The Jacob’s Ladder Toy and Its Mysterious History

The Jacob’s Ladder is an old-timey pastime that has made a surprising comeback recently. Twenty years ago wooden versions were available only from retailers making a stand against modern soulless plastic toys.  Jacob’s Ladders now can be obtained in different designs and materials quite inexpensively because they have been redefined as a “sensory” or  “fidget” toy that can help relax and focus autistic children. It is also  recommended as a good distraction for small, restless travelers or pupils having trouble sitting still. The kinetic illusion has been demystified by all the bloggers who have posted step-by-step illustrated instructions for crafting a Jacob’s ladder at home.

Cotsen has three or four old Jacob’s Ladder toys and I decided to try and confirm the date of manufacture for the earliest one, which is supposed to be late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.

Digging up material about the toy’s origins and history is a lot hard than finding instructions for making one!  Almost every scrap of information I  found was suspect, starting with the claims that the toy dates back to the Pharoahs.  The name, it is confidently asserted, was inspired by the account of Jacob’s dream in Genesis, but the earliest use in the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in 1820 and makes no reference to the Bible.  From the colonial period, the Jacob’s Ladder was supposed to have been a favorite Sabbath toy, so the wealth of  nineteenth-century American texts on-line would surely yield up a reference,  advertisement, or picture or two.   But searching on “Jacob’s Ladder toy” and all the alternative names–Aaron’s Bells, Chinese Blocks, Click-klack toy, Magic Tablets, Tumbling Blocks–failed to turn up anything useful. The pile of authoritative books on the history of toys in my study were no more helpful.

The most unlikely finds–two pieces by Charles Dickens, a short story “A Christmas Tree” from Household Words (1850) and an essay, “Toys, Past and Present” from All the Year Round, October 1 1876– turned out to contain pure gold.  The Jacob’s Ladder hanging on the tree in the short story describes it as “made of little squares of red wood, that went flapping and clattering over one another, each developing a different picture, and the whole enlivened by small bells, was a mighty marvel and a great delight.”  The passage in “Toys, Past and Present”  explains in greater detail how the marvelous effect was created and why gave so much pleasure: “It consisted of six oblong pieces of wood, adorned with pictures on both sides, and so connected with tapes that when the top piece, which was held in the hand, was turned down, all the others would turn down likewise by an apparently spontaneous movement, causing a new series of pictures to be presented to the eye, which was highly gratified by the change, as were also the ears by the clattering of the wooden tablets and the tinkling of some little bells which they were decorated.”

Dickens would have had no trouble recognizing this as a Jacob’s Ladder. There were differences, of course, between the ones with which he was familiar and the one in Cotsen. The six pieces of wood were covered with colored paper instead of painted and there was no sign that it had ever had bells.  It does click when the blocks tumble down.  The most important similarity is the presence of pictures on both sides of the pieces of wood. Dickens doesn’t say anything about the subjects or style of the pictures.  The prints on the Cotsen Jacob’s ladder were likely cut out of lottery sheets, a kind of ephemeral engraving, and glued to the paper covering of the boards.   Not much is known about lottery sheets beyond that they were being produced for children to “play with” as early as the late seventeenth century.  These sheets certainly would have lent themselves to craft projects of all kinds, but the presence of cut-outs from commercially available prints on a toy like this probably doesn’t prove it was homemade.  Cutting up lottery prints may have been the a cost-effectivel method of applying illustrations to a toy before technology existed to print directly on the wood. Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library has a German Jacob’s Ladder that is very similar to Cotsen’s, except that there are two little rings piercing the long edges.  Bell fasteners, perhaps?  It has been dated to the same period as the English example in Cotsen.Another thing Dickens’ two descriptions establish is how much the appearance of a modern Jacob’s Ladder has changed in the twentieth century. The essential wooden (or plastic) pieces and the tapes are the same, but the use of bright contrasting primary colors is one of the hallmarks of the modernist toy aesthetic the Bauhaus developed. It is possible to find modern Jacob’s Ladders with patterns or pictures painted on the surfaces of the pieces, but pieces of unfinished wood or in solid colors with contrasting colored tapes are much more common. Bells must have been eliminated along the way as a swallowing hazard, as well as too expensive, too troublesome to attach securely. Maybe one day there will be another opportunity to find out more about this mysterious interactive object, that is neither a puzzle nor optical device  nor transformation toy, but has elements of them all.