Gender Role Stereotypes in Christopher Comical’s Lecture upon Games and Toys (1789)


Books on children’s games published before 1800 anywhere in Europe tend to survive in remarkably low numbers and the 1789 Lecture upon Games and Toys in two parts is no exception.  There is one copy of the first part at the University of Pittsburgh and one copy of the second in Cotsen.   Even Peter and Iona Opie, the great collectors and scholars of children’s lore, language, amusements, toys, and books, did not have either part, so when Iona needed the illustration of boys playing trap ball for Children’s Games with Things (1997), she had Cotsen’s copy photographed (we were honored to have a picture in the last volume of the Opie trilogy on children’s games!).

From Iona Opie’s standpoint as a folklorist, Christopher Comical (whoever he may have been) was a disappointment because his text for the illustrations didn’t explain how the games were played.   Comical, as poet laureate to the Lilliputians, was a moralist who teased out the parallels between ephemeral pastimes, proverbs, and the serious business of life, a little like Jakob Cats, the famous Dutch writer of emblems for children.

But Iona certainly would have appreciated what the illustrations reveal about who played what, where, and why.   Aerobic exercise is for boys, as are team sports.  Activities that increase physical dexterity can be for both boys and girls, although it looks as if girls have to practice their skills indoors decorously seated on a chair.The only game in the book that shows boys and girls playing together is battledore, which here is an indoor play, perhaps out of deference to the young lady’s modesty.  Even so, it is hard to believe that the players never got worked up and had fun smashing the battledore into the walls, the furniture, or face of the opponent.

The toys included in the book reveal the most about expectations for boys versus girls.  Activities with no purpose except to make noise are just for  boys.   Girls, however, appear delighted with a “useful” toy like a miniature spinning wheel that  encourages them to embrace the hard work of housewifely responsibilities.

Boys, on the other hand, can indulge in something like doll play with toy horses, which surely whetted the anticipation of owning horses for riding or driving fast.There is something dispiriting  about a mirror being classified as a toy for girls.  The implication is that a girl, being naturally vain of her looks, will gaze at her reflection in the mirror for long spells, which makes it a kind of pastime that ought not to be countenanced.  There is no parallel object for boys…I was amazed to discover that this two-volume “lecture”  on games and toys may have been inspired by an act in London around the time of its publication.   A Mr. Cresswick, a would-be actor and teacher of elocution, was giving public readings which concluded with “a series of moral and entertaining observations about a cabinet of toys.”  Could the frontispiece have been drawn from an actual performance?  The children are seated on benches or standing close to a man holding forth, with a whirligig in his hand, and several other toys strewn on the table in front of him.


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