boys and dolls with china faces for the girls. Maybe a hobby horse or a Jack-in-the-box. And everyone enjoyed candies, special cookies, and fruit (where available) that signaled a time of celebration.

Christmas in a struggling Western town or on a far-flung cattle ranch was no doubt different from celebrations today—aside from cooking up the best food you could find and sharing it with loved ones and friends.

When asked why I write historical fiction, I’ve often pointed out that life was not easier “back in the day” but it was simpler. Something in me longs for that simplicity, and I often sense that same longing in readers of the genre.

My growing-up Christmases were extravagant compared to my father’s, but every year there was an orange in my stocking, regardless of other modern candies and delights with which it shared the dark, cozy space. Finding that orange weighting the toe of my fancy Christmas stocking somehow anchored me to a time my father found worth remembering.

I’m glad he did, for I like to think that fragrant orange was one of several little nudges that helped me on my way to loving and writing historical fiction.

How about you? Do you have a special Christmas memory that knits itself around your heart this time of year? I'd love for you to share it in the comments below.


Davalynn Spencer is the award-winning author of eleven inspirational Western romance titles, including the Christmas novella, Snow Angel. She is a former rodeo journalist, crime-beat reporter, and the wife and mother of professional rodeo bullfighters. When she’s not #lovingthecowboy, she’s wrangling Blue the Cowdog and mouse detectors Annie and Oakley. Contact her via her website at 
May all that you read be uplifting.


  1. I always had an orange and an apple in my stocking as well. Thanks for the post, and Merry Christmas!

  2. We got fruit in our stockings when I was young. My boys weren't big fruit eaters, so I didn't continue the tradition.
    The most important thing to me is having the whole family together for Christmas. I also have a pair of tiny mittens having on my tree. :)

    1. Yes, Vickie, everyone together is more and more a premium these days. Merry Christmas!