2011-11-10 / Features

Even During The Civil War, Toys Had A Place

By Kevin Begos

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Even as terrible battles were fought, toys and Santa Claus had a place in American life during the Civil War.

For the start of an annual Toys for Tots campaign Friday, Michael Kraus was dressed in Civil War garb at a Carnegie Mellon University display of 1860s toys. Toys from the era were on loan from the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Museum in Pittsburgh.

Kraus, the museum curator, has been drawn to toys from the Civil War era since he was a boy.

“You'd see these things come out of houses in the 1960s so I started to learn about them,” Kraus said.

He said the 1860s saw the popularization of the Santa Claus tradition in America. Harper's Weekly in January of 1863 published one of the first drawings of the rotund holiday figure, addressing a camp of soldiers, some of whom carry a banner reading: “Welcome Santa Claus.” A copy of the issue is part of the display.

Kraus said soldiers celebrated Christmas, but it wasn't as much of a gift-giving event as it is now.

“They were away from home. They would decorate trees with bullets, whatever they had around. They would have a special meal,” he said.

Items on display included a small, flat tin soldier, perhaps made for children who had a father or brother at war, a handmade wooden doll for a girl, and a deck of playing cards. “The Game of the Camp” deck featured cards with illustrated figures _ Surgeon, Riding Master, and Farrier (a person who specializes in horseshoes and the care of hooves).

Kraus pointed out that the Toys for Tots campaign was started by Marines.

The campaign began in 1947 in Los Angeles when a group of Marine reservists decided to distribute toys to needy children. The Marine Corps made it a national program the next year, and the Walt Disney Company designed a logo for the charity. Up until 1980, the campaign distributed new and refurbished toys. Now only new toys are given away.

Kurt Larsen, an assistant dean at the university's College of Engineering, said Toys for Tots helps children in the community but also is an opportunity for student volunteers.

“It's an introduction to American culture for some,” he said. “It's an opportunity to look outside oneself and to help others in need.”

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