“Of Toys and Men”, which opened this week under the glass domes of the Grand Palais, gathers 1,000 toys from antiquity to the present in a riotous display that looks at playthings they have changed — or not — through the ages.
“Toys are very special objects, given since antiquity at particular moments in a child’s life,” explained Dorothee Charles, one of the two curators of the show, billed as the largest of its kind ever held.
A series of tiny ceramic vases from 400 AD, on loan from the Louvre, were given to children during feasts in honour of Dionysus, and depict the toys of the day — many of which still look familiar to the modern eye.
Since antiquity children’s toys have prepared them for their future role in life, explained Bruno Girveau, co-curator of the show which runs until January 23, heading to the Helsinki Art Museum from February 21 to May 20.
“Little girls were destined to stay in the home, while boys were always expected to leave the home to work, hence the fascination with moving toys.”
From tiny carts and horse-drawn chariots, to luxury scale models of cars, motorbikes, planes and rockets, they take up an entire room with the star exhibit a tiny car loaned from Queen Elizabeth II’s collections.
The child-sized Aston Martin DB5, immortalized in the 1964 James Bond movie Goldfinger, was made to order for Prince Andrew complete with revolving number plates and pop-up bulletproof windshield.
Boy theme number two, of course, is war.
“War toys existed from antiquity up until the 1960s, and until then it wasn’t seen as a problem,” explained Girveau. “For the nobility, they were used to prepare little boys for combat.”
Rare pieces like a child sized suit of armour worn by the French monarch Louis XIII are shown alongside tiny replica SS troops produced in Germany in the interwar years, or original GI Joe dolls in miniature US army jeeps.
“Toys held up a mirror to real-life conflicts, sometimes even exacerbating them.”
Until Vietnam, that is, when the war’s unpopularity led toymakers to shift their focus to imaginary worlds pitting good against evil such as the Ninja Turtles, Girveau said.
“These days there are no known toys based on the Iraq war.”
In a poetic aside, the show features a doll given by his girlfriend to a French World War I soldier to take to the front, complete with stitched uniform and regimental cap.
An amateur photographer, the soldier, Louis Danton, snapped the mascot Toto in dozens of photos — on horseback, on a canon, giving the assault — that document key moments in the Great War.
The irony behind Toto’s story, as the curators explain, is that the French mascot was a dressed-up doll known as a Googly, a well-known collector’s item that was almost certainly German-made.
For little girls, too, the toys given to them since antiquity show how much they were — and in many parts of the world still are — mothers and homemakers in training.
Dating from the 1990s, an Italian-made plastic doll makes the point clear, with a round belly that unclasps to reveal a baby — shown alongside a doll from the first century AD with a similar belly cavity.
Dolls and wendy houses make up the little girl’s universe, with exquisite examples on display, from a 14th-century tea set dug from the bed of the Seine to a contemporary designer doll’s house, all coloured glass and clean lines.
At the luxury end of the spectrum, a pair of life-sized dolls made for the royal princesses Margaret and Elizabeth on a trip to Paris in 1938, came complete with a 360-item trousseau by the finest names in French fashion from Hermes to Cartier.
So what of concerns that toys reinforce gender stereotypes?
With a few exceptions — such as the Barbie doll who scandalised traditionalists in the 1960s with her bold, unmarried lifestyle — Charles argues that it makes little sense to expect toys to break with convention.
“The world of toy reflects what happens in the real world,” she said. “And the truth is women still carry out 80 percent of all housework. The world just hasn’t changed that much.”
Other sections explore the roots of the modern toy industry: a humble 17th-century wooden ship from southern Germany, long the heartland of Western production, illustrates the work of women and children peasants who toiled cruel hours in the run-up to Christmas to produce toys for export merchants.
And a founding legend gets a look-in too: the tale of how the late US president Theodore Roosevelt spared a bear cub on a 1902 hunting trip, inspiring a toymaker to produce a cuddly toy: the first Teddy’s Bear.
Alex has written for Vanity Fair, Barrons, Bloomberg and Condé Nast Traveler.