Kays’ Autumn/Winter catalogue for 1952 is 228 pages long and has 11 pages of toys. Quite a few of them seem rather serious.
There’s an ‘Aluminium Kitchen Set’, a ‘”Harrow Junior” Fishing Outfit’ (‘strong’ and ‘reliable’), ‘Students’ Water Colours’, a ‘Palitoy Safety Sewing Machine’ (‘a practical little machine that does a real job of work’), and both a ‘Carpenter’s Tool Set’ and a ‘”Merit” Fretwork Outfit’ — real, if child-sized, tool sets, which are however still marketed as ‘Popular Presents for Christmas or Birthday’. (Get your offspring to fix your household goods!)
Even the dolls seem to have a vocational element. They are, according to the catalogue, ‘For Little Mothers’ — as if their young owners were going to use them for a practice run at parenthood. The smaller print, however, shows an awareness that not all children are quite so responsible. The ‘Newborn Baby Doll’, Kays say, ‘will take a lot of knocking about even from the youngest member of the family’.
The vocational theme fits in with a general sense that Kays in 1952 believed that children wanted to be like their parents, and would be delighted by toy versions of adults’ possessions. Hence the Autumn/Winter catalogue’s ‘Kid-E-Phone’ toy gramophone, toy cash register and toy television.
There’s also a ‘Double barrel Shot Gun’, apparently ‘modelled just like the one father uses’. It’s made of ‘heavy gauge metal’ and ‘highly polished hardwood’, and features ‘independent trigger action’. Only at the end of the product description do Kays reveal that the gun fires corks, not bullets.
On a less combat-ready note, I do quite like the look of the train sets. One is electric, but battery powered. Kays reassure there customers that there is ‘no mains connections’ and that the train set is ‘therefore 100 per cent. safe’.
By far the majority of British homes would have had electricity by this point. It was becoming a part of everyday life. But an advertisement for a non-electric vacuum cleaner, also in the Autumn/Winter 1952 catalogue, shows that electricity could still worry people. Opt for the non-electric vacuum, and you get ‘No wire! No sparks!! No shocks!!!’ (And it’s cheaper.)
Finally, one thing that struck me about the toys pages in this catalogue was how few pictures there are of children. There are three small line drawings of girls with toys, two colour illustrations of boys in cowboy outfits, and that’s it: all the other pictures are of toys without owners.
I had a look at the children’s clothing sections in the same catalogue, where, as you might expect, pictures of children feature quite heavily. These are all illustrations, not photos — unlike many of the adults’ clothing pages, which make use of touched up photography. Perhaps this is why the children don’t seem quite natural, or perhaps it’s because very few of them are doing anything that looks at all like play. Some are holding toys, it’s true, but they seem puzzled, as if no one has told them what a toy is for. They all look rather frighteningly well-behaved.
I wonder how accurate a reflection this is of childhood in 1952.