Pre-Toy History


One aspect of this object’s biography that intrigues me is its pre-toy history: the people and processes that went into designing and manufacturing it, and the materials from which it was made. This seems difficult to ascertain in particular in this case, but we can make informed guesses.

Because of my background in occupational health, I wonder in particular about health hazards involved in its manufacture. Zinc is relatively benign, but not without risks, especially when handled in its molten state, which it presumably was at some point in the process. Was it made on a assembly line? Would painting be by hand (I would guess so). If so, were those workers whose task it was to apply the red paint (containing lead) aware of the hazards and protected from them? Might pregnant women have been employed in this task?

Although lead is not as injurious to health as radium, the experience of the “radium girls” ( provides an analogy. These women were employed to paint radium onto watch and instrument dials to make them visible in the dark, and encouraged to lick the brushes to make better points. Tragic health consequences of this ingested radiation followed.

Ben Armstrong
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine