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Explained: The evolution of toys, and how legendary chains are reinventing themselves

The Indian Express looks at the history of toys, the expansion and popularity of arguably the world's oldest toy chain, and how the industry is fighting its online competitors.

Written by Vandana Kalra , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 14, 2021 12:19:12 pm
Hamleys was established in 1760 by William Hamley (Reuters Photo/File)

Notwithstanding the ongoing pandemic, toy store chain Hamleys has revealed plans of expansion across Asia and Europe, including quadrupling its outlets in India to more than 500 in three years. Consistently recording losses in recent times, the 260 year old British enterprise was acquired by Mukesh Ambani in 2019 and added to the Reliance Industries conglomerate.

The Indian Express looks at the history of toys, the expansion and popularity of arguably the world’s oldest toy chain, and how the industry is fighting its online competitors.

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The evolution of toys

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While semi-precious stones shaped like marbles, believed to date to 3,000-4,000 BC, have been unearthed from graves in Egypt, wooden paddle dolls have also been excavated from Egyptian tombs dating to around 2,000 BC.

In Ancient Greece and Rome, children played with knucklebones and dolls, while kites and the yo-yo first emerged in China. Though dolls have been made with varied materials, from clay to resin, across centuries, the 16th century saw the popularity of the wooden Bartholomew babies across England.

With the Industrial Revolution allowing for mass production, toys became more economical and readily available. If John Spilsbury made the first jigsaw puzzle in 1767 with the intention of teaching geography, the kaleidoscope was invented in 1817.

The last century saw the emergence of innumerable present-day toys, from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in the 1920s to Lego in the ’30s and Barbie in 1959.

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When and where was Hamleys founded?

In 1760, a Cornishman from Bodmin, England, William Hamley, opened a toy shop in Holborn, London, and named it Noah’s Ark. Initially selling tin soldiers, wooden horses and rag dolls, in 1881 the store opened a new branch on Regent Street. On the verge of shutting in the 1920s, it was given a new lease of life by Walter Lines, and in 1938 Queen Mary gave it its first Royal Warrant, declaring that the store supplied to the Royal family. In 1955, Queen Elizabeth II gave it a second Royal Warrant, describing Lines as a “toys and sports merchant”.

The seven-floor store on Regent Street that was bombed five times during World War II, remains arguably one of the largest toy stores in the world.

More from the Toy Market

Though Covid-19 might have moved more toy sales online, according to a 2019 paper ‘Think beyond the buy: Shopping is an omnichannel journey‘, 66 per cent of shoppers purchased toys both in-store and online. Despite competition from e-commerce giants such as Amazon and eBay, toy retailers, including Hamleys, have not just put their wares online but are also stocking their stores and opening more.

After filing for bankruptcy in 2017, Toys R Us was purchased by Tru Kids, and its current owner WHP Global has recently announced that the brand will open several stores across the US this year. The brand also made an entry into India with a store in Ghaziabad in 2019.

The oldest toy store in the United States, FAO Schwarz, meanwhile, debuted in Europe in 2019 with a flagship store at Selfridges on Oxford Street in London.

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