Reviewing Classic Toys

One of the nice things about the Christmas season is that it gives me an excuse to roam around the toy department of large stores, although the truth is my daughter is in her 20’s, and my youngest nephew is a junior in high school. Of course, I’m usually disappointed, as I rarely come across any of my childhood favorites anymore, which would include the “Fort Apache” play-set, the “Fanner 50” cap gun, or a Lionel model railroad. It seems most of the shelves are full of electronic gadgetry, usually to be connected to a computer or a 55 inch screen TV. At this point, you might expect me to begin a rant about how superior the toys and games I grew up with are when compared to what is available for today’s generation, and believe me, that was my original intention. But upon further review, I am not sure that some of the time honored items that Baby Boomers played with were as fun as we might choose to remember. Here now is a description of some of those classic toys, along with an objective (yeah, right) assessment of them.

Pogo Stick: I never understood the attraction to the pogo stick. Yes, the user got to hop around like a kangaroo, but for how long, and then, what? Unlike roller skates, scooters and skateboards, pogo sticks were not an efficient form of transportation, and the owner would be pretty much restricted to using in front of his or her own house, while, one by one, their friends would leave while the pogo stick enthusiast was too busy bouncing to notice. Personally, jumping up and down on my parents’ bed was much more fun.

Stilts: I’m not talking about the professional kinds of stilts, which produce a 20 foot tall Uncle Sam at every Fourth of July parade, but the modified home versions, that elevated the user about two feet off the ground. Like the pogo stick, stilts were never a practical form of getting around, as movement on stilts was very slow, even if a kid had somehow mastered them. Another problem with stilts was walking on then required using both arms to hold on to the poles, making one completely vulnerable to being pushed to the ground by even the weakest of neighbors. The best description of stilts I can offer is that it gave you sensation of what it would have been like to be Wilt Chamberlain, had he lived to be 85.

Slinky: “What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound…blah, blah, blah.” Okay, Slinky…you’ve been around for almost 70 years…when are you going to come up with a second trick? And did it ever occur to you that some kids live in one story houses? The Slinky (right up there with Silly Putty) is a great example of what TV advertising can do for a product that’s hardly more than a disemboweled bedspring. It has been pointed out to me that the Slinky is the official state toy of Pennsylvania. What is the state bird, Woody Woodpecker?

Jacks: I’m curious if jacks are still being played with, or have gone the way of the Hula-Hoop. The origin of jacks can be traced back over 2,000 years when ancient Greeks played something called “knucklebones”. Since I never played jacks, I’m somewhat vague on the rules, but I do know it had something to do with bouncing a small rubber ball, and picking up small metal multi-pointed objects between bounces (the way I described it, it’s a wonder it never replaced baseball). The most entertainment I got out of jacks was whenever my father would step on one while walking barefoot in the kitchen at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Marbles: The vision of a group of boys shooting marbles was once a slice of Americana, but I think the actual game called marbles has not been widely played since the early 1950’s. It’s my guess that kneeling around a circle drawn in the dirt and shooting tiny round objects at each other lost much of its appeal once television sets invaded the countryside. All that’s left are the expressions, “walking away with all of the marbles” and “that guy seems to have lost all of his marbles.”

Etch-A-Sketch: Talk about delivering a mixed message…The Etch-A-Sketch encourages young people to creatively make some kind of drawing by turning a pair of knobs, which direct a hidden pencil, allowing the picture to appear on a small screen. But then, the child is expected to shake away the results of their effort, and start again on a new project. Isn’t anything worth saving? Stick to crayons, kids.

Yo-Yo: Although the Duncan Yo-Yo website claims that their toy is as popular as ever, I see little evidence of this. Invented centuries ago, the yo-yo’s popularity exploded in the early 1960’s thanks to, you guessed it, television. At one time, Duncan had 10 different categories of their product, based on the skill level of the buyer. TV commercials and print ads would feature all of the various tricks that could be performed, especially if one owned the most advanced (and most expensive) model, the Duncan Imperial. Every community would host yo-yo contests, sometimes attended by a former Duncan Yo-Yo World Champion. I must confess that I was terrible at yo-yoing (if that is the term), and could only look on in envy watching Steve Banchero “rock the cradle.” Fortunately, the yo-yo’s heyday has passed, although I hear Steve still has his glow-in-the-dark Imperial.

Old Maid: Actually, “Old Maid” was a very fun card game. The only problem was in my house, a deck of Old Maid cards would not last for long. When a group of Daley kids would play, inevitably, someone would have bent the corner of the Old Maid card, giving that person the advantage of indentifying, and avoiding that card. Once the ruse was discovered, all of the cards would have to be bent in the same place, but by the next game the Old Maid would then have a torn middle. Soon, every card would have to constantly be mutilated to keep up with what was happening to the Old Maid. After a few games, all of the cards were ruined. My mother grew tired of having to buy a new set of cards every week, so the game eventually died out, which was just as well…updated versions of Old Maid depicted a less homely woman. We preferred the original lady…man, was she ugly.

Unicycle: Okay, I admit this probably does not belong on the list, as very few people ever owned a unicycle, let alone knew how to ride one. But one guy in my neighborhood did have one, and was always bringing it to the schoolyard to show off. No one liked him.

I’m sure I have omitted several other toys that deserved mentioning, and please, feel free to suggest more entries to this list. But before wrapping this up, I do want to mention something I learned recently that is kind of cool. There is a National Toy Hall of Fame, which started in 1998 with 17 original inductees. (The number now stands at 52) Entering the Hall in 2005, and now part of a group that includes Barbie, G.I. Joe, Lincoln Logs and Play-Doh…the cardboard box.