What is the origin of "toys in the attic"?

Hi there,

I just came across this phrase in a novel. Of course I’ve heard it many times before and I’m well aware it implies insanity, but this time I had one of those “Wait, where did that phrase come from, anyway?” moments. Other euphemisms for insanity, like “bats in the belfry” or “slipping a cog”, are either obvious or easily traced with a little Googling. The origin of “toys in the attic”, though, has so far eluded me. I figured if anyone knew this bit of trivia, he or she might hang around here. So, any ideas?

completely uncited speculation ahead, but i wonder if it might have its origins in something to do with parents becoming mentally unhinged if all their children die. toys go into storage. parents go a bit loopy i their loneliness and introspectuon etc.

Well, if the attic represents the brain/mind, having toys up there instead of serious things represents a more child-like state or lack of intellectual ability.

Of course it’s a total WAG as I’ve never heard the phrase before now!

Lillian Hellman’s play?

Probably Hellman’s play, which is from 1960, but where did she get the line? Searching Google Books I found several earlier uses of the line that indicated that the reason that the literal toys were in the attic was that they were broken or disused. Maybe they were being stored there until they could be fixed, but never were, or maybe they were outgrown and stowed away dusty and half-remembered for the next generation. Either way that could make a good metaphor for insanity.

I haven’t seen the play, but reviews make it appear that the title doesn’t refer to insanity but the residues that our years as children bring to adults.

Great input, everyone! Thanks so much. I found references to the play, but didn’t even consider that it may have inspired the phrase, ala “gaslighting”. I just assumed it was the other way around. The broken toy thing especially makes sense. Well, you know what they say about assumptions… :wink:

No cite for this, but…in less enlightened times, mentally or physically challenged children would be confined, in a sort of home prison, & hidden from a judgemental world.

Often in attics. With bars added to the windows.

I like this idea. ^^

This is kind of a cool reference if it hasn’t been posted yet:


Michael Quinion is one of the three best websites for word origins.

But, I don’t see how that links to our current discussion. I"m sure I missed it. Please cite a specific article.