Propeller Toys and the Industrial Revolution

Andrew McClary

Beginning in England during the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution spread to America and changed our way of life. It created a new world of machine-made objects, and with them, a host of social changes. Machines began to produce everyday objects that were much more sophisticated than their handmade ancestors. Instead of quill pens, we use ball point pens, microwaves have supplanted brick ovens, and vacuum cleaners have replaced twig brooms. With machines, many more of these objects could be made with great speed.

Before the Industrial Age, many objects were made by the same person who used the object. Today, most things are made by companies and sold to users for profit. The emerging Information Age (itself a product of the Industrial Revolution) allows companies to advertise their products to a world market. We have become a consumer society, addicted to whatever is new.

How can we help children understand the vast differences between the traditional world, in which things were handmade, and the new machine-made (and computer generated) world of today? One way to begin is to take an everyday object and see how it has changed over the years.1 As they are familiar to children, toys are ideal for this purpose.


Going Slowly

Like most other things in the traditional world, handmade propeller toys changed very little over hundreds of years. This toy probably originated in China well over a thousand years ago. By the fourteenth century, it had appeared in Europe. A stained glass church window of that time depicts young Jesus with a propeller toy, which is a curious anachronism. By the 1850s, propeller toys, like many other toys, had begun to changeóthey were mass produced.

To help students understand how different these new machine-made propeller toys are from their handmade ancestors, children could be shown how to make a propeller toy, and then compare it with the machine-made propeller toys of today. The teacher should make one of these toys ahead of time (following the directions in the handout on page 32) so as to have a model to show and helpful hints to give. Fourth or fifth grade students could try their hands at making such a toy. Set up boxes of materials on a folding table out on the playground. Direct students to read the handout before they start. No tools are needed if Styrofoam spools are used, but there should be adult supervision of the project in any case. No student should be penalized for not successfully making a toy, or for ending up with one that does not work very well. The point is for students to experience some of the effort it takes to make a mobile toy that functions. Finally, when playing with a propeller toy, students should spread out from each other and aim up into the air, away from classmates. Keep safety in mind even when the propeller is made of cardboard, as this one is. Launching could be restricted to designated ìlaunch areas,î such as the bases on a baseball field.


Whatís the Difference?

Bring a few examples of modern propeller toys to class and invite students to do the same. Back in the classroom, ask students to compare their hand-made toys with the mass-produced ones. Student responses could vary widely, but the teacher can make sure that the following points are covered:

> It’s easier to buy a toy than to make one.
Students might talk about how much time it took to make their toy on the playground, or how they had to keep making adjustments to get the propeller toy to fly well.

> Store-bought toys often work better than hand-made ones.
A craftsman with the right tools could make a propeller toy that works very well, of course, but few people have the tools or skills. In a factory, precision molds and tools can shape parts that fit together exactly. Every toy on the shelf in the store works.

> Store-bought propeller toys might be powered in several ways.
The “Go Fly U.F.O.” toy is powered by a spiral of rubber. Others have launch pads with levers and springs. Some propeller toys are powered by balloons or batteries.

> There is a variety of manufactured propeller toys.
If you start hunting for propeller toys in toy stores, you will find that there is a lot of variety in the marketplace. There are propeller toys designed to appeal to girls as well as boys, and variations abound. Curiously, however, there is also a sameness, a uniformity that mass production brings to society. Children in Florida play with the same mass-produced toys as do children in the state of Washington or in China.

> Mass produced toys are everywhere.
Children might volunteer this idea, but it will probably need to be brought up by the teacher. A machine in a factory can make many toys in an hour, whereas the students have seen for themselves that it takes a while to make one propeller toy from scratch. So there are many manufactured toys available for sale.

The teacher could end with a discussion about creativity. Did students enjoy making the propeller toy? Would they have learned as much about propellers by just playing with a store-bought toy? Could they look at a toy and figure out how to make a similar model with materials they have at home? Could they invent a simple propeller toy? How would it work?


Innovation and Change

Why are there so many different kinds of store-bought propeller toys? The Industrial Revolution has created a world that is in constant change, and most of us find this change to be exciting. We like change, whether itís a new house, a new car, or a new toy. The managers of the toy companies know this, and so they invent thousands of new toys every year, hoping some of these toys will appeal to a childís sense of what is trendy or ìcool.î The Sky Dancer was invented by a man who watched his daughter playing with spinning maple seeds and wondered if he could invent a propeller toy that would appeal to girls. After a year of experimenting, his company came up with the Sky Dancer. By the end of 1995, it had become a fad, and was one of the best-selling toys in America.  

A propeller toy from an earlier era had even more success. It was called Penaudís propeller toy, or more simply, ìthe Bat.î The two feathers at the bottom act as propellers. It was popular in France during the 1870s. When the Bat came to America, a traveling churchman bought one and gave it to his boys, Orville and Wilbur. Long after they became famous, the Wright brothers remembered how the little toy started them on the road to their immortal first flight in an airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.2


Sign Posts of Social History

Toys can help a child understand how machine-made things are different from hand-made ones. But toys can do more than thisóthey can help children explore other ways we may have changed as we entered the modern world. For example, how many things do we make with our own hands today? How do children spend their free time today as compared with one hundred years ago? How and when did our pop culture arise? What makes a toy ìeducationalî? Were there educational toys in the 1800s? Do some toys foreshadow the future? Since toys are a reflection of our society, they can help children explore their changing world.3



1. Sherry L. Field, Linda D. Labbo, Ron W. Wilhelm, and Alan W. Garrett, ìTo Touch, To Feel, To See: Artifact Inquiry in the Social Studies Classroom,î Social Education 60, no. 3 (1996):141-3; Sherry L. Field and Linda D. Labbo, ìA Pocketful of History,î Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, no. 2 (1994): 4-7; Linda Miculka, ìPhotographs Slide Into the Classroom,î Social Studies and the Young Learner 9, no. 3 (1997): 8-10; Audry Rule and Cynthia Sunal, ìButtoning Up: A Hands-On History Lesson,î Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, no. 2 (1994): 8-11.

2. Tom D. Crouch, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: W. W. Norton, 1989).

3. Andrew McClary, Toys With Nine Lives: A Social History of American Toys (North Haven, CT: Linnet, 1997); A. McClary, Good Toys, Bad Toys: Playthings in the Age of Advice (in preparation). Drawing of the Bat on page 31 is from Scientific American (1870); the traditional toy on page 32 is from St. Nicholas (1879).

Andrew McClary taught general education courses at Michigan State University. In retirement, he has pursued his interest in the history of toys as a speaker and author.