“What is the metal turtle in that box?” It was an unexpected question, but not the strangest one I’ve
been asked as the Archaeology Laboratory Supervisor for Poplar Forest. I love this type of question,
though, because trying to answer it inevitably leads me down a research rabbit hole where I learn
something new or fun. This time, I learned about an early “remote controlled” toy.
The artifact in in question was the remains of a tin plate turtle-shaped walking toy made by MOBO Toys
and named appropriately the “Toy-toise” (you better believe I annoyed all my coworkers with that pun
for the rest of the day). MOBO Toys were made by D. Sebel & Co. of England between 1947 and 1972.
The company’s most famous toy was the Bronco toy rocking horse that could be propelled forward by a
spring mechanism activated by a rider sitting on the back and pushing down on and then releasing the
stirrups. A similar mechanism was used in the Toy-toise, first released in 1948. A trigger held in the
user’s hand connected to a long cable which ended on the back of the toy’s underneath side. When
squeezed, the trigger activated a series of metal rods and springs that alternately moved the front and
back legs of the toy, pushing it forward. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Toy-toise was
designed to help children learn to walk, but other sources suggest adults had just as much fun racing
them at parties.
The Toy-toise in the collection at Poplar Forest is no longer in racing shape. The springs and plastic
wheels are missing, the legs are mostly broken, the shell is rusted, and the paint is fading. We didn’t
even realize we had it until we ran across a box of artifacts collected in the early 1990s in the area of the
North Grove Ice House, the site of our ongoing winter excavations. Just goes to show that you never
know what you’re going to find hidden on the shelves of an archaeology lab.
You can read more about the Toy-toise at:
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
Victoria and Albert Museum