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Empire of Toys: The Global History of a German Industry

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How did the abstract idea of ‘nation’ become visible, material, and consumable—and thereby normalized to such a degree that people were willing to sacrifice their lives for it? When we think of nationalism and warfare, children’s toys rarely come to mind. Contributing to the field of global studies, in particular global commodity history and global material culture, the dissertation project 'Empire of Toys' traces the global 'lives' of toys from a manufacturing region in Central Germany and asks how the production, trade and consumption of toys has intersected with nationalism and war from the early modern period until the end of World War II. Through an investigation of surviving toys in museum collections in Germany, Britain and the United States and analysis of archival material related to the production, travel, trade, display, and use of toys, the dissertation seeks to accomplish two goals: First, it reveals the intrinsic historical connections between war and play and provokes readers to consider that toys don’t merely replicate the world. Instead, it proposes that toys help to normalize war and the nation as main frame of reference for the mobilization of people for war rather than dismissing child’s play as trivial and politically inconsequential. Second, it suggests that investigation of sustained cross-border circulation of artifacts—such as the mass mobility of children’s toys—provides a primary vector of historical interpretation that reveals the realities of a globalized and networked past. Following the complex trajectories of toys from their sites of manufacture in the rural toy-making area of Sonneberg/Coburg and the city of Nuremberg, a region which dominated German, European and global toy markets in the nineteenth century, this research makes visible a world of profound interaction and movement. It not only shows how in the modern world German toys came to shape the lives, worldviews, and consuming habits of people across the globe, but it also uncovers the events and processes that ended Germany’s hegemonic influence on global toy production in the first half of the twentieth century.

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This item is under embargo until September 11, 2026.