Frontier Toys

When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my favorite things to play with (when I wasn’t reading a book) were dolls. I liked the limp kind that seemed like a real baby, where the arms and legs flopped around. The more realistic the better, especially the ones that had eyes that closed when you laid her down. And I was in sheer heaven when I got a Betsy Wetsy one year. I loved changing her diapers.

Then, when I got around ten or twelve years old my youngest sister and I became obsessed with paper dolls. We’d patiently cut out their clothes with tabs and dress them up. We’d make up stories and have the cardboard dolls act them out. We spent umpteen hours on end playing with them.

Back in frontier days there was little time for playing. Children of a young age on up had chores to do. Older children had to help get crops in and care for the animals. There were no shirkers when it came to living on a farm. Every hand counted. Even school was abandoned when children were needed on the farm.

But kids still found time for play, if only occasionally.

Frontier children were limited when it came to toys, but they were very resourceful. And sometimes it was the parents who showed great creativity.

Mothers would make their little girls rag dolls out of whatever material they had available. Usually they had yarn for hair and nothing but stitching for eyes, mouths and noses.

For toddlers, mothers strung thread spools on heavy string or they handed their children a pan and a spoon and let them go. I did that too when my kids were little.

Fathers carved toys for their sons and made horses, spinning tops, drums, wagons, whirligigs out of string and a piece of metal. Whirligigs made some type of whirring noise when they were whirled really fast. Fathers also made cup and ball toys that had the ball attached to a string. The object of the toy was to flip the ball into the cup.

If they had money to spare, parents would buy their son a bag of marbles. That kept the boys entertained for long periods of time and became treasured possessions.

There were also little tin soldiers for a price unless the father figured out how to make them on a forge out of left over metal.

Boys also whiled away many an hour playing with a barrel hoop and a stick. It was versatile. It was a game that could be played by one boy or a dozen. If it involved a group of boys, they usually spit up into teams and tried to get the hoop away from the others. I’m sure they had some kind of goal to reach to score points. Or boys could race the hoops if they had several.

Baseball wasn’t played until around the turn of the century.

Native American children had similar toys and games. The girls had dolls and the boys had stick games they played. Of course, Karen Kay would know more about this than I would. Maybe she’ll come by today and comment.

Can you imagine the children today having nothing to play with except these primitive toys? I swear, they wouldn’t know what to do without their Game Boys, I-Pods, and X Boxes!






What toys were your favorites when you were young?

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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

38 thoughts on “Frontier Toys”

  1. Good morning, Linda! I’m up early today–a busy day ahead–and your blog was a nice way to get going this morning. Oh, it brings back memories!

    My favorite toy–hands down, my Barbie dolls. Midge and Allen were my favorites, and I had Skipper, too. My little friends and I would play for hours and hours and hours.

    We had tons of clothes–most of them made by my mother, who enjoyed making them as much as I enjoyed playing with them. Nowadays, there’s a Barbie for every nationality and occupation, it seems, but we only had the basics and never thought otherwise.

    I completely agree about those electronic toys, Linda! Kids need to play with simple toys–blocks, Legos, Tinker-toys–to inspire the imagination.

    Fun blog, Sister Filly!

  2. wow..what a great post Linda!!

    hmm..let me see, for me it was Barbies! That was my biggest thing..I had tons of clothes, shoes and furniture-a good bit of the furniture was home-made!

    My other fun toy-my imagination!! I played house ALOT..inside or out… also-played “teacher” and LOVED to have a pretend grocery store where Id be the cashier!

    Christmas was always a very special and fun time for me….I didnt get alot through the year that made Christmas extra special…

    In my opinion, it’s not quite the same as it use to be for most of today’s children…they are mostly spoiled (mine included)….they get stuff way more often than I did, for sure!

    Chilren use to be more appreciate and grateful for what they had too (I think)…
    IT’s hard to teach children to respect and value their belongings when they know it was so easily acquired….

    anyway…I would love to see today’s children have ONLY a few handmade toys to play would be very interesting!

  3. I had three brothers and no sisters so my favorite toys were bb guns, ropes and rifles LOL!

    Of course I had a few dolls, but to say I grew up a tomboy would be an understatement.

    I could outride, outrun and outshoot all three of my brothers 🙂

    Interesting post.

  4. Linda – this is terrific information. It brought me back to my childhood – two sisters and a brother. We played with each other. Believe it or not we played a game called “Saloon”. My parents had an old upright piano, and we’d dress up in petticoats and pretend we were in the wild west at a saloon, singing at the piano.

    Okay – so we were a little wacky.

  5. Hi Linda – what a beautiful blog today! My MIL has the most amazing collection of dolls. I can tell the old ones from the materials used and the quality of the clothing.

    Pam- I loved my Barbies too. I had Midge and Alan and Skipper too! Still have them in their cases. I’ll never get rid of them!!

    I used to play hopscotch. And jumprope and since I lived where there were mostly boys, we played Cowboys and Indians. Not PC today, but that was the era for westerns that spurred our imaginations! I also played Monopoly, Parchesi and Clue!

  6. Hi Linda!

    I, too, loved this post. While some of my friends when I was growing up were tomboys, I was always the one who loved dolls, and playing house. I had dolls that drank water and wet and talked and walked. Loved paper dolls as well. Anything that had to do with being a wife and mother I absolutely loved.

    As far as Indian games, the Native American life was an outdoors life and the children often mimicked their parents. Girls played with dolls and kept house — even having small tepees to keep clean. Boys would sometimes play house with the girls, but mostly boys hunted and learned to shoot with bow and arrow, as well as guns (later). Dolls were made with whatever was available. The Iroquois made dolls from corn husks — they had no faces, by the way. There was the stick and hoop game for the boys — and sports games were popular throughout Native America for boys and girls alike — as well as adults.

    And here’s a piece of information I’ve used in my books a time or two. The info comes from the works of George Catlin, who traveled amongst the Native Tribes all over America circa 1830’s. Native America men in horse races raced nude. George Catlin writes about racing once with them — and having to race nude — and having a bunch of Native American women waiting at the finish line to see the white man without his clothes.

    One could tell he was embarrassed, but I found it fascinating. : )

    Great post!

  7. My favorite toy to play with when I was little was my lincoln logs and legos. I just loved to build things.

  8. Morning Pam,

    Gosh, it’s so good to be back to normal even though last week was a blast!

    I’m glad you enjoyed my blog. You were lucky you grew up with Barbies. They came around long after I quit playing with dolls. Guess that shows my age. (groan) The paper dolls were so much fun but their clothes were just paper and sometimes, if you weren’t careful, you’d cut off the little tags that held them onto the cardboard doll. I hated that.

    But yes, we exercised our imaginations thoroughly. If we weren’t playing paper dolls we were playing school or train or store. One year Mama bought us a little cash register with paper money. We loved that.

    Have a great day and smile every chance you get!

  9. Karen..

    WOW..I have not ever heard that or read that..about Native American men racing nude… that’s a very interesting fact! Thank you for sharing it!

  10. Hi Pamela T,

    How funny! Yep, you were definitely a tomboy. Did you play cowboys and Indians with those bb guns and ropes? I’d love to have seen that. I’ll bet your mother rolled her eyes a lot.

    But the good thing is you played with something that sparked your imagination. That’s something kids today miss out on and it’s sad. Computer games don’t let a child stretch his brain.

    Thanks for commenting and for being here. Have a wonderful day!

  11. Hi Maria!

    That’s so neat. A little unusual, but neat. I’ve never heard of other children playing “saloon.” Oh my gosh! Can’t believe you dressed up in petticoats and the whole nine yards. I only hope you had a boy or two to play the cowboys. No wonder you love western romance! 🙂

  12. Hi Melissa!

    It’s the most wonderful thing to go where your imagination takes you. Mine took me to a lot of places. I, too, played store and school. And we also played doctor. That got me in trouble one time when our boy cousin came over. Good grief, I hadn’t remembered that for years! Mama wasn’t too happy with us, even though it was totally innocent. I swear! 🙂

    Don’t worry about typos. We’re not particular. I’m just so happy to see you here.

    Your girls are so precious, you can’t help but spoil them rotten. Besides, that’s what mothers and daddys are for.

    Hope your day is blessed with lots of happiness!

  13. Hi Charlene,

    It was neat having the week off but it’s so nice to get back in the groove, isn’t it? Kinda like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes.

    I think Barbies were the thing to have for your generation. They were certainly an improvement over paper dolls. Ha! I can’t imagine the fun we’d have had with more life-like playthings. I’d love to see your mil’s doll collection. Bet that’s really something. Some of those dolls are very valuable too!

    I grew up in an innocent time when the world was a little less scary. Since we had no air conditioning except a swamp cooler, we played inside in the summer during the days but the minute it started cooling off outside we were out the door. I remember playing outside until long after dark, running and hiding. We played Red Rover a lot and Hide and Seek. I’ll bet we used up a thousand calories. But Lord, it was fun!

    Hope your day goes well and you get that honeymoon trip arranged for your daughter. Wish the wedding was close enough so I could crash it. I do love weddings!

  14. Hi Kay!

    Thanks so much for filling us in on Native American childhood toys. Yes, I remember you saying once that Iroquois dolls had no faces, but the reason why escapes me. I remember thinking was it a fascinating tidbit.

    That would’ve been something to see little teepees set up next to the larger ones. And what a place to play! I’d have loved to have had one of those when I was growing up. The closest we had was stretching a blanket over some chairs. That was pretty fun though.

    You’re right about children learning by mimicking their parents. That’s how kids learn to be adults. I shudder to think about some of the games kids play today and what kinds of things they’re mimicking. Some of these parents are definitely not good role models.

    Anyway, I appreciate you telling us about Native American children. And I loved the recount of how men raced horses in the nude. That’s funny!

  15. Hi Rebekah!

    Lincoln logs and legos are fun things to play with. That’s my grandchildren’s favorite things too. I have some sets here and when they come, that’s the first thing they go for. And I have some plastic farm animals so they build a house and pens for the animals.

    I’m just curious…did you grow up to be an architect?

    Have a great day whatever you do!

  16. I was the eldest of nine, so it seemed I was always helping our mother around the house. It seems toys and games were played with equally by boys and girls, except for the dolls. LOL! I remember paper dolls, hopscotch, marbles, red wagons, Cowboys and Indians, and even acting out the movies we saw every Saturday! The most favorite activity for all of us was our trips to the library every couple of weeks. We would come home with an armful of books, read all of them and trade with everyone else until we had read them
    all. We older sibs would read to the youngest
    so everyone got to enjoy the books!

    Pat Cochran

  17. Hi all…great post, Linda. One I’ll re-read for research, I’m certain…

    Nude horse racing? Dunno. Not even Adam Beach. Too much stuff flapping around…

    My favorite toys: My Patty Play Pal. I wanted her soooo bad. Mom and Dad set her up by the tree and felt like somebody was watching them when they set out the other Christmas presents.

    Then my Barbie and Ken. Wedding dress. The works. I remember getting real little McCalls patterns and making her clothes!

    And roller skates. The lame kind with a key that couldn’t hook into soft sneakers.

    Oh thanks for the history lesson and the chance to hobble down my own personal memory lane.

  18. Oh , I forgot this one. My mom had a glass-headed baby doll that was my first love. I remember the day the head broke, and so did my heart. Mom regrets not saving the “body”…she probably could have replaced the head. It was her first childhood love, too. Oh, makes me sat still..

  19. Hi Pat C!

    I can’t imagine what it would be like to have nine children in a family. I’m sure a lot of entertaining the little ones fell on your shoulders. Lord knows, your mother had more on her plate than she could probably handle! I think it’s pretty cool though that you read to your younger siblings so they could enjoy the books too. The library was our favorite place to hang out in the summer. Books took us anywhere we wanted to go. Oh, the adventures we read about!

    Yep, ours was the simple times before technology stepped in. Give us a box or a pan and some spoons and we were happy. My younger sister and I loved to play in the dirt. We’d pretend to be cooking things and we’d make dirt cakes and put grass on top for the icing.

    Thanks as always for coming by to comment. 🙂

  20. Hi Tanya!

    Glad you enjoyed the blog today. We always aim to please. I agree on the nude horse racing deal. Yeah, cowboys kept that stuff covered up. lol

    That glass-headed doll must’ve been really old. I can’t remember off hand when they stopped making them but it was ages ago. I’m sorry it broke. That reminds me of a scene in one of Linda Lael Miller’s books. There was a mentally challenged secondary character who thought her doll was a real baby. A mean guy broke it just because he could and she thought he’d killed the baby. They had a regular funeral for it and everything. A very touching, emotional scene.

    But at least you got a Patty Play Pal. That was a neat doll. So realistic. Bet you spent many an hour playing with her.

    You’re welcome for the trip down memory lane. Glad I could do it. It’s good for us to remember the things that entertained us. Have a wonderful day!

  21. Hi Linda! I loved your blog. It brought back lots of cheerful memories. I grew up on a farm and had LOTS of chores, so I feel for those frontier kids. I loved my dolls, mostly. Also really really loved taking the sofa cushions apart and building forts, something my own daughter loved to do not too long ago. I think that has remained a timelss game, nice to see. And using cardboard boxes to build forts, too. You’re right about the electronic gizmos–but then, I think I’m hooked on my computer, too, and couldn’t live without it–not for the computer games, but the social interaction.

    Great blog!

  22. Hey Linda – you’ve a delightful post there.

    As soon as I read your question, my Lulu doll came to mind. I was 4 yrs old and living in a logging camp in Northern Ontario in the early 60’s. My 5 yr old sister and I rec’d identical dolls one year. They were based on the cartoon character and I loved mine. They were soft-bodied made of vinyl – or was it rubber? One afternoon I sat there cuddling my Lulu doll and playing house with my little tea set. My sister grabbed my Lulu doll out of my arms and said it was hers. I said she’d lost hers and I grabbed it back. There we were, each pulling an arm – back and forth – until finally, I ended up with an arm and she ended up on her butt. I remember staring, horrified, that I’d damaged my baby. Suddenly, my sister tossed the rest of the doll at me and said, ‘You’re right. It’s yours. I just remembered where I put mine.”

    And this is the missionary sister that I wrote such a glowing account of a couple months ago. But of course, she’s grown up, now. *g*

  23. Hi Linda, What a fun topic! I just picked up a book on historical toys and really enjoyed browsing through it

    As a girl, I liked my rollerskates the best. Tinker Toys too. And Lincoln logs : ) I had a ton of Barbies thanks to my grandmother, but I never got into them. Books and plastic horses rank high on the list, too.

  24. Hi Kate!

    Glad my blog brought back some wonderful memories. You very well could’ve been a frontier child living on a farm like you did and having endless chores to do. That must be why your books come alive so well. When you had free time you used your imagination. Make believe of any kind is the best way for young children to develop. We learn so much by playing. Believe it or not, I still love to play. Guess I’ll always be a kid at heart! 🙂

    Yeah, those forts made from cushions and boxes were excellent playthings.

  25. Hi Anita!

    Thanks so much for the laugh! Wonder if your missionary sister remembers that fight? That’s too funny.

    I remember those Lulu dolls. I think they were made of vinyl, but I could be wrong. They could’ve been like the Raggety Ann and Andy dolls and made of fabric.

    Glad you enjoyed my blog today.

  26. I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s. I cut paper dolls out of catalogs and played with homemade(by my Dad)wheelbarrows, and cars and trucks. I was a tomboy and the oldest of seven.

  27. Hi Victoria!

    Glad you found my blog fun. Great that you just picked up a book on historical toys. I’m sure there’s a lot more in it than what I listed.

    You must’ve been the roller skate queen. I never learned how to roller skate. I was too scared of falling and hurting myself. Tinker Toys were fun and so were Lincoln Logs. You could build some interesting things with those.

    And I’m not a bit surprised that you liked books and plastic horses seeing as how you grew up with them. Wouldn’t have expected anything else.

    Glad you could stop by. Are you working on a new book?

  28. Hi Estella!

    We must be about the same age. Paper dolls were big during that time. A lot of the magazines even had paper dolls and doll clothes in them.

    Being the oldest of seven, I’m sure you didn’t get too many new toys. Parents of large families had to cut corners where they could and that meant they usually made a bunch of things from scratch. But you know, those homemade toys really lasted a long time. They were sturdy.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I appreciate that.

  29. I had a chatty cathy doll when they first came out,I remember on christmas morning both me an my sisters didnt talk,so my dad called the man an the local 5 an dime store an told him he had two little girls with broke dolls an were unhappy,an he wanted new dolls now! so the man went to the store on christmas morning an gave my dad two new chatty cathy dolls, that talked!My dad was the best!

  30. Hi Vickie,

    I remember the Chatty Cathy dolls but I hadn’t thought of them in years! My niece had one and she loved it. That was great that your dad called the owner of the five and dime store on Christmas and he opened up and gave you both new dolls that talked. I’ll be willing to wager you couldn’t get that kind of service today. But what a neat story. I’m sure you never forgot that Christmas.

    Thanks for sharing your memory with us. 🙂

  31. Hi Linda, Yep. There’s a new book in the pipeline. I’ve been asked to do Book #3 for a continuity for Love Inspired Historicals. It’s set in 1860 Kansas, not my usual setting, so I’m learning a lot.

    I found that book on toys while visiting the Historic Colvin Mill site here in northern Virginia. My hero’s a mill owner. The book on toys caught my eye and somehow ended up in my hands, along with a bunch of others : )

  32. Hi Kathleen,

    I’m glad you could stop by and comment. You must’ve had only brothers, judging by your favorite toys. Just kidding. I like Lincoln Logs and still play with them when the grandkids come over. I’m just a big kid disguised in grown up clothes.

    Your My Little Pony figures gave away your secret desire to own a horse. I think that’s neat.

  33. Victoria,

    I’m glad to hear you’re working on that book set in pre-Civil War Kansas. I’ll bet it’ll be a wonderful story. Can’t wait until you get it finished and it’s in bookstores. I really like Love Inspired Historicals. Books of faith are my favorites. I don’t have to worry about the language or explicit sex scenes.

    Wishing you lots of inspiration!

  34. I absolutely loved my dolls and paperdolls! Atill have one of my dolls. She is over 50 years Old!

  35. My cousins, my brother, and I played cowboys and Indians and house. The boys played Cowboys and Indians and them they came into our shed and we had ‘dinner’ for them. Not a lot of toys, but great fun!

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