Toys Then and Now

Much as I’m sure I probably shouldn’t rant and complain at this time of year, I guess it’s what I’m doing, as this is the time when us helpless grandparents are out Christmas shopping for toys. I think about the subject all through the year too, and decided it’s as good a time of the year as any to rant, and complain, and be generally disrespectful to major toy chains and the marketing of junk to small children.

At Christmas, if one doesn’t do a good enough job ordering online, one might be forced to venture into the dreaded [insert name of huge megopoly toystore here] in order to pick something out. Oh, how hard can it be, I ask myself. I can get puzzles, or coloring books, or story books, or whatever.

No. Not really. These items are located in Aisle 37, just before you get to the restrooms, and it appears as if no one is looking after this particular area. The merchandise is scattered and disheveled and misplaced.

Once inside the place, the agoraphobic comes out in me, and I want to go home and sit in a chair and pull a blanket up around me and think how glad I am to be where I am and not at [insert name of huge.. okay, it’s Toys R Us, but you already knew that]. You enter the fluorescent-lit cavern, accosted by screaming children, excited children, running children, in the company of frazzled parents.

I always stand for a moment, get my bearings, before actually getting up the nerve to move past the shopping carts (super-sized for your convenience). My husband and I kind of look at each other and I expect him to lead the way, and he is clearly expecting me to. A few blank stares, a shrug or two of the shoulders, and we start wandering aimlessly, and I mean that literally, aimlessly.

Legos. We need Legos. Do we find them in the Age 5 – 8 aisle? My husband always asks, I never do. We’re the opposite of the norm, where men don’t ask for directions. He wants to get it over with as much as I do, so he asks, and we are directed to the Lego Aisle. Yes, there is an aisle just for Legos.  A set of Legos only makes one thing. That’s so you build it once, get bored with it, and buy another one. I don’t think buying a set of generic Legos – that you could build and tear down and build up again – is really encouraged. That would mean the Lego company made less money. Less Profits = Not Good. Maybe it’s possible to get a set of basic Legos, but I didn’t see them at Toys R Us.

Back then, in the fifties, there were no Legos, but I had a set of bricks, made out of some kind of clay-like substance. They hadn’t (and I’m not making this up) really invented plastic yet, or at least it hadn’t yet been used for toys. The bricks were about the size of a domino, and there were half-bricks too, so you could build window and door frames and angle up the sides so the cardboard roof would fit over. The doors and windows were cardboard too, painted on pictures of doors and windows. I loved those bricks, and then wonder of wonders, the plastic kind came out and they were the same size but they had (get ready) white plastic doors and windows that actually moved! You could swing them open! How cool was that?

Here is the picture of the 1950s version of legos:

Remeber Lincoln Logs?

And Jacks?

And of course the favorite Viewmaster:

And finally, the popular Slinky:

Today, there are huge, elaborate swing sets, with built-in clubhouses. There are bars to climb, and a couple of slides, and different kinds of swings, and some black rubbery stuff has to be put down all around the thing so that no one gets hurt. It’s probably a law, I’m not sure about that.

Back then, my father hung a swing from the old Umbrella Tree (I was never sure of the correct name for that tree, but it was shaped like an umbrella and if you pumped high enough your feet might touch the leaves.) And we had clubhouses too, where we took our comics and our dolls and other stuff, and there was a secret password you had to know to get in. The clubhouse was usually nothing more than a few boards and whatever material could be scrounged, which was the fun of it. We did it ourselves.

Today, backyard children’s swimming pools are ten feet high, and need a special pump to blow them up, and there’s water slides and they’re shaped like castles or pirate ships, in garish colors, and they’re so… well, plastic.

Back then, when it was hot, if we were lucky our Moms would fill up the old washtub and we could sit in it and play with water.

We didn’t have that much to play with. We made do. We played tag outside, we raked big piles of leaves and jumped in, we played hide-n-seek, we built tents by throwing blankets over card tables. I had a playroom that was nothing more than a closet under the stairs. It was fine by the door but you couldn’t do too much in a room that’s a foot high, as it was at the other end. Some kids didn’t even have that, I was one of the lucky ones.

I remember all of this fondly, of course.

What will happen to all the plastic we cast aside today? Plastic toys are never recycled, plastic swimming pools spring leaks, and we don’t fix them. Just throw them away. Get something bigger, better, more plastic, more fun.

We baby boomers think we were more resourceful than children today. Today’s kids are scheduled up with baseball games, and soccer games, and gymnastics, and swimming lessons, and ballet, and music lessons and have the technology that makes it possible for them to not have to think up ways to have fun. It’s kind of sad.

But I don’t think today’s children think they’re missing anything. It’s all they know, as it was for us; we, who couldn’t imagine what it was like to grow up in the depression.

I wonder where it will take us. To a new level of plastic and technology? Or maybe back to basics.

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