Basel Historical Museum’s toy collection consists mainly of toys and games that once belonged to families in Basel. This focus does not exclude products from other European countries, however. On the contrary, Basel’s toy shops were well stocked with wooden toys from the great toy-making centres of the Erz Mountains in Saxony, with picture books, tin toys and paper theatres from Nuremberg and Württemberg, and with porcelain dolls from France.
Many of the exhibits – and the most important items in the collection – date from the early days of professional toy manufacture in the late 18th century. Several puzzles, a dolls’ kitchen from 1788 and a shop dating from more or less the same period mark the beginning of the development of specific types of toy that are familiar to us even today.
The collection is also relevant to the exhibits documenting the history of domestic life in Basel: the dolls’ houses and dolls’ kitchens, play furniture and dolls’ tea sets reflect in miniature how domestic interiors, kitchen equipment and table culture developed over the decades. What they also show is how little girls were encouraged to take pleasure in their future role as mistress of the house while their brothers were busy playing with construction kits, carriages, cars and tin soldiers. The exhibits also include various picture books, peep-shows, indoor and outdoor games designed to help children to find their way in the world both geographically and socially. The current affairs of the day are invariably present, whether in the siege games of the 19th century, a game with rationing tokens from the Second World War or a game about the environment dating from the 1980s.
The collection of games for adults includes some exquisite board games and playing pieces embossed with historical personages and events, card games from Switzerland, France and Germany and compendiums containing assorted items. The dividing lines here are not always easy to draw: many of the lottery-style games and dice were almost certainly played by the whole family.
Thanks to numerous gifts and bequests, the museum’s large collection of games and toys is growing all the time. There are also lots of overlaps with the museum’s other collections; after all, toys are a reflection of how people once lived, the latest fashions, the latest technological advances as well as social and political history.