The Wild West of Yester-Year

Frontier Toys
By Rachel Kovaciny

What were your favorite toys as a kid? My stuffed dog Fluffy and a stuffed raccoon named Rascal were my most beloved companions. I still have them, since they’re too dear to me to give them up. My other favorite toys were a set of little plastic cowboys and horses, my wild west Legos, and a doll I dressed in Victorian-era clothes. History has always fascinated me, and I love imagining stories set during the 1800s.

But what did kids growing up in the actual Old West play with? Obviously, they didn’t have Legos or plastic horses. No toy cars or airplanes or Disney princess dolls. Definitely no computer games, smart phones, or video streaming services to keep them entertained. But in many ways, their toys were like ours, just made differently.

Frontier girls liked to play with dolls. If you’ve ever read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, you probably remember her talking about the corn cob doll she had as a little girl in the big woods of Wisconsin. Do you recall how excited Laura was when she received a rag doll for Christmas? She named her Charlotte and treasured her, simple though the doll was. A few scraps of cloth and yarn and a couple of buttons can be every bit as beloved as the latest walking, talking doll today.

Children have excellent imaginations, and a simple object that looks vaguely like something else can become a toy. A corn cob wrapped in cloth can be a doll. A long stick can be a toy hunting rifle. I had many of those when I was a kid pretending to be Daniel Boone or Annie Oakley. Wooden building blocks also lend themselves to imaginative play—blocks can turn into a castle or a fort or a house, and frontier children were familiar with them. Wooden toys of all sorts were common on far-flung farms and ranches. Anyone with moderate whittling ability could turn out a simple wooden horse or person. Children might have a bowling set with wooden pins and a ball made from animal hide or cloth. Baseball in its early forms existed by the mid-1800s, so some children would have played with a bat or stick and ball too. Hobby horses, jumping ropes, wooden tops, and simple rocking horses were also things frontier children might own. A very fortunate little girl might possess a toy tea set made from china, wood, or tin. Older children might play shuttlecock and battledore, which we now call badminton. A lot of buttons strung on a string, a carved animal, or a simple doll would amuse the very young. A “Jacob’s ladder” was another popular toy that dates back to the 1600s—all you need for it is a few squares of wood and some old ribbons or strips of cloth tacked or glued to the wood.

A simple drum made of animal hide stretched over a small wooden keg would have been a fun toy, though frontier mothers may have regarded them as skeptically as my own mom viewed my wish for a drum set years ago. Harmonicas were common, and some people made simple flutes from reeds or by carving out a stick. Little girls might cut dolls and clothes out of paper. The popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book would purposely print their pictures of the latest fashions in a way that allowed girls to make them into paper dolls. Drawing was also a fun way to pass the time—you could draw on your slate from school over and over or scratch pictures in the dirt with a stick. A bit of charred wood would let you draw pictures on a wooden board or in the dirt.

Store-bought toys were not as common as homemade toys on the frontier. Homesteaders often made their own toys or handed down an heirloom toy like a good sled or a special doll. But you could buy toys in the 1800s. Dolls with painted china heads and fancy clothes were popular and treasured toys. Boys might own a set of tin soldiers. Glass marbles were popular and not too expensive. Most people were familiar with checkers and chess.

As train tracks stretched across the prairies, letting trains bring goods from back east more quickly and easily, luxuries like store-bought toys became more common. Children might own a picture book or two, maybe a set of dominos, or even a stuffed animal.

Most children in the Old West would have owned only a few toys. Frontier families needed children to help keep the farm or ranch going. Children had chores at home and sometimes even worked a little for a neighbor or someone in town as they got older. Between school and working, they had far less time to play than children today, a fact my own kids would find deplorable. They found time to play with something whenever they could, and even if their toys might look boring to kids today, they were no less prized by frontier children than today’s toys by today’s youngsters.