Things, objects, commodities, possessions—these are all names for the tangible materials that make up and subtly order our day-to-day lives, our behaviors, our feelings, and our interests. Any material object we come across in our experience with the world has the ability to exert an influence on us—and the potential within or through that interaction to incite a reaction, a thought, an emotion, a behavior, a push away or a pull towards it. This interaction with the material world begins from the very moment we are born when we are designated and given ownership of objects (like a blanket or a bottle) as infants before having even learned to ask for them. During that malleable state of newness to the world, material objects have the potential to exert their strongest influence on us.
Toys are some of the earliest possessions we interact with. They are culturally embedded objects from which children learn skills and roles from that in many ways shape who we later become. In this essay, I would like to argue that a toy’s agency is powerful and can extend far beyond childhood into our adult lives. Through the experience with my favorite toy, my playhouse, I hope to show how this culturally embedded object was a catalyst for change, fostered specific relationships, and defined my interests. By painting a picture of my most beloved toy, situating it in historical and cultural contexts, and examining my relationship to it, I hope to show how this objects agency has influenced me to this day.
It was an afternoon in 1993 when my father put the finishing touches on the playhouse he had built for me in our backyard. Weeks of anticipation had gone by for me as I watched him dig out a 5 by 7-foot rectangular plot of dirt in our backyard, layout the small structure’s foundation and pour the cement. What followed were the walls made of cedar planks that supported a pitched roof of wooden shingles. Three glass windows lined the front of the house, with a small door that opened by a crystal doorknob my father had found in a thrift shop. Two more windows were built into the left wall of the house, which opened out on to two large flower bushes outside. In front of the house, a wooden porch of blue-stained wood planks was built strategically around the trunk of a maple tree growing a few feet in front of the door. Beneath each window, a small shelf supported the wooden troughs made of the same blue-stained wood as the porch. The playhouse was completed with a coat of mauve purple and a golden yellow trim around the windows and doorframe.
Of the three main furnishings inside the playhouse, there was a low, 2-door, wooden cabinet with a small rising off the top that served as the “kitchen” where the favorite activity of “cooking” occurred. The entire cabinet had been repainted a pale butter yellow and on the top surface, a stovetop complete with knobs and circular burner grates had been painted. A hole that my father had cut out of the top left side of the cabinet served as the resting place for a metal bowl that symbolized a sink. The cabinets beneath were equipped with miscellaneous spoons, bowls, and a small saucepan. On the shelf above were small tin-tea cans that had been repurposed as canisters for various ingredients. The actual process of cooking took place by mixing together dried leaves from outdoors, flowers, and grass. On rare occasions, mud was added to the mix to make “cakes.” When the mixtures were complete they were served at a small round table equipped with three matching chairs. My mother, who worked as a trompe l’oeil mural painter in the 80s, created the illusion of a picnic tea party with a gingham tablecloth, china tea set, and tiny cakes and pies on silver plates painted in appetizing soft pastel colors.
All of these details added an additional dimension of realism to the imaginary scenarios I acted out inside the playhouse. I would cook by myself or I would serve the mixtures I concocted to guests. When I was a little older, I would pretend to be the TV host of a cooking show, speaking aloud all of the steps required in the preparation of a dish. I would also do cooking demonstrations as if I was trying to sell the particular pot or spoon I was using, which I think stemmed from being hypnotized by a particular infomercial I’d seen advertising a food processor. The focus of this activity was not so much what resulted from my cooking (which was inedible) but the actual process of it.
The wooden cabinet stove had an impact on my play and began a trend that continued into adulthood of interest in food and presentation. As an 8-year-old, I developed a habit of watching Martha Stewart every morning during the summer. My fascination with the perfect world she presented continued on for quite some time, until, as 11 years old, I could be found reading her biography. From 7th to 8th grade, I started a weekly bake sale at school and when I was 13, I chose to assist a pastry chef at a restaurant for the week as my 8th grade work-study project. Today, I religiously follow several food blogs and still derive pleasure from cooking, hosting, and the resulting praise that comes from that. All of this, I see as originating from the agency of my miniature cabinet stove, essentially what that stove directed me to do through the types of play it provided me as a child. As I grew older, I became aware of the culturally embedded idea as the female ideal of a perfect homemaker.
There are broad cultural stigmas that go along with fashion, interior design, and homemaking in general. It is widely considered unacceptable to fully accept or “own” any role heavily imbued with these types of activities unless you are a woman or a homosexual male. Despite the hard work and dedication that goes with homemaking and design, these fields have been snubbed as women’s work. And beyond this, it is now less and less acceptable to fully own these roles if you are a woman because it is assumed that a woman is selling herself short or letting down the cause if she takes pleasure in such activities. Today, women are encouraged to pursue non-traditional careers such as those in information technology. This begets a sort of social paradox wherein it is expected that women’s work maintains its general unfavorable status, and it is also expected that women continue to do women’s work for the very reason that it is so unfavorable when compared to “man’s” work (early established preference through suggestion), and where any woman caught actually doing women’s work is to be shunned for kowtowing toward an archaic and harmful ideal.
Then again, it is very easy for any woman to revert back to the sociological stone age (figuratively speaking of the sexist and misogynistic past of America). All a woman need do to find the solace of the joy of un-insulted woman’s work would be to move to a country that does not acknowledge that there has been a feminist revolution. I hear Belarus is lovely this time of year. Whining about some of the minor side-effects of the women’s movement is ultimately more harmful to the small gains made. Of course, this assumes that one is “on board” with the movement.
Further discussion of it being ok for a woman to take on any role is needed. Until anyone can be a stay-at-home parent, or sew clothes, or organize a party, until that is able to be achieved, there will be this stand-off between the intense necessity of the women’s cause to shun traditional women’s roles and women who feel most at home in the traditional woman’s role. This is analyzed perfectly in Katherine Mansfield's Bliss analysis.
Considerations such as this cause me to ask myself if my father’s actions ended up handicapping me by building a playhouse that has wrapped me up in obsolete ideas of gendered societal roles, or if he was he simply building an extravagant present to the needs of his daughter whom he loved? Did I ever really want a playhouse or a pretend stove? I can’t remember. But the building of such a large playhouse seems like a pretty big undertaking to begin on without having had some inkling beforehand that it would be appreciated. These types of questions, when looked at in hindsight can become infuriating chicken/egg scenarios when all that really matters is that I like the aesthetics of home design in all iterations available. If that makes me a girly-girl, then I’m a girly-girl, and there is nothing wrong with that.
But beyond these gender stereotypes lies one’s own consideration that women (in this country) are allowed relative, if not complete, autonomy over themselves. This is not true of children, for they are denied autonomy on a consistent basis “for their own sake." Even the size of the world in relation to their own little bodies tells them that they are not yet eligible to participate. In playing in my playhouse, one of the most important aspects of it was the fact that everything about it was proportional to a child’s body. All the interior furnishings—the rug, the folded futon turned bed, the cabinet stove, the tiny wall shelf—were all either child-sized or altered to fit the playhouse. Even the doorway was the appropriate height, so appropriate that it was barely accessible to my parents (who had to stoop to enter).
The playhouse’s location, which was a walk up through the backyard and up the hill from my actual home, was also a major factor in its influence on me as the longer distance between it and the main house established a separation from the family living space and my own, thus setting up a kind of independence for me. The playhouse’s proportion and scale then played a role in my perception and feeling toward it, which was that it belonged to me. The miniaturization of real-life objects gave me the feeling of authority, something that, as a child, is generally reserved for adults. In my playhouse, I was no longer a child in an adult world but a child in my own world, where I could role-play being an adult.
The day I experienced that sense of authority came when I decided to rearrange the interior of my playhouse. The single room, a limited amount of furniture, and small space only allowed for so much change, but the process of moving the few pieces of furniture inside around and determining what worked and what didn’t was refreshingly satisfying. I felt a new sense of control and accomplishment after the fact. My new arrangement had essentially divided the room into two areas, the back “bedroom” featuring the futon and then the cooking and dining area.
I attempted to add brightness with a coral-colored mohair shawl that my grandmother had made my mom, which was the perfect size for draping over the small bed I had made in the corner out of a folded futon. Then, I brought in small items like framed photos, a tablecloth, dolls, and a mirror. The addition of these objects that I had collected from around our home added individuality and seemed necessary to make my playhouse become even more realistic.
Hours went by and it was getting dark, so I brought up some candles to the playhouse, which were able to illuminate and heat up the playhouse, which unfortunately did not have electricity. Now, it felt almost fully functioning as my own home and the idea of spending the night inside crossed my mind.
In this instance, again, the playhouse’s agency became apparent, not only at that moment but later in my life. The configuration of space contained within the walls of the playhouse and outlined by the furnishings presented me with a problem to be solved, but most importantly access to a new sense of control and responsibility for my own space. It was the problematic arrangement of furniture that called attention to itself and space, which then compelled me to alter it. This was my first experience with interior decorating and lead to the reconfiguration of the bedroom in my actual house, which later on included repainting the walls, ripping out built-in shelving and the addition of new window shades, all of which had taken pleading with my parents to do. For my 10th birthday, I asked for an antique art-deco ceiling lamp that I had seen in a shop to be the centerpiece of the newly redesigned room, which in retrospect was a bizarre request from a 9-year-old. I took a special liking to certain interior design books my mother owned, and also a distinct dislike to others and in this way, I developed my own sense of style through which I could express myself. After my bedroom was finished, I set my sights on the rest of the house and attempted to rearrange and advise my mom to buy new slipcovers and paint the room a different color. My idea of what the living room should look like never came to fruition, and years later when my parents did decide to make changes that weren’t what I had envisioned, I felt frustrated. The freedom and self-agency I had found in the playhouse were subverted by an intentional ignoring of the ideas that stemmed directly from the source that gave me strength. A denial of the importance of the idea was a denial of the skills I had worked so hard to achieve, and therefore it was a denial of the validity of my right to exist. Saying “no” to my living room design was the same as saying “no” to the idea that I had full freedom and autonomy to affect the world in the ways I had chosen and was told were appropriate.
My interest in space continued on through college when I took an internship with one of the most established interior decorators in my hometown. It remains today an interest of mine for the future and something that I am frequently complimented on. I wonder if I had not had my playhouse if I would have pursued it to the extent I did. The playhouse was essentially a starting point for me and what kinds of interests I would develop. We live in a culture that praises beauty, comfort, and the home – a house is a place of great importance, safety, security and it the place where every one of our days starts. As a child, I think I internalized the cultural ideals of the home and when presented with my own, expressed them through the ways in which I made the playhouse an expression of my own independence, power, and personality.
The interior decoration and the construction of the playhouse itself had a significant influence on the kinds of play I would engage in. The all-wood interior and the hand-painted furnishings gave off an organic, old-fashioned quality. In fact, this was the exact kind of house I visualized when my mother read “Little House on the Prairie” to me.
This playhouse then, was a kind of stage set for the long-running narratives I would act out that I liked to call “olden days.” Just as in a play, costume became an important and elaborate component of making my imaginary play more of a reality. Anything that I already was in possession of that fit the antiquated vision in my head was brought out and kept in the playhouse. Shawls, aprons, and long, puffy skirts were staples, as were baskets to carry things around on “journeys.” One of my favorite dresses to wear that I felt fit with the mood of the playhouse perfectly was a light yellow color, with a high Victorian neck lace collar, long puffy sleeves, a cinched waist and a long, graduated ruffle skirt that hit the floor. A supply of costumes became another very necessary part of my play and unified me with the world of the playhouse.
When I learned that costume and dress could help manifest a concept I envisioned in my head into the real space of the playhouse, my interest in fashion and design began. Dressing up became an increasingly important and more elaborate part of my play in the playhouse. Costuming and the interior staging that started with the playhouse taught me that that visual appearance could be modified to convey certain moods, give off certain impressions, allow a blending or a standing out from particular settings, etc. In other words, costume and dress became a means through which I could exercise my power and express the person I was trying to be in my play.
Once again, I carried this knowledge with me into my everyday life, changing my outfits 3 or 4 times a day. At pre-school, I spent the majority of my time in the dress-up room. To this day, I still have a great appreciation for fashion design—so much so that I decided last summer to take on an additional internship with an LA-based designer where I still work to this day. It may sound like a stretch to say that the playhouse is what propelled me towards fashion and design, but had it not been for what the playhouse compelled me to do, then I may not have developed that fascination.
In considering my old playhouse in this new light, I wonder what influences it has had on me that I haven’t even begun to be aware of. I wonder if I prefer types of pastel colors or mural-style patterns in fabrics due to my mother’s playhouse artwork, or if I prefer vintage aesthetics from the pleasant memories of that old crystal doorknob, or if I will someday inexplicably mix blue; purple, and yellow in a project without realizing that the fact that these colors that “feel right” stems from an earlier moment of happiness in recalling the joy of family through the symbolism of the playhouse and the things that I associate with it.
But there is something about playhouses, in general, that should be considered. While I loved my playhouse growing up—especially the details that made it unique and wholly my own—I am not unique in having this experience. Children all over the world have playhouses specifically built for them. Sometimes a family member, such as their father, builds it for them. Sometimes a contractor is hired to come and professionally build a playhouse to the specifications of parents and children. And other times, when these options are not available, children will build pillow forts or chair tents with sheets in the living room, or they will cordon off a cellar or attic as their own private club that adheres to specific rules that they define. A child may even make some part of a backyard or park their own personal spot by scavenging random things to personalize a space all their own. Is this merely human nature? It could be a widespread practice of nesting inherent throughout the entire species.
The question of whether or not revering a cherished item is materialistic and therefore empty misses the point that the cherished items are seldom cherished for their monetary value alone. Materialism connotes an idea that one must have the latest, newest thing. This behavior can be learned, but it is not inherent. What is inherent in the cherishing of objects is the assignment of importance to many different types of material things. And each of these things has many different monetary costs. Some of these things are worth a lot of money, but others are not—a magazine may be valuable to a girl because it has a picture of her favorite movie star on the cover, but it is useful to a homeless person because he can stuff it into his clothes to create warming insulation. Here are the two main points of true valuation of objects—the correct or legitimate valuation. And that answers the chicken/egg conundrum. While it may always seem impossible to calculate the exact influence holder between cherished objects and inspired object owners, it can be easily agreed that these objects that have major value assigned to them by their owners will, of course, influence those owners in life because the entire reason that value was assigned in the first place was the original importance that is carried on through the life choice actions of the owners.