Henry Ireson Jones opened a small book shop in Whanganui in 1860 on Taupō Quay. Two buildings later the company moved into new premises on Victoria Ave. Departments were added over the years, not least the Toy Department on the first floor of the new shop.

The book business had thrived with the presence of British troops stationed in Whanganui, desperate for reading material. Jones started stocking stationery and opened a printery, later adding even more departments such as the Sports Department. The Jones sons, Lloyd and Leonard, and later Fred, took over when their father retired.

H I Jones and Sons moved to a building on the Tudor Court site in 1936. After World War II they moved back down the Avenue to Collier's building. The company was sold in 1959 to Graham Weir, but it still ran as H I Jones Bookshop until the 1990s, again moving up the Avenue to the old McGruer's building. In 1995, H I Jones closed after 135 years of business in Whanganui.

Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

The Jones Toy Department always held a special allure for Whanganui children. A photograph taken in 1910 shows a large well-stocked room with three attendants and plenty to look at.

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Throughout the ages, toys made for particular games have been treasured by their lucky owners. But before the 20th century, New Zealand children had very few toys. They usually helped in the home or on the farm from an early age, so there was not much time for play.

Children in ancient times played with the same kinds of toys as children in New Zealand have played with for generations. Thousands of years ago, Egyptian children played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles and spinning tops. Children in Ancient Greece and Rome played with balls, knucklebones, hoops and dolls.

During the industrial revolution in Europe, toys were mass produced in factories and became cheaper and more affordable. In 1558, the first doll's house was manufactured in Germany. Jigsaws and alphabet blocks, designed as educational toys became popular. In 19th century New Zealand, children whose families could afford toys played with wood or porcelain dolls, dolls houses, model shops, skipping ropes, balls, knucklebones, marbles, toy soldiers, trains and boats.

Children from poorer families had few shop-bought toys, but their simple home-made toys would have provided just as many hours of fun. Almost anything can be turned into a toy. Scraps of cloth and a clothes peg can become a doll. A discarded wooden box can be transformed through imagination into a carriage or a palace.

H I Jones & Sons Ltd premises on Victoria Avenue
H I Jones & Sons Ltd premises on Victoria Avenue

Many new toys were invented in the 20th and 21st centuries. Plasticine was manufactured in 1900, as was Meccano. Tin cars were produced and teddy bears were invented. Skateboards appeared in 1958 and Barbie dolls in 1959. By the end of the 20th century computer games had taken over the world of play! But not everyone can afford a computer and New Zealand children still love to play with their toys, swap collectables, read books, listen to stories and use their imaginations.

The Whanganui Regional Museum re-created its own Toy Department display, based on the H I Jones photograph featured here. You can visit it any time you are near the museum between 10am and 1pm every day, and see a great range of late 1800s and early 1900s toys, that children, and many nostalgic adults, still love today.

•Libby Sharpe is acting director at Whanganui Regional Museum