Food and Toys: Aspects of poor children’s material cultures in Austria from the late 19th century to the interwar period



This paper deals with some aspects of poor children’s material cultures in Austria during the late 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. It concentrates on food and toys, and draws on journals and contemporary studies as well as on published or unpublished autobiographical records. It looks at public discourse shaped by humanitarian, pedagogical, commercial or scientific concerns on the one hand, and poor children’s practices shaped by poverty and the struggle for survival on the other, in order to trace the extent to which children themselves or their families still shaped their material environments. Food occupied a central place in poor children’s lives because of its scarcity and the survival (or periodic revival) of subsistence economy. On the part of state officials, teachers and middle class humanitarians, efforts were made to improve poor children’s diet, whereas food industries appear to have played a relatively restricted role in poor children’s lives. Toys were for the most part constructed by children themselves or their parents, and efforts by toys’ manufacturers to increase consumption in the inland market appear to have remained marginal and unsuccessful. However, market toys were slowly coming into working class children’s lives as well, thus gradually transforming their consumption patterns.

Keywords: food, toys, childhood, poor class, material culture, Austria, war, representation