Mr Potato Head webHolidays are times for giving. We stuff our stockings by the fireplace, stuff our stomachs by the food pantry, and stuff our shelves with nativity sets. Have things changed over the years? Have we always exchanged gift cards for gift cards, cell phone covers for cell phone covers, and gift cards for gift cards? When you dove under the tree and shredded gift wrap to find a new treasure, what was that gift that most captivated you? Do you still have it? Have you seen it on Antiques Roadshow? See if any of these most-requested toys take you back.

The Fabulous Fifties

Toys in the 1950s were pretty simple, yet they required the exercise of two pretty important human faculties: imagination and the body. Some toys required creativity and a bit of artistry, while others turned exercise into fun (probably without us kids even realizing it!).

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite vegetable, Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head. Actually, according to the box, “Any fruit or vegetable makes a funny face man.” This was the first toy advertised on TV. It consisted of plastic parts that you inserted into a real fruit or vegetable. Sadly, but understandably, due to complaints about rotting fruits and vegetables (He aged more quickly than we do), and government health standards, Mr. P. went plastic in 1964.

Remember matchboxes? Not the ones your parents warned you not to touch, but Mattel’s Matchbox® cars. Born in England, these die cast metal toys featured (and still feature) cool features like doors that open and wheels that turn. They allowed a child to have a stable of cars without needing celebrity status, and to build many a sandcastle and cardboard city with tiny construction equipment.

Little people were introduced to Fisher-Price® Little People® in 1950, starting with a fire truck and three little people. Then came the big yellow school bus and more of the perpetually-happy figures (not to mention the frowning kid on the bus that we could occasionally identify with). For once, we had control of the school bus!

Gumby was on odd little character. If you had color TV or owned a Gumby figure, you know that he was green. Why green? His beginning was associated with pea soup. His creator, Art Clokey, produced a stop-motion animation commercial for Andersen’s Pea Soup early in the decade. From there, Gumby went on to toy and TV fame. But, seriously — Would you trust a horse named, “Pokey”?

Corn Popper webWere you stuck on Colorforms®? Their slogan was, “Kids are stuck on Colorforms®.” In 1951, uncomfortable with the cost of paint, Harry and Patricia Kislevitz cut out flexible vinyl figures to stick on their walls. When friends took up scissors and joined them, Colorforms® was born. Popeye the Sailor was the first licensed character to have his own Colorforms® set.

Another Fisher-Price® toy popped up in 1957: the Corn Popper™ push toy. “Baby’s encouraged to keep moving for all the exciting ball-poppin’ sounds and action – a fun way to give baby’s gross motor skills a push in the right direction.” See! Good exercise! All for about the current cost of a carton of popcorn at the movies.

Pogo Sticks, Play-Doh (originally a wallpaper cleaner), Hula Hoops, and Barbie® dolls were also born in the 1950s and are still with us today!

The Suburban Sixties

The 1950s saw a surge in the suburban lifestyle, a time of prosperity, population growth, and parentage. Kids who were born in the fifties grew up in the sixties, and those too young to protest wanted toys that expressed a certain domesticity and family life. Barbie® was getting lonely, so in 1962, Mattel introduced her and the world to Ken®. Like many of us, Ken® started out with “real” hair (felt) but switched to “fake” (plastic) hair soon after.

Chatty Cathy webKen® and Barbie® were silent partners, but the Mattel family changed with Chatty Cathy. Pull her string and she speaks up to 18 fun phrases. The original Chatty Cathy voice was June Foray, who also brought Rocky the Flying Squirrel to life. Speaking of dolls and families, they needed a place to live. The Mattel dolls were getting famous, so they needed their own place. Enter the Barbie® DreamHouse™. Feeling independent and empowered, girls could imagine entertaining friends in style (and paying off a mortgage). While a new crop of dolls was entertaining and prospering, others were out protecting their freedoms. Roll call: “G. I. Joe, from Hasbro!” In order to keep his cool image, Joe was marketed as an “action soldier,” not a doll (although he was a doll). During the Vietnam war, interest in the military declined, and so did Joe’s popularity. His final roll call came in 1978.

 

 

 

 

Easy Bake Oven webOn the home front, girls were becoming “domestic engineers” with Kenner’s Easy-Bake Oven in 1963 and Suzy Homemaker. The Easy-Bake Oven used an incandescent light bulb (remember them?) as its heat source and actually made edible food. Topper Toys made the Suzy Homemaker line of household equipment (working blender, mixer, oven, dishwasher, iron and ironing board, vacuum cleaner with multiple accessories, and clothes washer — and a vanity!) so “you can entertain, wash dishes, clean house, launder, iron, bake… and always look lovely.”

Domestic life in the Sixties was not all drudgery; there were fun toys as well. The aforementioned Matchbox® cars met their match with Mattel’s Hot Wheels®, a line of muscle cars created by Elliot Handler. “He nabbed a GM car designer and an actual rocket scientist and together, they created a toy car that looked cooler and performed better than anything else out there.” If you weren’t into racing cars, you might have wanted to play with rubber balls. In 1965, the creators of the Hula Hoop®, Frisbee®, and Slip ’n Slide®, Wham-O, put together a concoction of chemicals that are hard to pronounce and gave us the Superball®. (I confess: We have a basket full of Superballs® at home!) While kids love the super bounce, physicists have written papers about its fascinating properties, like its “almost perfect coefficient of restitution and does things other balls do not.” And we thought toys were not educational!

For our final classic wishlist toy, let’s go back to the roots of our fascination with techie toys. Do you remember how frustrated you were when you knocked over your Lite-Brite box while playing with “an amazing new toy that lets a child color with light”? It came with 16 pre-printed picture sheets to lay on the “magic box.” And yes, those little colored pegs did fall out on occasion.
And no, batteries were not included.

 

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