UMass English Professor John Nelson Explores Technology of American Folk Toys

May 19, 1998

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AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts English professor John Nelson combines the best of the past and the future. As head of the Professional Writing and Technical Communication Program at the University, he has been preparing students for the rapidly evolving field of "tech-writing" for nearly nine years. At the same time, Nelson has been keeping one eye firmly fixed on the past, pursuing hobbies such as antique clock repair and woodworking with a passion that has made him an expert in the field.

Nelson’s latest accomplishment – "American Folk Toys: Easy-to-Build Toys for Kids of All Ages" (Taunton Press, 1998) – speaks to both his interests. At once a guide to re-creating entertainments of the past and an homage to the marvels of folk technology, it celebrates what has come before in an effort to preserve it for the future. "This book draws upon a significant but oft-forgotten tradition in American folk history – folk toys, which began delighting American children over two centuries ago," says Nelson. "Folk toys are simple, yet often very ingenious in design and operation. Most were invented and made by men and women with few tools, little space, and precious little money, to touch a child’s imagination and fancy."

Exploring the origins of folk toys in America, Nelson shows how these early playthings reveal the country’s changing attitudes toward childhood in general. The almost complete absence of toys until 1750 in New England was highly unusual, he says, especially considering the fact that toys were then common in much of western Europe. "The Puritans viewed children so differently from the way we do now that the terms ‘child’ and ‘childhood’ seem irrelevant in much of pre-Revolutionary American life," Nelson says. "To make infants stand erect and adult-like as early as possible, the Puritans did everything from forcibly straightening toddlers’ limbs, to wrapping them in swaddling, a three-piece equivalent of a strait jacket."

With the coming of political and cultural revolutions in the latter part of the 18th century, these views of childhood were cast aside, and a liberalized conception of play joined by an extended period of toy-making began. Colorful creations with evocative names such as the whimmydiddle, Jacob’s ladder, and limberjack appeared, drawing on Native-American, European, and Asian traditions. In exploring the history of these toys, Nelson shows both their social significance, and their function as folk art and culture. "After collecting American folk toys for 25 years, I’m convinced that the best of them have soul," he says. "They have a wryness and robustness that says, ‘Reach out and touch me, give me a spin, a twist, a breeze, and I will connect with you.’ And that connection does not diminish after a day, a week, a year – or even now, two centuries later."