Toy Museum, Nuremberg, Germany
Even when it seems like there’s nothing, there’s still imagination. And no imagination is as vibrant and engrossing as that of a child.
It’s why children always manage to create their own play worlds with whatever they have.
Just have a look at some of these old toys. They are not the sophisticated things you would see today in the toy shops.
They were made from what was accessible. Blocks of wood, scraps of metal.
For the children who played with them, though, they were as real as the belief their creators had in them.
These are the toys made by and for the children of Nuremberg in the post-war years.
Their city lay in ruins but these German children still managed to find happiness in the rubble.
It was the beginning of the regeneration of the city that had borne the brunt of so much destruction during the Second World War.
This period was not the start of the deep connection that the city of Nuremberg has with the creation of toys, though.
This history is excellently presented at the Nuremberg Toy Museum in the centre of the city. These exhibits of imagination in the post-war period are just a small temporary collection on display when I visit.
It’s in the other rooms that the extent of the city’s story is revealed.
Toy-making began in Nuremberg in the Middle Ages and we know from tax records of the time that people making dolls were registered in about the year 1400.
The first dolls were made from clay and over the centuries materials like wood and porcelain were also used.
The dolls were detailed and intricate – all handmade, of course, with the care and love appropriate for their uses.
It was the ability to mass produce toys, though, that really saw Nuremberg’s reputation rise as an international toy-making hub in the late 1800s. And the agent for this explosion in manufacturing was tin.
Tin was an easy and cheap material to use in creating all sorts of designs and the artisans here in the German city were already skilled metal workers. It also helped that the tradesmen here had good connections all over the world.
You might think that it was World War II that put an end to this epicentre of global toy-making but it was actually the invention of plastic and cheap manufacturing in countries like the US, Japan and China that really curbed the big businesses here in Germany.
But, as you can see here in the exhibitions, production did continue on the more artistic and high-quality items.
There are around 85,000 items at the Nuremberg Toy Museum – enough to satisfy the child inside of us all. From the old dolls and hand-carved animals, through to the replicas of domestic life, and the metal cars and train sets.
There are even some modern games and toys that I recognised from my childhood (which, unfortunately, is longer ago than I would like to admit).
Most interestingly, you can trace the shifts in society through the toys that the children played with. It can be as simple as the old toys being horses and carts, while the new toys are planes and spaceships.
The ways the dolls are dressed show an evolution in clothing styles as well. But there’s also the way that women are depicted in domestic roles in the older centuries but not in the most modern creations.
And let’s not even touch the older toys with the semi-naked black children shown riding ‘exotic’ animals.
It’s comforting to see the consistent elements of all the toys, though. No matter the era, no matter the cost, no matter the production style, all of the items on display here give just enough for a child to transpose their own imaginations on top of what they’re playing with.
The creation of the toy is important but even more important is the creation it enables.