Once upon a time there was a child with an elaborate butcher shop instead of a dollhouse, accurate to every detail including primal cuts on tiny hooks, butchers with aprons and cleavers, and even sawdust and blood on the floor. The other children would come to play … and order lamb chops, a smoked ham or a side of beef. Can you imagine them planning meals with whole tenderloins at the center? So it was in the Victorian age, when the entire world was modeled in miniature, from shoemakers to milliners shops.
Although there have been miniature models all the way back to Egypt, it was in Europe during the 16th century that they became objects of display. These were not intended for children to play with, but rather as collectibles – and expensive ones – for adults.
So perhaps these butcher shops were only models of the ideal place to purchase meat, and not toys at all.
But Robert Culff’s 1969 book The World of Toys tells us that these play sets were a hit with Victorian children far less squeamish than ours might be today. Culff writes that these “exact representations of butchers’ shops” were very popular, “with their modeled joints, strings of sausages, and whole animal carcasses hanging from real iron hooks, tier by tier, ’round the wooden butcher and his two assistants in their striped aprons.”
He imagines how satisfying it must have been “taking down and wrapping Sunday joints for one’s brothers and sisters, and presumably a certain amount about the prime cuts of meat was learned painlessly in the doing of it.” We like the idea – and what a good way to teach the children about going to market and selecting the best meat.
We are particularly intrigued by this German diorama, featuring whole ducks and a suckling pig, found at The Strong: National Museum of Play. With it’s beautiful display case and glass enclosure, it’s clear this was built to look at, and not for play.
So it seems that some were made for displays and others were intended for children. If you want to play butcher yourself, there are some available among the other miniatures at this online auction house right now. They are not quite as elaborate as these museum-quality pieces, but will provide you a butcher shop to call your own.
To read more on this topic, see Collector’s Weekly article “Baby’s First Butcher Shop,” here.