Sunday, 23 February 2014

A toy guillotine

At the time of the Terror model guillotines were a popular source of (somewhat nervous) amusement. Curtius made quarter-sized guillotines to adorn his waxworks. Miniature guillotines were  sold for cutting bread and some salon hostesses even furnished tiny dolls, which looked like the enemy of the day, filled with "blood" (perfume) to fly out after decapitation.  In Arras, according to one English eyewitness, children were taught to amuse themselves by making models of the guillotine, with which they destroyed flies, and even animals. 

Toy guillotine c.1794

The above illustration comes from a 1928 book on "children's toys of bygone days"; the author insists that this was a plaything rather than a model for grown-ups:

"The worst monstrosity of the kind was the outcome of the French Revolution, which indeed was over-rich in aberrations of taste. The toy shops put on the market little guillotines with which little patriots could behead figures of aristocrats. There still survive some specimens of this pretty and diverting machine, of which one bears the date 1794 [above]. These were not models but pure toys; and in proof of this we have king's evidence from one whom we should never suspect of wishing to give so bloodthirsty a toy to his little son. This was no other than Goethe. In December, 1793, he asks his mother in Frankfurt to get him such a toy guillotine for his son August; and in her reply he certainly got some home-truths. In her decisive manner she wrote to him by return post: 'Dear Son, Anything I can do to please you is gladly done and gives me joy;--but to buy such an infamous implement of murder--that I will not do at any price. If I had authority, the maker should be put in the stocks and I would have the machine publicly burnt by the common executioner. What! Let the young play with anything so horrible,--place in their hands for their diversion murder and blood-shedding? No, that will never do!"

[Children's toys of bygone days: a history of Playthings of All Peoples from Prehistoric Times to the XIXth Century by Karl Grober, English version by Philip Hereford. London, 1928]


The picture and the quote can be found in Will Schofield's blog of book illustrations: 50 Watts.
See also: Pamela Pilbeam, Madame Tussaud and the history of waxworks, 2006, p.58.

1 comment:

  1. Although his mother didn't support this gift for her only grandson, Goethe gave a toy guillotine to the son of his friend Friedrich Schiller, their sons played together sometimes (see Rüdiger Safranskis "Goethe und Schiller. Geschichte einer Freundschaft"). The German Dichterfürst had a very coarse side, indeed.