The Toys We Remember

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mike Mozart

It’s been said that we never forget a memory. Instead, it’s just tucked away in our subconscious where one of our five senses will suddenly focus on a nostalgic thought. For me, it happened while browsing an antique shop and seeing a booth of old toys displayed.

On a top shelf, a Betsy Wetsy doll stood with the original baby bottle. Clothed in a diaper and flannel gown, the sleepy blue eyes open and shut. With soft, plastic-like skin and jointed limbs, the baby doll actually drank liquid. For little girls who aspired to be a “mommy” one day, this topped the list.

Nearby, a Slinky waited to be put on a staircase and gently nudged. If a child was fortunate to receive this novelty and lived in a two-story house, rainy days didn’t matter.

Looking at someone’s childhood collection brought back many memories, but it was a dog-eared book on the shelf that brought back Christmases of long ago. Around Nov. 1, Sears, Roebuck and Co. sent out its annual Wish Book. Page after page of the most popular toys for good little girls and boys filled the book. It doesn’t seem to matter the decade – each holiday season had its must-have popular hot toy. While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads, children made a wish list and received toys at Christmas, along with new clothes and the expected nuts, fruit and candy left in a stocking by the fireplace.

For $1.98, a child could own a doctor and nurse kit, with real tongue depressors, Kleenex and bandages. On the box were these words that would be hard to imagine today: “Every little boy can play a doctor and every little girl can play a nurse.”

Outdoor play was strongly encouraged, if not expected, by parents. Before video, computer and phone games filled hours of a day, children enjoyed toys that required running, hopping, jumping and skipping. With all this physical activity, I don’t recall any children being overweight and none being obese.

The red-steel Radio Flyer Wagon for $8.98 was a perfect example of cooperative play. One to ride, one to pull. Sharing and taking turns provided another lesson. Then, exchange places and repeat the activity. Radio Flyer’s scooter was a one-person operation where you placed the right foot on the base and pushed off with the left.

Holding the T-shaped handle, you could coast for several yards before you had to push again. And remember the metal roller skates that hooked onto your school shoes? A skate key adjusted the front clamps, and a leather strap fastened across the back. A sidewalk or paved area was the only requirement. Miles and miles were ridden with stick horses. And a cotton wet mop, rode heads up, made a good substitute.

Creativity knew no bounds. We improvised and made do with simple materials. Miniature toy soldiers, cowboys and Indians perched on horses were favorite items. When played outdoors, small mounds of dirt provided cover for the “bad guys.” Indoors, a quilt covering a dining room table formed the perfect hideout. When tired of battle games, a Dick Tracy squad car made a real siren sound when pushed.

To generate an interest in homemaking skills, the Betsy McCall dolls encouraged girls to sew. McCall’s magazine included a page of the paper dolls. You started with designing clothes for the paper cutouts. Then, you moved on to the real Betsy McCall dolls and learned to construct simple garments.

First an adult novelty, Silly Putty became a sought-after toy for children. Promoted as the “world’s finest plaything,” the gob of goo was advertised as safe, educational and relatively inexpensive. More importantly, it had the ability to copy text and images in comic books by transferring the ink from a printed piece of paper to putty onto a blank page.

Crayons and coloring books became the baby-sitter for busy parents, as they entertained kids for hours. These simple materials taught history lessons by coloring a picture of Abraham Lincoln or biology by adding color to a butterfly.

It had been many years since I flipped though a Sears Roebuck Christmas Catalog. But whenever I see a television commercial or storefront window advertising the must-have toy of the season, I’m reminded of the toys we remember.

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