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With the shadow of war not yet heavy enough to dampen the spirits, Londoners prepared for a magical Christmas in December 1913.
As the pantomime season swung into action so the West End department stores put on an equally dazzling show of toys and decorations that transported children into an enchanting world of fantasy and sparkle.
But despite these lavish displays, it was not the abundant Christmas bazaars of the department stores that caused greatest excitement for London’s children, but rather a trip east to the City where hundreds of the capital’s most ragged and desperate traders lined the streets selling penny toys and novelties from trays around their neck. In 1913, London’s most popular penny toys were made of tinplate and included a mechanical soccer game, a goose on wheels and a miniature game of billiards.
But while tinplate toys were the most sophisticated of the street sellers’ stock in trade, equally popular that year were fancy Japanese paper fans, and miniature animals modelled from the novel new material of celluloid, known today as plastic!
For many children, these penny toys were simply stocking fillers, opened eagerly but with one eye on the larger parcel nearby containing a train set or wax doll from Harrods or Selfridges. For poorer children, a single penny toy was the only present they could expect on Christmas Day. For the juvenile ‘gutter merchants’, the toys they sold were a lifeline: the difference between eating or going hungry that Christmas.
The children who clustered round the varied and plentiful trays of penny toys in 1913 had no idea that such delights would soon become a rarity. With the majority of toys being imported from Germany, France and Japan, the flow of such goods in London was abruptly interrupted with the outbreak of war. The young street hawkers found a new way to earn a living as conscripts on the Front Line and, for many of their child customers, the magic of Christmas was quickly shattered by the realities of war and the fracturing of family life.
Beverley Cook, Curator of Social and Working History, Museum of London