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How they Played: Children and Construction Toys (ca. 1840–1940)

Funded by

DFG – German Research Foundation

Edited by

Project description

Construction toys kept in museums and collections, and their accompanying material such as packaging and instruction manuals, are used as original sources in order to evaluate the emergence of construction sets from the middle of the 19th century until the Second World War and their significance in technological modernity. Conceptually, the project lies at the intersection of a culturally-oriented history of technology with design history and the history of play.

Technology in Everyday Life

The project employs an object-based methodology and brings to the fore hidden or neglected aspects of everyday life. The study of construction sets and technology-inspired play contributes to understanding modern societies in which technological change dominates, causing excitement and enthusiasm, but also fear and frustration.

The User Perspective

The project analyses construction sets from the perspective of users, especially children. The so far under-researched perspective of children is juxtaposed with the intentions of adults (parents, educators, designers, producers, retailers). The research illuminates the behaviour of young users versus the disciplinary and normative features of construction sets. The project focuses on the reception of technical toys and aims to fill the relevant research gap. Overall, the project outcome will contribute to the understanding of technological modernity, the impact of consumerism and the autonomy of the individual.


  • Göttingen, Georg-August Uni, »Imagines VII - Playful Classics«, 5-6.03.2021: Playfully Rebuilding the Past: Construction Sets Inspired by Greek Antiquity.
  • Salzburg, Universität Salzburg, Tagung »Mit Geschichte spielen: Zur materiellen Kultur von Spielzeug und Spielen als Darstellung der Vergangenheit«, 13.-15.11.2019: Building a Mini-Parthenon: Experiences of Users.
  • Kattowitz, University of Silesia, »46th Symposium of ICOHTEC, the International Committee for the History of Technology«, 22.-27.7.2019: Toy Robots: Playing with Humanity’s Fears.
  • München, LMU/Museum Mensch und Natur, Interdisziplinäre Tagung »Objects and Organisms. Vivification, Reification, Transformation«, 12.-13.7.2019: Playful Control: The Example of Anthropomorphic Toy Robots.
  • München, Oberseminar der Technikgeschichte der TUM und des Forschungsinstituts des Deutschen Museums, 5.11.2018, Technology and Play (DFG Project): Update on Research Directions and Findings.
  • London, The Courtauld Institute of Art, »Sites of Interchange: Modernism, Politics, and Culture in Britain and Germany, 1919–1951«, 2.-3.11.2018: Play, Design, Politics: Technical Toys, Design Policies and British-German Exchanges in the First Half of the 20th Century.
  • Berlin, Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Workshop »The Multifaceted Relationship between Fear and Technology«, 10.-12.10.2018: Robots and Bricks: Using Play to Cope with a Menacing Technological Future.
  • Paris, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, »ITRA 8th World Conference Toys and Material Culture: Hybridisation, Design and Consumption«, 11.-13.7.2018: Play for the Future Citizen: Shaping Ideal Adults through Construction Toys (19th – 20th c.).
  • Birmingham, University of Birmingham, »Transitions: Bridging the Victorian-Modernist Divide«, 9.-10.4.2018: Geometry and Colour across the Victorian-Modernist Divide.
  • Philadelphia, SHOT Jahrestagung, 26.-29.10.2017: Technology, Play, Participation: Construction Toys and the Shaping of Ideal Citizens (19th – 20th c.).
  • Dundee/St Andrews, University, Centenary Conference »On Growth and Form 100«, 13.-15.10.2017: Where Biology Meets Construction and Play: D’Arcy Thompson and the Continuum of Knowledge.
  • Paris, Musée des Arts et Métiers, Artefacts XXII »What Work for What Object? Gestures, Savoir-faire and Body Culture in Museums of Science and Technology«, 8.-10.10.2017: Between Play and Work: Developing Professional Skills and Attitudes through Construction Toys.
  • München, Oberseminar der Technikgeschichte der TUM und des Forschungsinstituts des Deutschen Museums, 21.11.2016, Children, Adults, and Technical Toys (ca. 1840–1940): Research Aims and Challenges.
  • London, Science Museum Dana Research Centre and Library, Artefacts XXI »Understanding Use: Science and Technology Objects and Users«, 2.-4.10.2016: How did they Play? Children and Construction Sets (ca.1830-1940).
  • Porto, Universidade do Porto, »43rd Symposium of ICOHTEC - International Committee for the History of Technology«, 26.-30.7.2016: Shaping the Future through Play: Construction Sets and their Manuals (late 19th-early 20th Centuries).
  • Thessaloniki, HELEXPO Nikolaos Germanos Congress Centre, »6th International Conference on Typography and Visual Communication«, 5.-9.7.2016: Visual Propaganda for Children: The Example of Technical Toys.


  • Play, Design, Politics: Technical Toys, Design Policies and British-German Exchanges in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. In: Wasensteiner, L. (Hg.), Sites of Interchange. London (erscheint 2021).
  • Building a Mini-Parthenon: Experiences of Users. In: Kühberger, C. (Hg): Mit Geschichte spielen. Bielefeld 2021, 337-353.
  • The Other Side of Play: Fear and Frustration in the Design, Consumption, and Use of Construction Sets. In: Journal of Design History 33:3 (2020), S. 193-208.
  • More than a Toy Box: Dandanah and the Sea of Stories. In: Bauer, S.; Schlünder, M.; Rentetzi, M. (Hg.): Boxes: A Field Guide. Manchester 2020, S. 202-212.
  • Spielerisches Bauen und Konstruieren: Technische Baukästen im Deutschen Museum. In: Kultur &Technik 42 (2018), H. 4, S. 46–51.
  • The collection of technical toys in the Deutsches Museum, Munich. In: Design Issues 32:1 (2016), S. 87-92.
  • Gürpınar, A.; Yagou, A.; Timur Öğüt, S.: Tactics of Cultural Adaptation: Design and Production Characteristics of Toys in Istanbul. In: The Design Journal 19:3 (2016), S. 451-472.

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