The Pastime of Play on Display at the Whaling Museum

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A toy horse at the Whaling Museum in Sag Harbor. J. Corr photo.

By Jennifer Corr

While the string of popular animated Pixar films tend to come to mind when you hear the words “Toy Story,” currently, there’s an exhibition on view at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum that offers a different take on the theme.

This “Toy Story” tells the tale of paper dolls, toy trains, baby dolls, board games and other playthings that defined childhood for generations of Sag Harbor youth from the 19th through the early 20th centuries.

During a recent visit to the Whaling Museum, curator and collections manager Richard Doctorow explained that the exhibition, which opened June 9, is not just about the toys, but rather also delves into how the concept of childhood has changed over the centuries.

That story is reflected in the toys themselves.

Richard Doctorow with a toy chicken. J. Corr photo.

“Our modern concept of childhood is relatively new. Back in the 1800s and earlier, children were put to work at a very early age, out in the farms, mines, as apprentices or cabin boys on whaling ships out of Sag Harbor” Doctorow said. “It wasn’t really until the Victorian age that the modern idea of childhood, a time of frolic, ease, adventure and play, really became the norm. It was at that time that the toys themselves changed to reflect this.”

In other words, that’s when toys went from being instructional to just straight fun.

“Every time I put one out I want to play with it,” Doctorow joked.

The toys in this exhibition are primarily from the museum’s collection, with other items from the Suffolk County Historical Society and private collectors. The museum’s collection is made up of donations from Sag Harbor residents that have been received since the museum’s  opening in 1943.

Doctorow said that the toys were on display at the Whaling Museum for many years, but over time, were removed and replaced with “more significant pieces of Sag Harbor history.” But the toys were a hit when they were on view, so Doctorow is excited to have them displayed again at the museum, especially so that today’s kids can relate to the children of yesteryear.

“They are fascinating to look at, they are similar [to the toys today],” Doctorow said. “Rather then a fire engine being a truck, it’s being pulled by horses. But the idea of a child of the 1800s going ‘vroom vroom’ with a fire truck with horses I think is something that kids can understand today.”

A doll on view at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum. J. Corr photo.

Though the museum’s primary focus is to preserve and understand Sag Harbor’s history through whaling, it also deals with other aspects of the village’s story, both past and present. This exhibition is special to Sag Harbor because most of the toys on view were once in Sag Harbor homes.

“When we got started in the 1930s and 1940s, there were actually ads in the newspaper saying ‘please donate items,’” Doctorow said. “And I think the mothers of Sag Harbor were all too happy for this chance to clean out attics … and we’re really happy that they did, because we ended up with this marvelous collection.”

The “Toy Story” exhibition will be on display at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, 200 Main Street, Sag Harbor, through Monday, September 9. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and admission is $3 for children, $6 for students and $8 for adults. More information is available at sagharborwhalingmuseum.org or (631) 725-0770. 

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