For nearly two centuries, building block toys have been an integral part of children’s playrooms in Berlin households. The collection of the Stadtmuseum Berlin also contains various examples. Through play, they bear witness to a period of in part rapid technical advancement – and rigid role models recurring throughout history.
The beginnings of building block toys
The first “building bricks”, initially still in simple forms such as wooden dice, were designed by educationalist and natural scientist Friedrich Fröbel (1782 – 1852), founder of the eponymous kindergarten. Until the 19th century, children had largely played outside. By contrast, building blocks were only intended to be played with indoors. Children at the time were not allowed to find expression in play however, unlike today.
Manufacturers of building block toys
Fröbel and Pestalozzi laid the foundation for the further development of building block toys. However, the inventions of architect and social reformer Gustav Lilienthal (1849 – 1933), the brother of renowned aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal (1848 – 1896), also played a key role in this. Amongst other things, Gustav Lilienthal used paper and cardboard as materials for building block toys. Corrugated board was joined together using little sticks1. When he patented his inventions in 1888, his building block toys already contained wooden components, i.e., perforated struts1. These slats, containing regularly spaced holes for assembly with other component parts, are still used in building block toys today. Subsequently, they could also be seen in the Meccano metal building blocks of British inventor and businessman Frank Hornby (1863 – 1936). Until 1900, images of boys at play increasingly had prominence on the lids of this construction toy.
Another invention by Gustav Lilienthal were the “Anker-Steine” (anchor stones) made of sand, linseed oil and whiting, pressed into different shapes and colours, which for decades were to become the epitome of the building block toy. However, this invention made others rich and not Lilienthal. Building block toys of this type only achieved a commercial breakthrough in the hands of Friedrich Adolf Richter (1846 – 1910) and the Keller brothers who were originally employed by Richter (end of the 19th century). They gave their building block toys virtually the same name as Richter but also incorporated their own new features such as the use of metal as a building material. In 1910, Richter bought the by then insolvent Keller factory and employed the brothers again in his own company 1. In 1913, Richter then introduced his own metal toy construction set known as “Imperator”1. Using the anchor as a logo, Richter’s kits were known as anchor toy construction sets. At the start of the 20th century, some of the box lids also featured images of girls at play once again.
Building block toys exclusively for girls
From 1917, there was a new listing in the Berlin Commercial Register: “Walther & Co.” After the First World War, production of Walther’s “Stabil” metal toy construction sets increased. For the time being, his slogan would leave no doubt who the product was aimed at: „Der Knaben schönstes Spiel das ist und bleibt stabil“1. [“The boy’s greatest toy is built to last”] In the 1930’s, however, Walther also manufactured special building block toys for girls. The slogan from 1938 ran accordingly: “Stabil for boys, Stabila for girls”1. This kit was similar to the one for boys but also contained wool for furnishing dolls houses1. The woman depicted on the lid was reminiscent of both the renowned aviator Elly Beinhorn and also Walther’s own progressive wife1. The beginnings of women’s emancipation were apparent here.
From the post-war period to the present day
Later on in the GDR, building blocks in drums and small crates were available once again for boys and girls equally – in contrast with the building block toys mostly designed for boys according to traditional gender models in the Federal Republic. In the 1960’s, in both parts of Germany there were also simple electric toy construction sets available.
1 Baukästen, Ulf Leinweber, Drei Lilien Edition, SS. 35, 47, 87, 89, 94, 281
2 Pestalozzi’s Selected Works III, Hermann Beyer, Langensalza, Verlags-Comptoir 1870 p. 88, par. 2, Fig. 4