The Structures of Toy Consumption: Bourgeois Domesticity and Demand for Toys in Nineteenth-Century Germany

By Hamlin, David | Journal of Social History, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Structures of Toy Consumption: Bourgeois Domesticity and Demand for Toys in Nineteenth-Century Germany


Hamlin, David, Journal of Social History


Consumption and consumerism are extraordinarily diverse phenomena defying easy definition. Scholars have generally focused on the individual consumer who enters the market to purchase items for him or herself. Writers as various as Werner Sombart, Wolfgang Haug, Rosalind Williams and Colin Campbell have associated consumption with the satisfaction of individual desires or fantasies. (1) Other scholars, such as Thorstein Veblen, Jean Baudrillard and Pierre Bourdieu, relate the consumption of material goods to the communication of personal status. (2) For all the many divisions between these scholars, they all begin with the premise that their exists an identity between shopper and consumer. Thus Peter Stearns may define a consumerist society as one which "involves large numbers of people staking a real portion of their personal identities and their quest for meaning--even their emotional satisfaction--on the search for and acquisition of goods." (3) Such assumptions leave aside the fascinating problem of gift- giving, one of the most important spurs to consumerist activity. What do shoppers think they are doing when they purchase objects for other people?

As Daniel Miller has pointed out, much shopping is done for the benefit of others. (4) The motivations of gift-givers are more complicated than theories based on the individual as both shopper and consumer will admit. When shopping is related to the complex inter-personal relationships that fashion gift-giving, we perceive that consumption is an exceedingly complex cultural activity. Consumption functions as a means of both reflecting and constructing social relations. Consequently, consumption serves as a means of not merely reflecting but also of negotiating the inherent conflicts and contradictions in any culture. Gift-giving transforms material goods into symbols that enable members of society to manage the demands of multiple ideals and values.

Toy consumers came to the marketplace with their own agendas, focused on buying toys for others. As we shall see, these agendas were critically influenced by the development of burgerliche ideals of domesticity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The transformation of the structure and ideology of the family created fundamental ambivalences. In particular, the imperatives to allow the child to be a child and also to educate him to be a productive citizen-Burger could not be simultaneously satisfied. The incompatibility of these norms has been repeatedly observed by historians. J. H. Plumb's discussion of toys and the rise of new attitudes toward children in eighteenth century England explicitly confronts the development of such antinomies. Toy demand, he argued, was linked to the presumption of childhood as a period of privileged innocence. The creation and sustenance of such innocence, however, required quite draconian measures on the part of parents to isolate children from reality. Toys, in th is reading, passively reflect a certain vision of childhood innocence and have no direct connection to the disciplinary aspects of child-rearing. (5)

I suggest, however, that toy demand did not merely reflect one half of the dualistic vision of middle-class childhood sketched by Plumb and others. Toy demand was, instead, often an effort to ritually reestablish the emotional foundations of the family. Rather than simply reflecting particular values, toys were assigned specific cultural tasks. The provision of toys to children by parents was an effort to manage extraordinarily powerful discourses. In particular, note must be taken of the specific times and mechanisms through which toys entered the hands of children. The tensions within the cult of domesticity were redressed through reformed festivals, particularly Christmas, which gave families a brief opportunity to live the ideal and to reconcile contradictory values. The everyday labor required to produce and reproduce burgerliche norms of personal behavior could be partially laid aside and the affectionate bonds of the family reemphasized. …

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