From Unquestioned Obedience to Disintegrating Abeyance: Children’s Toys and U.S.’s Racial Order in the Late 19th Century

The following guest blog post by Mahshid Mayar, author of Citizens and Rulers of the World: The American Child and the Cartographic Pedagogies of Empire, is an edited version of an essay originally published under the title “Verbs of Violence 19th-Century Jigsaw Puzzles, Otherness, and American Childhood” in the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, and is reproduced with permission.

In the ever-expanding market of children’s games and toys, jigsaw puzzles were among the most quickly and completely Americanized playthings that were found in the hands of well-to-do American children in the 19th century. During the second half of the century, in particular, American toy-manufacturers such as Milton Bradley and McLoughlin Brothers, turned to dissecting scenes from everyday American life: Wild West Shows, scenes from domestic and urban life, and images that reflected on emerging social realities such as the peculiarities of a new social class that was taking shape in the post-emancipation era, that is, the free African American. 

This sensibility can be traced as it was carried over into picture puzzles such as Chopped Up [N-words]: Puzzles to Put Together, a puzzle produced in ca. 1875 and reflecting what many white Americans considered as the racial chaos of the post-emancipation era. Produced by McLoughlin Brothers and introduced to the market in the latter quarter of the century, Chopped Up [N-words] cut into pieces the bodies of seemingly idle, child-like, happy-go-lucky, and tawdrily well-to-do African American men, letting white children play with the pieces before putting them back together.

Reminiscent of the constitutional racial mathematics of the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 (whereby each state’s population was calculated based on the racialized equation in which each African American slave was counted as three-fifth of a person), Chopped Up [N-words] is an example of how white supremacist ideology found its way into child play. Chopped up as if an inanimate, inert bulk of dead meat or wood, the puzzle placed African American bodies at the mercy of its young players, endorsing the violence that the young, white owners of the toy were allowed to exercise on free African Americans – both on cardboard and in real life. Furthermore, reflective of the will to regulate what was conceived by white supremacists as a chaotically new and undesirable racial order, the puzzle transmuted unquestioned obedience as black bodies’ assumed birthmark (in the pre-emancipation era), seemingly benignly, into disintegrating abeyance (in the Reconstruction Era).

On the whole, antebellum toys reinforced the logic of slavery as the “natural” order of things, and therefore they did not carry the burden of projecting racial domination under ostensible freedom. In the post-emancipation times, on the other hand, a plaything such as Chopped Up [N-words] worked as a simultaneously haptic and visual material constituent of white Americans’ response to emancipation – a point that begs a number of questions: Did the unknown artist behind Chopped Up [N-words] use the puzzle to underscore the unforeseen success of this new social class in integrating into the market economy, thus applauding the by-and-large suspected achievements of the Reconstruction Era? Or is the puzzle’s racial hatred-clad-in-fun title intended to dismiss free African Americans’ successes despite, perhaps indeed symptomatic of, a failing economy during one of the century’s worst economic depressions? Did the puzzle serve as a visual reminder of the task of putting back African American bodies and lives together as the white child’s burden? Did white children – finding themselves at the mercy of this puzzle’s disorderliness (its piecemeal nature and its image of disorder) experience an alienating/othering effect? Or did they re-inscribe the toy with a double script of racial alienation toward blackness and age-based identification with infantilized, playful black subjects? 

As toys with multiple script possibilities, jigsaw puzzles no doubt entailed more play scenarios than mere violence; they recorded passing scenes of everyday American life as topics of significance for child socialization; they invited children to practice tidying up while playing; they complemented school geography lessons with entertainment, etc. By focusing on verbs of violence scripted in jigsaw puzzles, however, historians of childhood can find out more about the many, mostly overlooked, ways in which violence was scripted in 19th-century children’s toys in the United States.

Mahshid Mayar is assistant professor of American studies at Universität Bielefeld, Germany, and research fellow at the English Department, Amherst College, Massachusetts.