The golden age of toy development was at the turn of the 20th century. Real wages were rising steadily in the Western world, allowing even working-class families to afford toys for their children, and industrial techniques of precision engineering and mass production was able to provide the supply to meet this rising demand. Intellectual emphasis was also increasingly being placed on the importance of a wholesome and happy childhood for the future development of children. William Harbutt, an English painter, invented plasticine in 1897, and in 1900 commercial production of the material as a children's toy began. Frank Hornby was a visionary in toy development and manufacture and was responsible for the invention and production of three of the most popular lines of toys based on engineering principles in the twentieth century: Meccano, Hornby Model Railways and Dinky Toys.
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Most children have been said to play with whatever they can find, such as sticks and rocks. Toys and games have been unearthed from the sites of ancient civilizations. They have been written about in some of the oldest literature. Toys excavated from the Indus valley civilization (3010–1500 BCE) include small carts, whistles shaped like birds, and toy monkeys which could slide down a string.
A significant fraction of gifts are unwanted, or the giver pays more for the item than the recipient values it, resulting in a misallocation of economic resources known as a deadweight loss. Unwanted gifts are often regifted, donated to charity, or thrown away. A gift that actually imposes a burden on the recipient, either due to maintenance or storage or disposal costs, is known as a white elephant.
Puzzles became greatly fashionable as well. In 1893, the English lawyer Angelo John Lewis, writing under the pseudonym of Professor Hoffman, wrote a book called Puzzles Old and New. It contained, amongst other things, more than 40 descriptions of puzzles with secret opening mechanisms. This book grew into a reference work for puzzle games and was very popular at the time. The Tangram puzzle, originally from China, spread to Europe and America in the 19th century.