War Increases Toy Soldier Sales Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This document is an article that first appeared in the New York Times in April 1915, approximately nine months after World War I broke out in Europe. The impact of the Great War, as it was known at that time, was enormous, and strongly felt in the United States, even though the nation would not enter the war for two more years. Children were in no way exempt from the atmosphere of war, and, as this article relates, the heroic image of the soldier soared as war stories made their way back from Europe. Companies leapt into action in order to provide the best and most popular toys to children, who migrated away from less aggressive games to ones concerning battle tactics. At the same time, the toy soldier underwent a make-over of sorts in order to integrate the various nationalities participating in World War I and inspiring children to take part, even though only in their imaginations.

Summary Overview

This document is an article that first appeared in the New York Times in April 1915, approximately nine months after World War I broke out in Europe. The impact of the Great War, as it was known at that time, was enormous, and strongly felt in the United States, even though the nation would not enter the war for two more years. Children were in no way exempt from the atmosphere of war, and, as this article relates, the heroic image of the soldier soared as war stories made their way back from Europe. Companies leapt into action in order to provide the best and most popular toys to children, who migrated away from less aggressive games to ones concerning battle tactics. At the same time, the toy soldier underwent a make-over of sorts in order to integrate the various nationalities participating in World War I and inspiring children to take part, even though only in their imaginations.

Defining Moment

This document was written in response to the vastly changing moral and social structures in the post-Victorian Era, what is now known as the Progressive Era, and in reaction to the Great War. This period of time saw the creation and rise of early feminism, with the term first being coined in the late 1800’s, allowing women, such as author Parsons, to speak their minds openly about such subjects as child rearing. While Parsons mainly focuses on the subject of increasing toy soldiers’ sales to children, she also reveals the problems inherent in a society that is idealizing soldiers, whose unfortunate task it is to kill other men. Parsons clearly identifies as a pacifist, which also adds to her dislike of integrating war into the daily lives of children. She does not single out parents as building this attitude, but rather sees it as a society issue: even toy companies are using the war to turn a profit and doing so without properly considering the possible risks to children.

The audience for such a piece would have been quite wide, as it was published in a large and well-respected newspaper. Those, however, who took Parsons’ case seriously were likely a smaller minority. As a woman, even at a time when women were beginning to speak their mind more openly, Parsons would be given less attention, in general, than a man who espoused the same or similar ideas. Because, moreover, she was dealing with children’s toys and pacifist ideas about how to raise children, the essay remains centered on so-called women’s work, likely preventing most men from either reading the piece or taking it very seriously if they did. The importance of Parsons’ view, though, should not be overlooked by modern readers. Understanding the ways in which World War I had an effect on every life allows us to appreciate the enormity of the war effort, reaching, through stories and rumors, American children years before the United States became actively involved. In every war, there are those who do not believe in the fighting and who dissent from popular opinions. Parsons, in this article, shows how pacifism was a legitimate opinion about the war, yet she did not condemn the soldiers fighting it or disparage any others who were involved. She simply states her opinion that the war should be kept away from children as much as possible, as fighting and killing is not a glorious task to be idolized, but instead a terrible one to be avoided.

Author Biography

Author Elsie Clews Parsons is best known for her work as an anthropologist and in the field of folklore. Born in 1875, Parsons graduated from Barnard College, received her doctorate from Columbia University and centered most of her research on the folklore of Native Americans, Africans, African Americans, and people from the Caribbean. She was also greatly interested in gender roles and societal expectations and conventions. Her concentration on social roles is explicit in this article, as she examines how the ideal of the soldier is implanted in children at a very young age. Her interests were at odds with the conservative world from which she came. Parsons had been born into an upper-class and wealthy New York family and had married a politically-inclined lawyer, Herbert Parsons. Some of her work, both literary and as a feminist and a pacifist, brought embarrassment to her family, causing her to write several books and articles under a masculine pen name. This never deterred her, however, from pursuing her work. She died in 1941.

Document Analysis

This document provides a brief overview of toy sales during World War I, which at first glance seems to be a fairly insignificant part of understanding the Great War. Upon closer examination, however, the document reviews pacifist ideas about the war, raising children, and the heroic ideal in the early years of the twentieth century. Reading around the basic story shows one woman’s views on the commercialization of the war and how that could have a negative effect on children, especially as they do not understand the horrors that accompany it.

Toy companies at this time worked to capitalize on several aspects of the war–the first being a lack of toy soldiers on the market, as most of them previously had been manufactured in Germany, and now had to be produced elsewhere. Also, the increasing commonness of soldiers in a child’s life made the toy replicas even more exciting and popular. It would seem that familiarity bred more interest, as is indicated by the article’s report of sales rising from “the rate of three million a year before the war to five million since,” a nearly seventy-percent increase in a very short amount of time. Another aspect of the war is a better understanding at a younger age of what goes on during war time. Toy companies used this to alter already existing games, simply following the trend set by increasing sales.

Parsons’ own views on such trends become clear in the following paragraphs where she makes an argument that the countries that produce war-themed toys are, in fact, the most violent. She is specifically referring to Germany and the fact that they produced and exported toy soldiers. Parsons was a strict pacifist and as such deemed such toys detrimental to the minds of children: “Taking war for granted, must they not habituate to it the mind of a child?” She worried that allowing children to become used to violence in play would make them more prone to violence in reality. This argument is one that continues today, although the focus is on video games and violent television shows.

The last issue Parsons explains is making “early associations” between the heroic ideal and soldiers. Parsons thinks that a mother teaching her son that being a good boy and acting like a soldier creates a dangerous connection, for the same reasons that allowing them to play with violent toys does. Parsons would rather that they idolize engineers or miners, who create something instead of being destructive. This may seem a harsh condemnation of soldiers, but Parsons is more worried about the safety of children who worship, in her opinion, unsuitable men whose unfortunate job is to kill another. Parsons knows that mothers are trying to instill “poise and self-respect, bravery and virtue” in their children, but she is sure that there must be a better way to do so. Many of the alternatives she provides, unfortunately, lack the glamour of the ideal soldier-hero. Parsons undoubtedly knows, as well, that that ideal is too often a myth.

Essential Themes

The reception and short-term effect of this article are hard to determine, but opinion was most likely divided. Those who felt similarly to Parsons would have agreed that the capitalist interests of the toy companies were putting profit ahead of what was best for the children. Those, on the other hand, who disagreed with her would have argued that soldiers were brave men fighting for their country and were excellent role models for young children. As toy soldiers and toy guns continue to be big business in the modern world, at least some of the second type of opinion holder must have made themselves heard. Parsons did not agree with the idea of exposing children to violence, but World War I was just beginning as far as twentieth-century wars are concerned. Pacifist ideas continued during and after the Great War, but their effect on the war effort and the country at large seems to have been negligible. When, for example, the surviving soldiers returned victorious from their time abroad, the heroic ideal became reified (or made real), even as many did not return or returned home wounded in body and mind.

Parsons’ article has lasting significance in that it deals with many of the same issues about childrearing that parents and socially-minded individuals deal with today. Do violent toys and games make people act more violently? Is it healthy to desensitize children to violence through those kinds of toys? There seem to be no clear answers, which even Parsons herself understands. Understanding what makes a person violent is an underdeveloped area of science, as each person reacts differently to the things he or she sees and experiences. Until this area of behavioral science is better understood, arguments such as Parsons’ will continue to be made.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cady, Duane. From Warism to Pacifism: A Moral Continuum. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2010. Print.
  • Deacon, Desley. Elsie Clews Parsons. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997. Print.
  • Early, Frances H. A World Without War: How U.S. Feminists and Pacifists Resisted World War I. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1997. Print.
  • Keller, Christian B. “More than Child’s Play: War Toys in the Modern World.” Semiotics (1998): 13–21.
Categories: History Content