Three centuries of innovation and education at the Museum of Childhood

I recently visited the Museum of Childhood and took a few snaps of things that stood out (with apologies for the poor, beyond-glass images: it turns out that none of these items have been photographed for the V&A collections site yet). There were, of course, plenty of science-related toys on display. Chemistry sets, optical toys and a whole case devoted to lantern slides are just the tip of the iceberg. Children are surrounded by the new and by nostalgia, by pastimes that are meant to inform and which reflect the world around them

As a response to the novelty of hot air balloons, so well described in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, I enjoyed this sampler. Samplers are designed to keep children still (probably usually girls, although we have an early 20th-century sampler in the family worked by a boy called Percy), are rigorously formal in their reproduction of letters and numbers and yet there was, presumably, some freedom in choice of decoration.

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This sampler was sewn by Mary Hall in 1786, just three years after the first flight of the Mongolfier brothers. However, as the catalogue description notes, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the excitement of manned flight and the verse, ‘Fragrant the rose is’, above: “in a melancholy poetic tradition that dwelt on the brevity of mortal life and was particularly popular in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries”.

Although they weren’t on display, the Museum an incomplete astronomy-themed sampler, which is pictured and discussed in this post: Star-gazing girls of Georgian England.

I was also pleased to come across this copy of Lessons on Objects (1840) by Elizabeth Mayo, who ran Cheam School in Surrey with her brother, together with a c.1850 box of specimens designed for educational use. Both were following the pedagogical methods of Yohann Pestalozzi, a Swiss reformer and idealist who advocated child-centred, hands-on, experimental and practical learning. The book encouraged children to use all their senses to explore the world around them, before being led to more systematic understanding. Mayo’s approach influenced the School Board for London, founded in 1870. The pre-prepared specimens includes all kind of materials: wax, gum, spices, fibres, paper, fur, metals (including mercury) and more.

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My final object is a bit different. It is a board game from the 1970s that never quite took off, and gloried in the name Vagabondo. In case you want to know, the catalogue description gives the full rules of the game. It was a strategy game, “easy to learn and exciting to play” that could be adapted for 2, 4, or 3, 5 and 6 players. It seems to have been motivated by some high ideals, though what I am not entirely sure. Although it was not a commercial success it won the Queen’s Award for Achievement in 1978. Most fascinatingly of all, the box front includes not only a picture of the proud inventors but also a series of endorsements from a slightly bewildering range of famous individuals, who had clearly been informed of the ideas behind it. My pic wasn’t very legible, so here’s one I found online:

The celebrity endorsements were from Dame Margot Fonteyn De Arias (who “commends your reasons for inventing it”), Roald Dahl (“a splendid game”), Sir John Betjeman, Alan Whicker, Prof Desmond Morris (“certainly better than most other recently invented board games I have come across. I rate it as highly as the very successful Master Mind”), John Pertwee (“a very good game”), Hammond Innes (“a good one”), Poul Hartling (ex-Danish Prime Minister – “most interesting and enjoyable”), and Alfred Hitchcock (“I promise to spread the word, surreptitiously of course, among my friends here in California”).

What an odd collection of people! And what a wonderful collection of objects to explore in east London.

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