Saturday, November 26, 2011

Georgian period toys


I LOVE making silly props to go with my silly costumes, and our Georgian picnic gives me the perfect opportunity to research and recreate 18th and early 19th c. toys and games every year.

The first new toy that we tried this year was the Chinese yo-yo, or diabolo (diable in French), which has proven a bit hard to research, but several online articles mention that it was called "devil on two sticks" in England, although they don't mention a source for that tidbit.  But illustrations of adults and occasionally children playing with diabolos show up from time to time during this period, and I love how beautiful the people look while playing this game.

I first tried using a wooden diabolo that I ordered online from a English historical toy site.  But even though the wooden diabolo looked like the illustrations, it was so lightweight and hard to work that even my friends who are jugglers and quite good at the diabolo had a hard time working with it.

So we switched over to a modern diabolo, and that worked much better.  Cynthia, our resident diabolo expert, was able to give us lessons, and several people were able to able to get it going pretty well and even catch a few tosses after a bit of practice.  But nobody did it with the same elegance and grace as Cynthia!  Clearly, I need to buy a modern diabolo and spend the next 12 months practicing so I can do this next year.  :)



I also brought a variety of small wooden toys, such as a top, cup and ball, and a yo-yo.  The top and cup helped entertain the kids, but I really brought the yo-yo for the adults.  I've always been charmed by this 1790's illustration of a woman playing with a yo-yo, which was known as a bandalore, l'emigrette, or quiz in the period.  If internet articles are to believed, the yo-yo was a very popular toy for both adults and children in the late 18th c., especially among the nobility, and the action of the toy was equated with French nobility and their emigration out, then back in to the country during the French Revolution.

For my yo-yo, I simply bought a bamboo yo-yo from World Market, then painted it with concentric circles, which seems to be the most common form of decoration.  Of course, French revolutionary colors seemed appropriate as well.


But the toy that I was the most excited about was my period kite.  I used the instructions found on the  PBS Ben Franklin website to make my kite, and I made it with handmade paper, linen ties on the tail, and I painted it with a simple triangle border, which was inspired by this 18th c. pear top kite.   I was worried that it would never fly, but it actually worked pretty well!  Although it was a bit unstable and really preferred to crash spectacularly into the ground, we did get it up to a nice cruising altitude one time, as seen in the photo at the top of this post.

I had a blast running back and forth down the clearing with my fellow kite enthusiast, Ginger, and we even drew quite a crowd of onlookers while we were flying it.  It was a blast, and I can't wait to try it again next year!



I'm always looking for new period toy and games to keep us entertained at our events.  We've also played Graces and battledore and shuttlecock in the past, and I'm hoping to try ninepins or lawn bowling next year (if I can find an affordable set).  If you know of any other good Georgian games that can be played outdoors, I'd love to hear about them!  And just for fun, check out this excellent site for other 18th century toys and games in period art.


Cynthia Griffith said...

That little diabolo really gives us fits, I do wish we could figure out the best way to get it working so you could use it more as well. It's such a cute little one!

Do you know, I wasn't sure I could even try the diabolo dressed like that? I spent a little while on Halloween refreshing my memory with it (I really can't do many tricks or whip it back and forth, but Christopher has always been great at more complicated things even when he's not used it for a while), but I had no idea if I could even lift my arms without the jacket getting in the way. So glad it worked, whew! And very pleased to have photos... those are the only photos of me using a diabolo!

It was a wonderful time, and I am definitely looking forward to more period games. Lawn bowling would be a blast! We'll have to research and see what we can all find! I'm sure you'll be great with the diabolo soon, too... the basic stuff comes quickly once you get the hang of it, and you're already well on your way :D I should get Christopher to research more juggling, too. We probably won't have any period props (we need to either fix or replace our current modern ones), but it would be neat to know more about the sort of things they would have done or known about.

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall we had better luck with the wooden diabolo when using my hand sticks. But even there, the tiny wooden diabolo is a tough little guy. (That, and I need new string on my handsticks.)

The diabolo I use is older, but it's held up well. I got it from There are wooden Chinese diabolos, but everything I know from the time...the diabolos were almost rounded and much heavier than the Chinese diabolos (more like this: (Most Chinese diabolos I've used have slots cut in the bodies and they are much more fragile. The slots result in a really cool, but probably not accurate for the time, whistling.)

Renegade is also a good prop manufacturer, and they make a diabolo that has a little more of the right shape: I don't know if it would be easy to paint.

There has to be people like this -- -- who could make something more accurate. Since I've never had reason for period-accurate props, I've always leaned more toward lighter, precision props. But by next year I have to think we can find something more accurate.

Jen Thompson said...

Thanks for the link to that Renegade site. I really like the way that diabolo looks! I might have to save up my pennies and try that one!

Anonymous said...

I've used the Renegade diabolo and I liked it. It might be a touch lighter than the one I use, but it's more rigid so there's no risk of it getting mooshed and having a little wobble.

If I end up at a juggling club and see somebody with a Renegade diabolo, I'll be sure to give it a spin with costuming in mind.

Lyssa said...

This looks like so much fun!

Augustintytär said...

I've always been charmed with that 1790's illustration with a yo-yo too. It looks like so much fun having all these period games and toys and all, that I just asked my husband if he would be interested in making a short trip to Texas about a year from now...

Kleidung um 1800 said...

Your new dress is beautifully done and it's a delight to see it in a proper environment with a period pastime!
Thank you for sharing and inspiring!


Madame Berg said...

Must make a kite for spring! I loved your experiments.

elisa.b said...

You know would be a fun game to add for your picnics? Graces (or game of graces). It was an early 1800s game used to teach girls to be graceful but it sounds fun too. It would be easy to make too.

what are the best toys for 2 year olds said...

Are these toys available? This modern days many toys release through out market but this old days remind us how toy industry begins.

SomethingRoyal said...

I know this is an older post, but I am wondering if you have found a good wooden diabolo for use at historical events. I am a co-sponsor for a junior historical society chapter and our members often teach historical games at events and I would love to find a half decent wooden diabolo to add to our collection of historical games and toys.
Also, as an aside, I saw someone mention the Game of Graces and I wanted to share that I have not been able to find credible documentation of that game being played in the States before the early 1830's. If anyone happens to have primary source documentation showing it was played earlier than when it is mentioned in The Girl's Own Book in 1833, I would *love* to see it!

Jen Thompson said...

I recently bought a vintage wooden diabolo on Etsy. I've seen them there and on ebay from time to time, but I have not found a modern seller who makes them big enough to work well.

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