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FOLK TOYS

Armando Borelli - collector and maker of the toys
Massimo Borelli - free-hands drawings
Anna Busacchi - descriptive texts of the toys
Jennifer Spears - text translator
Giorgio Carboni - insertion on the Web
October 1997


CONTENTS


INTRODUCTION

In many countries around the world, children can't buy toys because they're too expensive. So these children learn to build them themselves. In Italy until the '60s, these types of handmade toys were widespread. With the rapid rise in the standard of living, children could purchase toys in stores. But soon, the streets became less and less safe and traffic on these roads increased, so that children now no longer play in the streets. All this has brought about the disappearance of the toys of a time gone by. In fact, today many children do not know even these toys.

Armando Borelli, however, still remembers the toys he made as a boy. He took part in village festivals with his own booth full of folk toys which he had built with his own hands. Today, you can still see him surrounded by enthusiastic children while he shows them how his toys work. It was thus that also many adults came to know Mr. Borelli and became enchanted with his toys. Often they recognize the same toys they played with as kids. But why speak about toys in a gallery of scientific activities? Because often these toys utilize physical principles; they are based on mechanisms, and they have to be built by hand. This is of great didactic use. Moreover, children get very motivated to build toys, and quickly they learn many techniques and the use of many tools.

These toys have other virtues as well. For children who go to school, rest and amusement are also important. For those children, these toys can be an outlet for real fun in addition to helping them find playmates. The value of these toys is also due to the poverty of the materials with which they are built. It is because of their simplicity that they leave a large playground for the imagination, and children have a great deal of imagination. On the contrary, modern toys do everything themselves, putting the child aside and leaving her or him only the role of spectator.

Because of the educational role of adults, often they have conflict-ridden relationships with children. These toys provide parents and teachers with a great opportunity, one of getting down in the world of children and tuning into the same wavelength as their own kids and students in order to communicate with them in a more pleasant manner . . . playing!

By having children build them, teachers can also utilize these toys as tools in training technical ability, introducing kids to mechanics and describing physical principles. Above all in secondary schools, they can conduct research directed at describing the toys and the team games which are played in their own neighborhoods. The comparison of technological variants and of the rules of these games from different geographical areas gives this work an anthropological value.

Speaking of toys gives me the opportunity to say something about team games. These are games such as hide-and-go-seek, tag, etc., which are played by groups of children. These team games help kids grow up. During these games, children learn to relate to one another and make friends. On the other hand, a child who grows up in front of the TV certainly is not more entertained than one who plays and, as an adult, will probably have problems dealing with others. This play, both with toys and with teams, has great importance in the education of young people. In our society, which tries more and more to organize each day and aims to sacrifice everything in competition to get the most from our children, it is necessary to recognize the value of playing and to assign to it some place, in addition to recognizing the place and value of study.

As was said before, not only kids, but also adults are enchanted by seeing Mr. Borelli's toys in a village festival. Even Anna Busacchi, a junior high school teacher in Bologna, was impressed by these simple handmade toys. She thought it would be useful to collect them in a book for the purpose of keeping them alive. It is thus that the book, indicated in the bibliography, was born. The text is by Anna, the drawings by Borelli's son, Massimo, and obviously the toys described are those made by Armando Borelli. This Fun Science Gallery article shows only some of the toys described in the book, and by consequence, only part of the text and the figures. We'd like to thank all those who participated in this work, particularly Mr. Armando Borelli for the collection and reconstruction of his toys. We would also like to thank the publisher Cappelli Editore of Bologna (Italy) for their kind permission to use this book in favor of cyber-readers. (Giorgio Carboni)

SPOOLS

Spools are little wooden cylinders with raised edges which kept thread in place. A hole in the middle holds them to sewing machines. These supports, today hard to find, were used to hold thread. In every house there were seamstresses, so often these spools were everywhere, and because they were reusable, they certainly were not thrown away. Children of those days remember these spools because they could make several toys from them. These kids had remarkable inventiveness in technical solutions. In the Italian countrysides, the little tricks which wonderfully transformed these little spools into something much more spectacular (spinning tops, bicycles, tractors, etc.) were passed down from parent to child.

The tractor is a classic among these and deserves special attention (figure 1). It is a self-propelled engine which the imagination of a child can see as a tractor or tank, however inclined, although the building technique remains the same.

Technical instructions:
You need one or more spools, a piece of wax or a piece of soap, a small nail (not indispensable), two matches or two little dry twigs one cut long (about twice the diameter of the spool) and one cut short. Make little teeth on the edge of the spool with a pocketknife (figure 2) imitating the tracks of a tractor. Using the piece of wax, prepare a small pierced cylinder which will function as the clutch. Obviously, the wax has to be worked when it's warm, while the piece of soap will demand delicate working since it can break easily.

Now you assemble the tractor. Insert a rubber band through the center of the spool and hold it in place with a match or the short twig, which is fixed in place by a slight groove or with a nail. On the other side, place the clutch and then the longer match.

Now the engine will work: spin the long twig (figure 3) so that the rubber band twists by itself. In this way, you wind up the tractor which slowly will release the energy caused by the friction of the clutch. The long twig, leaning towards the ground, will push towards the tractor. Slowly, you will see it move and climb an incline.
You can also link other spools to the base model. They will move by ingenious gearing systems (figure 4).

THE CABLE CAR

Another example of simple engineering applied to locomotion using poor and completely natural materials is building this "car" which moves by itself. We will call it a "cable car" because of the long thread linked to the body (figure 5). In fact, the building of this toy probably precedes the introduction of this type of vehicle in our cities and, perhaps, the idea came about more from the pleasure of mechanical experimentation than from imitation. So it is not said that its origins were in the city. So much richness of invention and imagination envelopes this little object that one can measure it from the effect of genuine wonder of which is certainly produced in whoever is present or participates in its construction.

 

Technical instructions
You need:
- four wheels (you can saw them from a block),
- a little board for the vehicle's body,
- a block cut in half for the front body through which a hole must be drilled for the tube (figure 6),
- a bamboo stick or a little branch from a chestnut tree,
- a stick as the axis of the rear wheels,
- some wire,
- some nails,
- a little thread.

The rear driving wheels will be secured to their axis with nails so that they are joined sternly and move together (figure 7). At the center through the same axis make a groove with a knife through which the wound thread will be strung while the pieces of wire will hold the axis of the wheels to the car's body allowing the wheels to turn (figure 7). Fasten the front wheels with nails, so they can rotate freely. Finally, insert the tube in its hole, tie the thread and wrap it around the rear axis. Depending on the length and the elasticity of the tube, the thread will unroll with more or less power and will set the cable car in motion.

THE MOTORBOAT

This water vehicle (figure 8) is much simpler than the previous vehicle. It is a motorboat if you place importance on the speed, a boat if your attention is concentrated on the moving paddle wheel. Actually, this is a little toy which children used to try to venture with an element, water, which often holds surprises.

Technical instructions:
You need a piece of plywood or a thin wooden board, a hacksaw, and some rubber bands (figure 9).

After having traced the outlines on the plywood, cut out the pieces using a hacksaw. To get higher stability from the boat, place a keel (centerboard) under it. One or more rubber bands tightened between the notches of the hull will function as the motor which will set the paddle wheel in rotation. Wind up the rubber band by turning the paddle, put the boat in the water and let it go.


LITTLE COUNTRY AND CITY GO-CARTS

The idea of carrying and being carried arises spontaneously in every child. To fulfill this desire, it is natural to think somewhat about the means used by adults. Certainly, children have played, always and everywhere, with carts and wheelbarrows built approximately like those of their parents. An undocumented lesser history of imitation by children runs parallel to the greater history of the modes of transportation. We propose two examples of these vehicles as a little testimony of some differences between the city and the country.

The country cart

This interesting example of a country cart was built before World War II by the sons of the farmers of Bologna's hills (figures 10 and 11). The design and the construction required abilities such that only the more grown-up children, if not adults, could successfully undertake this task.

 

Then, the use of this vehicle could be a mixture of work and play carrying bundles or little loads. The world of adults was not separate from that of children and this could be an occasion to learn to work. But above all, this vehicle was the ideal machine to be dragged up slopes then to descend the courses rapidly even on country dirt roads.

Technical instructions
According to figure 12, you need:
- a pitchfork made of hard, strong wood, cut in the right size to make the chassis;
- a perfectly round block to cut two pairs of wheels from: the front two, the smaller one, and the rear;
- two strong sticks,
- some ribbon, nails, pegs, pivots and some other scraps.

Choose two strong sticks which can be used as axles for the two pairs of wheels, well secured, maybe with a wooden or metal peg. Some discarded pork grease could serve as a lubricant to enhance the turning of the wheels. Now put the fork on the axles, looking for the best place to fasten it (the bigger wheels of the forked part). You will be able to steer the cart by mounting the front axle under the handle of the fork by means of a pivot.

All that remains are the finishing touches:
- some wooden boards placed on the pitchfork to make a seat,
- a string bound to the ends of the front axle in order to turn right or left,
- a support for the feet which gives stability to the driver,
- ornaments according to the maker's desire.

The city cart

Children in the city lived in an environment obviously different from a technical point of view and, especially after the war, they could easily procure important scraps such as ball bearings. More advanced scrap material and the availability of asphalt roads uncrowed by cars changed the country cart into a faster vehicle present in every city's courtyards.

Technical instructions
You need:
- four ball bearings,
- boards, sticks and other wooden pieces,
- nails, screws, pegs, string, etc.

The construction is not too different from that of the country cart: the wheels are replaced by the bearings and the fork disappears. The result is a low-riding vehicle, suited to reckless races down slopes. Also, for the city cart also, there are numerous varieties (with or without steering wheels, with or without backs, one or more seats, etc.)

THE BICYCLE

Here is another way to use the eclectic spool: creating an unlikely bicycle which brings us back to the times when having a real bicycle was a luxury reserved for few children. When the enthusiasm for Binda or Guerra (two cyclist racers from the '30s) and then for Coppi or Bartali (two cyclists from the '50s) divided people's loyalties, even still, with a little imagination and ingenuity, one could participate in the general excitement, inventing a fun substitute, even if an uncompetitive one, of a real bicycle.

Technical instructions:
You need a spool, some iron wire, and a bit of cord.
Pass the wire through the hole in the spool and then bend it into the shape of a bicycle's handlebars. The cord should be about the same length as the leg of the child and should have two loops tied at the ends through which the feet will be placed in the manner of pedals (figure 14).

THE CAR

This object was born from the meeting of the inventiveness of children and an industrial product widespread for more than a century: the iron wire. The iron wire was widely available both in the country, where it was amply employed in agricultural uses, and in hardware store in the city, where it made a fine display when hung by a nail in skins prohibited to children. As scrap material, cut and contorted, it was easily found a little everywhere. The possibilities of use are numerous; we put forth one of them in use among children in the '30s and until the post WWII era. An interesting exhibit held in Turin in 1990 showed objects similar to these, works by children from Third World countries elaborated in almost artistic forms.

Technical instructions:
The wire must be thick like those used in fields for supporting vines. If it is thinner, make up for this by twisting it: the important thing is to wind it up and secure it well. Begin with one wheel with spokes connected to its axis which will pass through a brace (pitchfork) or simply a baton/stick. Then do the other wheel. At the other end of the baton is the steering wheel. In some spots a hook or something similar can hold up the child's shoes or schoolbag (figure 15). Bon voyage, Valentino!

The variations in the realization of this vehicle can be infinite:
- a 4-wheeled version
- the "steamroller" (with the use of cans)
- the "Ferrari" (with rubber wheels), suggested maybe from the sentiments of the Mille Miglia (Thousand Miles)
- the car made from little pill boxes.


THE SLINGSHOT

There are those who call it a slingshot, those who call it a catapult or katty, etc. This immediately brings to mind the image of the street kid, a little rascal who tries to hit birds' nests or who aims at the windows of some unfortunate person. To impede or punish these mischievous kids, slingshots were often confiscated by adults. It was nevertheless easy enough to make new ones, and possessing one increased personal safety in these little street wars.

Technical instructions:
You need a forked wooden stick ("Y"), very strong and durable like dogwood which easily shoots in two. With scissors, cut rubber from the inside of bicycle tube elastic easily procured which resolves infinite problems. Fasten the thick elastic to a little piece of leather (or hide) cut in an oval. The elastic should be secured to the ends of the fork with either rubber bands or string. The toy is finished (figure 16).

THE BLOWPIPE

Let's recall another piece of entertainment highly in vogue with little kids in the '50s, those who made the most sophisticated rifles from elastic or bows from umbrellas. We're talking about blowpipes (or peashooters) made with long tubes coming from scrap material (ideally aluminum posts from chandeliers) which shoot little objects (little paper balls [spitballs], bits of clay) and above all arrows projected by the force of one's breath.

 

Technical instructions:
The power of this toy is related to its length and diameter the longer the tube and the smaller its diameter, the longer its range. One, two, or more blowpipes can be held together by a system of clothes pins (those used for laundry) used as handles and/or a cartridge belt and which can also make a viewfinder (fig. 17).

The arrows which wisely came prepared in tens and forced by gusts of wind deserve their own discourse. The arrow is a highly honed cone made by twisting strips of paper around your finger, strips which purposely came cut in regular bundles and tied under the belt, ready for use (figure 18). Having made the arrows, you seal them with saliva turning them between your lips.

THE WHISK WITH A BUTTON

This is a toy which was also made industrially in more sophisticated versions. In the popular version which we are discussing, there exist numerous poor variations all based on the same principle: winding a double wire held by the fingertips, rolling it on itself by an object placed in the middle of its length. Then you exercise traction by lengthening the arms: that is, set the whisk in a rotating motion (in practice, make it turn, or more precisely, whisk). Stretch your arms and the whisk turns one way, bring your arms together and the whisk turns the other way: it moves in this rhythmic manner infinitely, depending on the ability to maneuver it. The more spectacular the effect also depends on the beauty and complexity of the rotating object. This particular whisk uses a button as its rotating object. You need to choose a large one, for example, a button from an overcoat (figure 19).

THE WHISK WITH A PROPELLER

Set the propeller in motion by means of a shuttlecock operated form a cord. The start is given by a wire twisted around the last segment of the thing (figure 20). If the propeller is well-made, it will fly in the air satisfying the pilot.

 

 

THE TELEPHONE

Who knows why many call it the cordless telephone when just a simple wire taut between two cans is characteristic in this toy widespread in Italy. In the memory of older adults, recollections tied to the successes of Marconi and to his radio news broadcasts are mingled together. Let's not forget that already in the '30s, the telephone had a large diffusion, even if limited to the more well-off families. From this came the desire to possess such a mysterious and charming instrument constructed from what was available.

Technical instructions
In the center of the top of the two cans, make two little holes, through which the ends of the wire can pass. This, tied in a knot, will not come undone even under the light pressure necessary for keeping it tight (figure 21). You need an empty space big enough for the wire to be extended its entire length. One person will be on one end with the can at her or his ear and another person will be at the other end with the can to her or his mouth. The conversation can start, with better results if the wire is coated with wax or shoe polish.

 

THE MACHINE GUN (OR MARTIANS)

All you need is a stick of wood with a hole in the middle to allow a cord with two loops tied at the ends where your hands are placed to turn (figure 22). The hands half-closed like shells are drawn near the ears together with the cord (figure 23). A child pulls the cord tight and makes the stick rotate. The sound produced by this is not perceptible outside, but amplified by the hands which form a resonance box, it produces a machine gun effect or whatever other thing you'd like to recognize which fits the game.

CAPS

Bottle caps could hold the portraits of cycling champions drawn on the insides and were used as signs in competitions on complex courses drawn with chalk on sidewalks and in courtyards. The blow that starts the races is called a jack, and the game proceeds following a prearranged succession. Obviously the person who crosses the finish line first wins.

MARBLES

The poor varnished terra cotta ones or the beautiful glass ones variegated on the inside in all kinds of colors were valuable to own as exchanged goods or instruments of play for competitions on sand tracks or other types of courses.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anna Busacchi, Alla ricerca dei giochi "perduti", Cappelli Editore (Bologna, 1992)

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