How Children Have Played for Centuries

Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society
Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society, seen setting up a folk art village, called the exhibit “a celebration.” It is open on weekends. Durell Godfrey

    It’s the fourth year that the East Hampton Historical Society has mounted a family-oriented exhibit, “A Children’s World,” which features antique toys from the 1790s to the 1960s, but Richard Barons, the executive director of the society, seems as excited about the items on display as if it were the first time.
    The exhibit, which runs through the end of the year, “seemed logical when we started out — to do something for the whole family that’s free at this time of year,” Mr. Barons said.
    The initial show has grown, as both historical society members and the public have seen the exhibit and offered some of their own private collections to be put on display.
    “It seems to resonate with the people who come to see it,” Mr. Barons said. He took a Buddy L train engine down from the mantel, a heavy piece most likely from the 1930s. “It can run on coal,” he said, hefting the weight of the piece in his hands.
    “A couple came to the show two years ago, and said, ‘Call us,’ ” he said, about some contributors who put their collections on temporary display for the show. “But it can be a challenge. Most people don’t want their collection gone at Christmas. That’s when you want to display the toys,” he said.
    The show, mounted at the Clinton Academy on Main Street in East Hampton, features toys “from all countries, all periods,” Mr. Barons said. The show vividly depicts how children have played through the past three centuries.
    There’s a Christmas village, most likely constructed in the 1940s in Japan, made of paper and cardboard. There are folk art and handmade toys, along with a bevy of antique dolls. One is called 3-in-1 Little Trudy, an example of the composition dolls popular in this country until World War II. With a knob on the top of her head, hidden by a bonnet, Trudy’s head can be turned, Exorcist-style, to reveal three different faces — smiling, crying, and sleeping.
“The L.V.I.S. found it and gave it to us,” he said of a donation by the Ladies Village Improvement Society of a little sled, most likely from the 1890s. There is also a large collection of Steiff stuffed animals, ranging from the original “Teddy” bears, named for President Theodore Roosevelt, who staunchly refused to kill a black bear that had been chained to a tree on a hunting expedition in 1902.
    Other toys tell a tale of war — there is a rusty bomb or torpedo pedal car, along with biplanes and other military vehicles.
    The most delicate of the exhibit pieces will be displayed behind glass to discourage curious little fingers, but children and their parents are encouraged to attend.


The Clinton Academy will house a collection of antique toys — those representing land, sea, and sky are seen here — through the end of the year.

    “Last year a little girl, around 8, came to the exhibit with her dad,” Mr. Barons said. “She saw this antique cradle” — he gestured to a handmade doll cradle on the floor — “and told her dad that it was all she wanted for Christmas. The dad asked me, ‘Where do I get one of those?’ “ Mr. Barons laughed.
    “I saw the little girl again in the spring, over at the Mulford Farm, and she told me that she had gotten one for Christmas. She was so happy,” he said.
    The Clinton Academy, along with Home, Sweet Home, the Mulford Farm, and the Osborn-Jackson House — all East Hampton Historical Society buildings — are being properly decked out for the holidays. “This year also involves the library, and a couple of the churches,” Mr. Barons said, speaking of a village holiday stroll scheduled for Saturday.
    The toy exhibit can be seen on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 5 through the end of the month.