The babies-of-different-races-and-white-soldiers toy genre

Toy with balls, babies of different races, white policemen

Why does my cringe list contain so many toys or toy-like objects? I like many toys. But not really this one. This toy was in the house for as long as I can remember while my sisters and I were growing up. It arrived as a hand-me-down but no one could remember from where or whom. It’s stamped “Made In Germany” on the bottom, so I would date it at pre-WWII. Any guesses as to the decade? It’s very well made, very sturdy, and the pieces spin and slide very smoothly. Somehow this makes the whole scenario all the weirder, and I can remember we found it absurd and quite creepy as children in the 1970s. Why were the babies all screaming? Is it because they dislike being spun around? Is it because they hit the beads above when you spin them? Were the policeman or toy soldiers meant to be guarding babies, or were they out searching for lost babies—or as friends have suggested, for criminal babies? How many soldiers or policemen does it take to find 5 babies, and more pressingly, how will they ever get to them? We could not figure out why there is only one black baby, and more pertinently, why there are no black soldiers. Is this colonial village as abacus? Does it represent a linear progression, with pastel eggs hatching into babies who then grew up to be soldiers? What happened to the black baby when it grew up; isn’t it eligible for the army? Why does it have a blanket of a different colour? If those aren’t soldiers or policemen, what are they? Baby abductors? Construction workers from different teams? What belonged in all those peg holes underneath? Was the main purpose of this object to hone a child’s narrative skills or forensic skills? These and many other questions. It seemed as if there was a lot going on here, and some of it perhaps not very nice. And then there was the sickly colour scheme. It still bothers me to look at this thing, and still I can’t bring myself to throw it out. It’s as if some forensic expert or anthropologist might need it someday. But you could say that about a hell of a lot of toys.

9 comments on "The babies-of-different-races-and-white-soldiers toy genre"

  1. What a strange toy. I have sat here trying to make logical sense of it. It’s German so it must have some logical purpose to it, but what? Each band has five pieces and there are ten holes at the bottom. Is it a child’s abacus?

    I’m sure it is an innocent enough educational toy, though because it is German and pre WWII/Nazi, it does make it unsettling, but perhaps we are adding 2+2 and getting 5!

  2. I guess so. You are looking for some intelligence behind it. I’d rather think it is too early to be from the Nazi era and too abstract. I feel like connecting it with some bauhaus design ideas. In this case, the helmets are just decorative shapes, compare with Oskar Schlemmer. “Triadisches Ballett”. Babies cry because it is their job.
    A Nazi toy would probably not have included a black child. They pretended that something unwanted simply wasn’t there, I believe.
    There is a tradition of highly abstract folk art from the mountain range “Erzgebirge” between Germany and Tchechoslovakia.

  3. I think you should keep it, it might be interesting for someone who collects these things, see lower link; the gentleman is a collector and also produces series like this. If you need translation, I’ll gladly try to be helpful.
    (this doesn’t need to be published)

  4. Actually, I really wasn’t implying the toy was Nazi. North American toys from this period were very similar at least on the race question – there were plenty of weird examples. I don’t think German toys were special in this regard. I only mentioned the stamp because it conveniently allows the object to be dated as pre-WWII. And I agree with Eva’s comment that someone with Nazi sympathies would probably not include a black baby. (Thanks for the links; I did think those toys looked much more classically Nutcracker Suite than this one, but bauhaus made more sense.) I thought abacus too, and that makes the most sense, but then what are the holes for? The thing about design though is that sometimes you seek meaning where there is none and that could well be the case here. But when you look at an object for this long you eventually start wondering. I still have questions. Why would a German toy show policemen who look more like English Bobbies than anything? Or are those steel helmets? Or just toques? Where are the women? Why men and babies? As a child, I found it completely inexplicable. Maybe it’s a case of having a variety of little spinning figures left over in the factory and they just randomly added them to these generic frames, but I can never quite believe in the “random” explanation. When’s a cigar just a cigar?

  5. I wasn’t implying that the toy was of Nazi origin. What I meant was that it is sometimes difficult to see Germany before WWII without a nazi dynamic. For example, we can talk about the Bauhaus and design, but the issue of politics and Nazi conflict with the Bauhaus will always be a part of the Bauhaus, there is no avoiding it.

    If this toy had been produced in pre WWII Britain then we might be making suggestions about the British colonial attitude to their Empire, the same with France. If it was American, then there would be other issues, what does the black baby really mean? etc.

    I suppose what I am trying to say is that we can sometimes read more into a ‘made in…’ label because we have preconceived ideas and attitudes towards the history or culture of that country, despite trying our best not to, and of course sometimes a wooden toy is just a wooden toy.

  6. A very interesting debate. These symbolic connections might be there, although not intended. The basic theme seems to be something that most people aren’t aware of, as long as it is happening: Zeitgeist. I’m not yet convinced that the beings below the babies are male; the idea that these things might be leftovers of some toy factory is quite charming. The ten holes are inexplicable unless this is a long forgotten game.

Leave a comment