Queen Victoria’s reign began in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. This period is often described as an age of rapid change, and many breakthroughs were achieved in terms of scientific thought and industrial innovation and design.
Here is a list of some of the inventions that were developed during the Victorian period (both in the UK and overseas) and the inventors behind them.
1839 – The process of rubber vulcanization was invented by Charles Goodyear, the first pedal bicycle was produced by Kirkpatrick Macmillan, and the first paddle steamship was made by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
1841 – The stapler is invented by Samuel Slocum.
1842 – The first grain elevator is constructed by Joseph Dart.
Although Victorian children from rich families had more toys than those from poor families, even they didn’t have access to the range of different toys available to today’s children.
Many Victorians lived in cramped conditions, and there simply wasn’t the space for the children to play indoors. As a result, many popular Victorian toys were designed to be played with outside.
Victorian toys were often much simpler than the toys of today, and they often required the children playing with them to use their imagination to get the most out of them.
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The 19th century opened up a new realm of play for children all over Europe and the United States. It was the first time that children began to have time to play and to have lives that resemble those of modern day children.
Alysha M Paige (Boston Children’s Museum)
Different Types of Victorian Toys
With wooden handles and cotton cord ropes, skipping ropes were a very common toy in the Victorian era. Predominately played with by girls, a Victorian skipping rope’s handles were sometimes decorated with paint, and the more expensive versions sometimes had metal fittings at the end to stop the handle from getting worn. The rope usually passed through the centre of the handle and was tied off with a knot at the end.
Many of the skipping ropes manufactured in Britain in Victorian times were exported to other countries.
Victorian Toy Soldiers
For most of the Victorian period, toy soldiers were made from solid lead or tin and most were imported from Germany or France. As a result, they were expensive and they were mostly the play-things of the wealthiest children.
In 1893, William Britain perfected a method to create hollow metal toy soldiers. This dramatically reduced the price of the figures and resulted in an increase in sales throughout all social classes.
Victorian toy soldiers were considered to be a boy’s toys, and they were usually purchased already painted.
Marbles in the Victorian era were either made from glass or clay?? Marble scissors were developed in the 1840s in Germany as a manufacturing tool for shaping blown glass marbles, and ceramic (china clay) marbles were also produced. China marbles didn’t chip as frequently as glass marbles did, and they were often glazed or painted in bright colors and with intricate patterns. Glass marbles were also highly decorative.
The cheapest marbles were made from clay. They were unglazed and were sometimes painted, usually in a single colour.
Some marbles were also ground down from small cubes of limestone. These marbles were heavier than the common clay marbles, and they were often not completely spherical.
Ring Taw was the most commonly-played game using marbles in Victorian times, It involved treating a ring on the ground with chalk, and placing marbles inside the circle. Players then took turns flicking other marbles at the marbles in the ring, trying to knock as many of them as possible outside of the circle.
Clay marbles were the most common, whereas the more expensive china and glass marbles would only have been played with by the children of rich families.
Victorian Building Blocks
Just like today, young Victorian children enjoyed playing with building blocks. Made from wood, and sometimes decorated with painted letters of the alphabet, Victorian building blocks were often homemade, but they could also be purchased in sets contained in wooden storage boxes.
Some of the building block sets were more elaborate than the standard wooden cubes. They were shaped into columns and windows, allowing the child to create more realistic-looking buildings.
Victorian Children’s Tea Sets
Made from either porcelain or faience (glazed ceramic ware), tea sets became increasingly popular around the middle of the 19th century. Children’s tea sets resembled regular tableware and all of the items (the cups, saucers, and teapots, for example), were fully functional. The only difference was that they had been resized to fit the hands of a child.
Mostly played with by girls, in the early years of the Victorian period, the rich could afford childrens’ tea sets. But, as demand increased, tea sets became more affordable, and companies that had once only focused on making adult-sized tableware began to mass-produce tea sets for the toy industry.
Victorian Rolling Hoops
Either made of iron or wood (usually ash), Victorian rolling hoops were incredibly popular, and they were played with by both boys and girls.
They were used to carry out an activity called hoop rolling, hoop bowling, or hoop trundling. The aim was to propel the hoop by rolling it, using careful touches of a stick to maintain its course.
Getting a wooden hoop to trundle with a stick was quite easy, but it was hard to make it turn sharp corners. Metal hoops were often controlled by hooked sticks. It took longer to learn how to control a hoop with a hook, but once mastered, it allowed for more dramatic maneuvers. Some children became so good at hoop trundling they could make their hoops turn ninety degrees, or complete tight circles without them toppling over.
Girls mostly used wooden hoops, whereas boys tended to favour metal ones.
From the 1840s, some Londoners complained about the ‘Hoop Nuisanse’, and for a while, due to the number of shin injuries given to pedestrians by out-of-control hoops, London’s police started to confiscate iron hoops being trundled in the city’s streets and parks. The mathematician Charles Babbage was particularly against children playing with hoops because he was worried that the toy would get tangled in the legs of horses, potentially causing injuries to both horse and rider.
Kaleidoscopes were telescope-shaped optical devices used to generate beautiful symmetrical patterns (by means of mirrors and pieces of cloured glass) seen when you look through the lens. The pattern could be altered by rotating the tube, causing the pieces of glass to shift their positions.
Invented in the early part of the 19th century by David Brewster, kaleidoscopes quickly became a popular craze the ‘kaleidoscope mania’ continued into the first few years of the Victorian period. Kaleidoscopes started out as objects made for everyone, and they only really became a toy exclusively for children later on in the 19th century and the early-20th century.
In the early-Victorian era, kaleidoscopes would have been a common sight on the streets of the UK’s towns and cities. People used to use kaleidoscopes when they were walking, and there are lots of historical reports of people bumping into things as a result of not looking where they were going.
By the middle of the 19th century, the demand for kaleidoscopes had dropped, and rather than being made-to-be handheld, mobile items, kaleidoscopes were produced with stands and were sold as curiosity pieces for Victorian parlours.
Victorian Rocking Horses
Wooden rocking horses were popular in Victorian Britain, but although they were being mass-produced in the latter part of the nineteenth century, rocking horses were an expensive toy and would only have been found in the homes of wealthy families.
The horse’s body was made from wood and it could be rocked backward and forwards on a pair of wide bow rockers by a child astride the horse’s back. The saddle was usually made from leather, and the horse’s mane and tail were often made from real horsehair.
In 1880, a safety stand was introduced, and rocking horses were made hollow to reduce their weight, further increasing their stability.
Some rocking horses were even fitted with a secret compartment accessible from the horse’s underbelly.
Most rocking horses manufactured during the Victorian era were painted a dappled grey colour.
Dolls were made from a range of different materials in the Victorian era, such as wood, cloth, wax, composition (a mixture of sawdust and glue), papier-mache, and porcelain.
The most expensive dolls were the ones made from porcelain, and they were crafted by companies such as Germany’s Dressel and Schilling.
Most dolls from this era were smaller than the dolls of today and were made to resemble girls, young women, or babies. They often had highly-detailed and lavishly-decorated clothes, representing the fashion of the time.
Augusta Montana, an English doll-maker, brought out a range of dolls inspired by Queen Victoria’s children.
Other dolls represented professions. Ballet dancer dolls and nurse dolls, for example, were very popular.
Pull dolls, were dolls with mechanical functions. Children could open and close the pull doll’s eyes by tugging on a wire running down the back of the doll from its head.
Victorian Dolls’ Houses
Victorian dolls’ houses were incredibly realistic and straddled the line between display piece and toy. For most of the Victorian period, although the dolls’ houses were manufactured in the UK, much of the miniature furniture was made in France and Germany and had to be imported.
Dolls’ houses were very expensive toys, and only the children from wealthy households would have had been lucky enough to have had one to play with.
By the end of the 19th century, factory-made dolls’ houses were available, but even though they were often poorly constructed compared to the handcrafted alternatives, their prices were still beyond the budget of many ordinary families.
A spinning top is a toy with a sharp point at the bottom and a squat body. It can be spun on its point, and due to the gyroscopic effect, it will remain in motion until it loses energy and topples.
Brightly coloured snipping tops were popular toys in Victorian England. Constructed from wood or tin, Victorian spinning tops were mostly designed to be set in motion with a twirl of the fingers, but some were made to spin by pulling a cord coiled around the body of the spinning top. These were known as whip tops (or whip and tops).
Victorian Toy Theatres
Made from paperboard, toy theatres could be purchased both plain (to be coloured at home) or already decorated. They were sold at theatres and toy shops. The size of toy theatres varied, but most were between 20 cm and 40 cm wide.
Paper sheets, usually consisting of four actors (or one actor in four different poses) and some scenery, based on the most popular Victorian theatre productions of the day, could be purchased along with an abbreviated script booklet, so that the play could be reenacted in a toy theatre. The actors and scenery were either black and white (to be coloured by the person who bought the sheet) or pre-coloured, and they were usually cut out and pasted to card and then attached to wire slides so that they could be used with a toy theatre.
Oil lamps were often used to provide dramatic toy theatre lighting.
Toy theatres were bought by both children and adults. Many of them were built, but never played with, and were viewed as items of theatre memorabilia than true toys.
Famous toy theatre shops included W.G. Webb (Finsbury, London), and Benjamin Pollock (a business that still exists today in the form of Pollock’s Toy Museum in Scala Street, London).
The popularity of toy theatres started to diminish in the 1870s.
Thaumatropes were optical toys. A card disk was attached to two pieces of string at its edges. When the string was pulled taut and twirled in the fingers, the disk would pin and the images on either side of the disk would appear to merge.
The designs varies, but popular ones included bare tree / tree in bloom, bird / cage, empty vase / flowers.
In addition to combining images, thaumatropes could also be used (like a simple flipbook) to suggest motion.
Cup and Ball
As the name suggests, this toy consisted of a wooden (or in some cases, ivory) cup on a stick with a ball on a string attached to the stick. The idea was to flip the ball up and catch it in the cup.
These toys varied in size. Some were less than 10 cm tall and had a ball made from a large bead. Others were more than 30 cm tall and included a golf ball-sized ball.
Cup and ball toys could be simply made, but many were decorated with carving and painted in bright colours.
Victorian footballs were made from leather and had laces to keep the ball together. They used to absorb water, becoming really dense and painful to head in wet conditions.
Those who couldn’t afford a real football made their own out of bundled sheets or rags.
Victorian Board Games
In addition to the classic games of chess, draughts, dominoes, and backgammon, dozens of other board games and tabletop games were invented during the Victorian period. These included Ludo (based on an Indian game and patented by Alfred Collier in 1981), Maricout (1882), Chinese Chequers (also known as Halma), Asalto, an early version of the Game of Life, Hoppity, Reversi, Agon, and Bizingo.
Other tabletop games included magnetic fishing, tiddlywinks, spillikins (pick up sticks), snakes and ladders, and lots of cards games (whist was particularly popular).
What toys did poor Victorian children play with?
Children from poor families in Victorian Britain would’ve had cheaper (usually homemade) versions of some of the toys owned by the children of the rich. For example, dolls made from cloth rather than porcelain, clay marbles rather than ones made from glass, footballs made from balled rags, simply carved cup and ball games, and spinning tops. And obviously, there would be some toys that the Victorian poor could only dream of. Elaborately decorated and furnished dolls’ houses, for example, and optical toys, and painted sets of toy soldiers.
What outdoor games did the Victorians play?
Much of the Victorian child’s play took place outside. Skipping ropes, rolling hoops, and skipping ropes would all have been used outside of the house, but they also played a lot of ‘playground games’ too. Hopscotch (with a numbered grid chalked onto the street) was popular, as were games like Blind Man’s Buff, and lots of different versions of chases games and tag.
What was the most popular Victorian toy?
The kaleidoscope craze in Britain had started to wane during the reign of Queen Victoria, so the most popular toy during this period would have been one that could be played by rich and poor alike. Because the game required several of them in order to play it, there were probably more marbles produced during the Victorian era than any other toy. Rolling hops, quoits (an early form of ring toss), and skittles were also very popular.
James Starley was born in the Sussex village, Albourne, in 1830.
When he was nine years old, he started to work on his father’s farm.
He invented ingenious ways of catching rats on the farm, using parts from an umbrella and willow branches.
When he was a teenager, he moved to Lewisham, London. He found work as a gardener, but made extra money by mending watches and inventing things to solve problems.
One of his early inventions was a device that allowed a duck to pass through a gap in a fence, but stopped rats from following it.
James Starley fixed his employer’s sewing machine and then improved its design, and this led to him getting a job with Josiah Turner, a partner of the men who had manufactured the sewing machine.
Around 1860, James Starley and Josiah Turner started their own company, the Coventry Sewing Machine Company.
By 1868, the company was producing bicycles. It soon became one of the key companies at the centre of the British bicycle industry.
With William Hardy, James Starley made a version of the penny-farthing.
The company’s most famous bike was the Ariel, made from all metal and released in 1870.
James Starley was constantly looking for ways to make his products better and more efficient. He invented the tangent spoke wheel, and differential gears (used in the manufacture of cars today) and he came up with ways to perfect the bicycle chain drive.
He married Jane Todd and they had a son called William Starley.
James Starley died in Coventry in 1881. He was 51 years old.
His son and nephew, John Kemp Starley, carried on making bicycles after James’ death. John Kemp Starley went on to make the Rover Safety Bicycle.
James Starley is sometimes known as “the father of the bicycle industry”.
Starley’s factory in Coventry is now home to the Museum of British Road Transport.
In a 1999 vote, James Starley was voted the third most important person in Coventry’s history.
Prince Albert was the husband of Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Victoria. They were married for 21 years until his death in 1861 at age 42.
Albert was born in Germany on August 26th, 1819 and studied music, art history, law and philosophy. It was decided he would make a suitable husband for Queen Victoria and they were married in 1840.
In 1841 he became chairman of the Royal Commission, set up to promote the arts. He became a successful art collector, buying valuable and quality paintings.
Albert was good with the Royal finances and by 1844 had enough money to buy a house on the Isle of Wight for the family. Osborne House was designed to look like an Italian villa.
At first Prince Albert was not really poplar with the British people. He became the Queen’s private secretary after the death of the Prime Minister in 1848, and this helped to improve his public image.
Prince Albert helped to organize the Great Exhibition of 1851 to celebrate the might of the British Empire. He used money from the exhibition to build some of London’s museums.
The Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852. It was originally referred to as the Museum of Manufactures, and then the South Kensington Museum before gaining it’s current name in 1899.
Albert also helped to address the problem of child labour in factories and workshops. He supported more modern universities and took an interest in science, the arts and industry.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were shot at several times by assassins. On one occasion, Albert his wife’s life by pushing her out of the path of the bullet.
Prince Albert died in December, 1861 after being ill for 2 years. He probably died from typhoid, although other historians suggest that he may have had cancer.
Despite Albert’s request that no statues of him be built, there are dozens including London’s Albert Memorial. The towns of Lake Albert in Africa and Price Albert in Canada are named after him.
What next? Discover more facts about the Victorians by visiting our Victorian resources page.
Michael Faraday was an English scientist, and one of the most important scientists of all time. He is known for his discoveries in chemistry, electricity and magnetism.
Faraday was born in 1791, just outside London. His first job was in a bookshop, allowing him to read lots of science books, and he later attended lectures at the Royal Society.
In 1825, Michael Faraday created the Christmas Lectures, hosting them 19 times. The talks still take place today and have been hosted by Carl Sagan and David Attenborough.
His work led to advances in many areas of science. Faraday helped to develop the use of electricity in technology, helped to create electric motors and discovered the laws of electrolysis.
Faraday began experimenting with electricity in the 1820s. He constructed the first dynamo and came up with important theories about gravity and light.
Michael Faraday also carried out research into chlorine and invented a simple Bunsen burner. He came up with several new words that are still used today, including ion, cathode and electrode.
He was concerned about the environment and investigated industrial pollution in South Wales. He also helped to plan the Great Exhibition of 1851, and advised the National Gallery about cleaning their paintings.
Faraday refused to accept a knighthood and turned down a request to become President of the Royal Society. He also refused to help the government create chemical weapons, on moral grounds.
A workshop used by Michael Faraday can still be seen today, next to the only lighthouse in London, at Trinity Buoy Wharf, in the heart of London’s Docklands.
Streets in London, Nottingham, Swindon and other UK cities are named after him, as well as streets in Paris. Many schools are named for him, as is a small park, Faraday Park, located close to his birthplace in London.
George Stephenson was an engineer who built the first public railway to use steam trains. He also devised the miner’s safety lamp and built several bridges.
Stephenson was born in 1781 in Northumberland and learned to read and write at night school. He became an expert with steam machinery after fixing the pumping device in a local mine.
His first job was keeping a herd of cows out of the way of a horse drawn wagon. He was later hired to build a 13 km mine railway in 1820, the world’s first that was not pulled by animals.
George Stephenson also devised a safety lamp for miners that would burn without exploding. An inventor called Davy invented a lamp at the same time, causing arguments between the two men.
In 1829, George Stephenson and his son Robert designed their famous steam train, the Rocket. The Rocket was so successful that virtually all other steam trains were modeled after it.
The Rocket featured in the opening day celebrations of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. However, the celebrations were overshadowed by the death of a local MP in the world’s first railway accident.
Stephenson is also credited with inventing the standard gauge for rail tracks which is still used all over the world.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened in 1830. It was the first railway in which all the trains operated to a timetable and all passengers bought a ticket.
George Stephenson also designed the first bridge to cross a railway line at an angle, for extra strength. The bridge was built in 1830 at Rainhill and is still used today.
George Stephenson died on 12th August 1848 in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. He was 67 years old and was suffering with pleurisy, a lung infection.
Today, Stephenson’s birthplace is a museum, and there is a statue of him in Chesterfield Station. Several schools are named after him and he appeared on the 5 pound note between 1990 and 2003.