Toys and Tools

Within the realm of studying words about fiber, I end up spending a lot of time thinking about thread, and the making of thread.

In her wonderful history of thread making, Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber quotes Judith Brown’s observation about the kind of activities women do. Brown (says Barber) notes that the work women do must be compatible “with the demands of child care.” Over to Barber:

From Empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible [I see a rueful smile on every care giver’s  face!] and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.”

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing. […]

The bracketed note in the middle of the quote is Barber’s, not mine. She writes with the lightest of feathers and spins not just yarn but great yarns. However, that’s not why I’m quoting her here.

If childcare is done by the women who are also doing the spinning, weaving, and sewing, you have to assume that the kids get their hands on the supplies. “Here, play with this and let me finish this strip!” would be my candidate for one of the first sentences spoken by humans.

And what might “this” be? A spinning stick on a string, for example. That’s necessary for any cloth to get made.

Here’s a video of a random stranger on the Internet, doing exactly that.  Does it remind you of any toys you know?

If a prehistoric cat saw one of those being dragged around by a prehistoric toddler, wouldn’t they both learn the game of making a “staff” seem alive? I came across that in Exodus 4 – it’s a trick anyone regularly exposed to sticks on string would understand.

But pull- and push-toys are not the only playthings that work like this. Spinning tops? Just spindles with no string, or supported spindles. Toy vehicles, like chariots or carriages? A spindle with two whorls (the round thing around the shaft). Toy soldiers? Just the shafts, each given a name and personality. Pick up sticks? Shafts again. Board games like chess and checkers and go? Loom weights (broken old ones) and sand. Cat’s Cradle? Ok, that one’s obvious. Jump rope? Needs rope… Chinese jump rope? Same story.

Maybe not all, but the majority of toys I’ve seen kids play with seem to link back to fiber, or the tools women used for making fiber and keeping kids happy.