Since 1885, The Musée des Arts Décoratifs has been constantly acquiring, preserving and showing toys for their aesthetic value but also for their cultural and social significance. As Baudelaire remarked, “The toy is the child’s first initiation into art,” and, as such, toys have their rightful place in the museum.
In the 20th century, since the Enfance exhibition at the Petit Palais in 1901 and the creation of the Société d’Amateurs de Jouets et Jeux Anciens in 1905, childhood and toys have become fields of study in their own right (principally in history, the social sciences and psychology). Parents and specialists have become increasingly interested in the educative role of toys and their influence on children, and have contributed to their evolution. Toys have also been studied as testimonies to periods and societies.
The Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ Toy Department was created in 1975 to preserve pieces and organise exhibitions for children and adults. The collection has grown considerably and now comprises more than 15,000 pieces, some extremely rare, others the most popular of their period. The exhibition and its extraordinary design explore the major themes of the toy world via the department’s emblematic pieces, many of which have been specially restored for the event.
The exhibition begins with a display of the collection’s most ancient and most priceless toys, carefully kept by their successive owners since the 18th century. They include bingo games, dice and silver, gold and vermeil rattles more akin to jewellery and worn as pendants by nannies to amuse their infant charges.
Another display highlights the timeless classics of the toy world, ranging from tin soldiers and rocking horses to the toy tea set, the teddy bear and of course dolls, featuring the emblematic Barbie and several late 19th-century porcelain dolls, including a French cloth doll dating from 1890. Paradoxically, despite their popularity and unlike porcelain dolls, which could be extremely costly, ancient rag dolls are now extremely rare. Although the rag doll market developed in the United Kingdom and the United States in the 19th century, France rapidly began producing luxury dolls for export. This doll, called “Catiche”, a daily plaything for children of all social classes, had more difficulty in surviving its use. Another display focuses on role-play games such as fancy dress outfits, including a bishop’s and priest’s costumes dating from the early 20th century. There are also miniature grocer’s shops and schools and rarer examples such as a flower shop and a bronze smelter’s workshop.
The exhibition goes on to explore the toys of infancy, featuring rattles and roly-poly toys and learning tables, some in painted wood dating from the late 19th century. Construction toys are also featured, from the very first made in stone to the most recent Lego bricks, and of course familiar childhood heroes such as Little Red Riding Hood, Darth Vader, Bibi Fricotin and Totoro have not been forgotten.
The exhibition ends with a display of artists’ and designers’ toys stemming from the pedagogical and formal research characteristic of the 20th and 21st centuries. They include a yoyo by Sonia Delaunay, a pull-along dog by Keith Haring, a jigsaw puzzle by Antonio Vitali and soft toys by Takashi Murakami.
So that everyone, and especially children, can have fun playing with some of these toys, a space in the Toy Gallery provides a selection of ancient board games specially reproduced for the exhibition.
For this anniversary, the Toy Department is celebrating its extremely rich collection by inviting the young and less young to plunge into the world of childhood and re-experience its emotions and marvels with, perhaps for some, a touch of nostalgia.
- Special Anniversary Barbie Doll, Mattel, USA 1994 Vinyl, plastic, fabric, 29 cm © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / photo : Jean Tholance
- Baby’s rattle, 19th century Hand-embossed and engraved silver, mother-of-pearl handle © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / photo : Jean Tholance
- Hulk, Mego Corporation, USA 1978 Plastic, fabric, 30 cm © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / photo : Jean Tholance
- Little Red Riding Hood girl’s doll Printed fabric, 37 cm © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / photo : Jean Tholance
- The Little Prince by John Wright, USA 1983 Felt body and clothes, painted face, 46 cm © Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris / photo : Jean Tholance