Written by Emily Axelson, 10th Grade Teen Historian
A boy, about five or six years of age, stands clasping the reins of his black pull toy horse, complete with leather reins, saddle, and whip. Dressed in a blue top with lace detailing encircling the neck and wrists and in white pants and small black shoes, the boy stands upon an intricately detailed mustard and brown patterned floor. To his left stands a dashing wood table with a dramatic dark red drape behind it. An aura of power, privilege, and wealth seems to encompass this young boy as he stares at his audience with enthralling deep brown eyes. Although young, he has already “taken the reins” of his life, both figuratively and physically. His name is Willard T. Sears.
Born in New Bedford in 1837 with ancestors on both sides of the family tracing back to the Mayflower, Willard T. Sears grew up with many luxuries that most children did not have. An example of one of these extravagances is his black pull toy horse, as only wealthy families could afford to purchase opulent toys for their children. Furthermore, in families of the lower classes, toys were often family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. This fact would change during the Industrial Revolution starting at around 1840.
Transforming the lives of people around the world, the Industrial Revolution took place in the 19th century. Through the inauguration of factories, creation of inventions, and the resulting development of a middle class, it was a truly distinguished era. These inventions include Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Thomas Edison’s light bulb both of which influence our everyday lives, from how we communicate to how late we stay up at night. Goods were no longer manufactured by hand, as factories replaced everyday craftsmen with mass-manufactured goods utilizing powerful machines and assembly lines. The Industrial Revolution not only altered who produced the goods but also influenced the materials used.
Mr. Sears’ exquisite pre-Industrial Revolution pull toy horse was made of leather, an expensive material of great quality and caliber at the time. However, the Industrial Revolution changed the availability of accessible toys through the use of cheaper materials and labor. Created almost entirely by hand, prior to the Industrial Revolution the formation of a pull toy horse similar to Mr. Sears’ toy would be a time-consuming and labor intensive task, therefore dictating the price of the toy. However, toys generated by machines and factories, combined with the new, more cost efficient materials, such as tin and iron, allowed for less labor and less manufacturing costs. Therefore, a pull toy horse using cheaper materials was much more affordable for lower and middle class families.
The horse pull toy pictured at left, available from the 1860s to 1880s, is an example of a product that was more affordable for the lower class. Compared to the similar horse pull toy pictured with Willard T. Sears, there are many similarities between the two artifacts (the horse standing atop a wheeled cart, some form of a saddle and reins). But there are also many differences – like that the horse here is trotting, whereas Mr. Sears’ horse is in a standing position. Regardless of the differences, there is an obvious correlation between the two and both represent important aspects of society during the 19th century. One horse would be affordable for only the wealthiest of families, however the other, very similar, horse would be affordable for a wider, more inclusive range of people. These two pull toy horses clearly demonstrate the impact of the Industrial Revolution on children’s toys and how more affordable materials created more affordable toys for a much wider range of families compared to families who could afford toys for their children before the Industrial Revolution.
Furthermore, middle class families wanted the same ideals for their children that the horse represented for the very wealthy. In his portrait, Willard T. Sears is not only taking the reins of his pull toy horse but is also “taking the reins” of his future, a role filled with responsibility and importance. It can be inferred that the positioning of Mr. Sears’ hands on both the horse whip and reins is not a random occurrence but a deliberate act. Willard’s very wealthy parents wanted their child to lead a successful life filled with power and leadership. This desire is portrayed through Willard’s stance and hand positioning throughout his portrait. But the aspiration by parents for their children to succeed is not an inclination reserved for only the very wealthy. Middle class parents coveted success for their children as much as upper class parents, the only great difference between the two being money. Prior to the availability of less expensive toys, goods, and materials, only wealthy families could afford all the best for their children. Therefore, the Industrial Revolution not only created toys and goods that the middle class could afford, but it also put the dream of upward mobility in their grasps.
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