Rob Hardy: Classic toys

February 5, 2010 12:48:00 PM

Rob Hardy - [email protected]


You know all about awards programs like the Oscars. You know there is a Baseball Hall of Fame (and maybe you know there are plenty of halls of fame for minor sports like, say, trap-shooting). Did you know there was a hall of fame for toys? Something called the Strong National Museum of Play, located in Rochester, N.Y., is on a mission of "exploring play to promote learning, creativity and discovery and to illuminate American cultural history," according to George Rollie Adams, President and CEO of the museum.  


And it is this museum that is in charge of the National Toy Hall of Fame. Scott G. Eberle, an expert on toys and play, along with the museum itself, has authored "Classic Toys of the National Toy Hall of Fame" (Running Press), a big, colorful book that is bound to bring you a happy sense of nostalgia.  


You knew these toys, or you knew some kid that had them, or you lusted for them, or you know them because your own kids have had them. The museum houses more than 75,000 toys, but only a few get into its Hall of Fame. A toy honoree, says Adams, "must be widely recognized, generally respected and well-remembered. Its popularity must extend over one generation. And it must foster learning, creativity or discovery through play." These are the reasons this book is so delightful. These were (and are) really good toys. They made an impression, and the impression is of joy. More than 40 toys get their own chapters here, each with photos and a fact filled essay of appreciation by Eberle.  


Did you know, for instance, that 90 percent of American girls own a Barbie doll? The doll did a different take on what a doll ought to be; Barbie was neither a baby doll or a mommy doll, but was a grown up girl. One of the founders of the Mattel Toy Co. was in Germany and saw a figurine from a saucy comic strip. She brought statuettes back home, guessing that "little girls wanted to be bigger girls." Feminists have had a field day for decades criticizing the particular bignesses of this "bigger girl." Barbie''s figure, if she were suddenly to be the size of an adult, would be something like 40 - 18 - 32, proportions that, as one commentator noted, "are not found in nature."  


Is it culture (rather than malevolent toy designers) that produces such a figure? Does Barbie cause little girls to grow up dissatisfied with their bodies? Well, maybe, but Mattel has a defense, one that critics think is baloney: tiny doll clothing hangs better on a little doll with an exaggerated shape. The critics are not just feminists; in Iran and Saudi Arabia, the doll was seen as an agent of the West threatening the morality of women. The result has been good for black market sales. 


Names are important. Crayola crayons are made by the firm Binney and Smith, and the wife of Binney took the French word craie for chalk and combined it with olea, which has to do with oils; that oily, waxy smell is one of the best olfactory memories of childhood.  


The Telecran was introduced in Germany in 1959 and just didn''t take off. But the same gadget with a new name did quite well just a year later, and ever afterwards: Etch A Sketch. No one really knows if it was the spun-flung pie tins from the Frisbie Pie Company that gave flying disks their name, or if students flinging the tins bestowed the name from a beloved English professor, but neither "The Flying Saucer" nor "The Pluto Platter" nor "Frisbie" were to last after Wham-O bought the rights; it was "Frisbee" that sold in the millions.  


Ole Kirk Christiansen in Denmark was looking for a name for his firm in 1934, and had a contest for the best name, but no one beat his own submission: LEGO. He had almost named the company "Legio" because of the "legions" of toys he hoped to sell, but LEGO sounds like the Danish words for "play well."  


The Hula Hoop was a sensation; maybe it would not have been if the proposed names Daddy-O or Shazzam-meter had stuck. (And now, 3 pound "Heavy Hoops" can be found in gyms for a cardiovascular workout.) "Hula Hoop" was an invented name, but regular etymology came up with the name for the ancient game of jacks; "jacks" is short for "jackstones," which is a variant of "chackstones," and "chack" is a variant of "chuck" - as in "to throw." The "Make a Face" toy was given out piece by piece as a cereal premium. It didn''t do well, so the manufacturers considered making it as the "Funny Faces for Food" kit. It is hard to imagine any better name, though, than Mr. Potato Head, a silly name that fits perfectly with the silly fun of giving facial expressions to fruit and vegetables. Hasbro did follow up with variants, but who remembers "Pete the Pepper," "Oscar the Orange," "Cooky the Cucumber" or "Katie the Carrot"? 


Eberle reels off one interesting fact after another in each of his chapters. The ancient game of marbles has bestowed upon our language three idiomatic phrases: "knuckle down," "playing for keeps," and "having lost his marbles." The inventor of Monopoly offered Parker Brothers the game, but the firm declined because the game broke their rules of what a good game should do, including being played in less than 45 minutes. Parker Brothers only reconsidered when the inventor ordered up 5,000 copies at his own expense and they sold like mad. Play-Doh began as a wallpaper cleaner; Silly Putty was an attempt to make artificial rubber for tires, at which it failed miserably. MIT sophomores used Tinkertoys to make a computer that could play tic-tac-toe.  


The philosopher John Locke said in 1692 that children should learn by play, and suggested that sport could be made of "dice and playthings with the letters on them to teach children the alphabet by playing." He didn''t invent alphabet blocks, but he is the only philosopher quoted here as giving his imprimatur to a toy. When Vietnam became controversial, G. I. Joe turned (for him) hippie: "A groovy Adventure Team medallion and a tamed counterculture beard announced Joe''s peaceful intent." The Campbell''s Soup Kids, created in 1904, influenced how baby dolls were to be made ever after. Polyurethane wheels slowed roller skates down, but they were just the thing for control on skateboards. Frank Lloyd Wright''s son was the inventor of Lincoln Logs. Lionel Trains were such a hit with boys that in 1957 the company thought they''d put out a version for girls, featuring a pink pastel locomotive and coal car, lavender and yellow container cars, and a light blue caboose. It failed; girls who wanted to play with trains wanted to play with trains. This is a book about a subject that all of us love, and it is colorful, informative, and (pardon) playful. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]