Growing up in Louisa – Toys!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
When you get to a certain age you develop a kind of pride in remembering things from the ‘good old days.’ Back when I was a kid I’d see some of my friends roll their eyes when some old codger started into a story about when he was a kid. Maybe the propensity to spill out with those stories was to obtain the recognition of having relevancy. It is a way to say, “I had a life once, too.” Then again, maybe it is a kind of a defense mechanism because we too often feel old when we lose our thoughts, or can’t remember if we took our morning medicine. I know from experience that there’s a definite difference in ‘short-term’ and ‘long-term’ memory. Losing one or both is to us a sign that we are getting older and closer to that day when we will ‘bite the dust.’ I have long ago decided to accept that fact and quit sulking. The trouble is, I can’t even remember what I was sulking about. So I guess I’ll continue to remember what I remember and just forget the rest, whatever that might be.
Because I have limited memory, and the season that is upon us, I have decided that I would try and recall a few of those favorite gifts that we cute little muffins of ‘Christmas past’ received, or wished we had received, from that jolly old Santa Claus of yesteryear. Talk about old! That guy was around a long time before I was born and before I had started sucking up to him in hopes of getting my wishes. Whether I was to be found on the ‘good list’ or the ‘bad list’ varied over the years. I suspect that the results of getting my wishes fulfilled had a direct relationship with my family’s economic position at the time. When I was growing up I knew that budgets were so strained that I was accustomed to not expect a lot on Christmas morning. The one kind of gift that always seemed to arrive were very practical things such as clothing. I mean, what kid doesn’t want more socks, underwear, and pajamas? ME!
What I wanted was toys. Frankly, the stores were crammed with everything a kid could ever want. A trip downtown would make me almost breathless. I saw wonderful things presented in the windows up and down the street. The back of some stores had toy departments that seemed to over-flow with all kinds things. During this season the Favorite five and dime, also known to me as the ten-cent store, had added gondola shelving that was piled with all kinds of things like stuffed animals, large pedel cars, toy kitchens, tubs of ‘pick up sticks,’ watercolor sets, crayons, jump ropes, board games, cowboy and cowgirl outfits, gun and holster sets, and more. Many a tantrum was thrown as moms dragged their kids out of the store. Promises were levied to try and appease the darlings. “Maybe Santa will bring it and put it under the tree.” Perhaps the guilt was already laying heavy on mom’s heart as she wondered if this would be a promise broken.
Not to be outdone the Western Auto store had large displays of electric trains running around a track and giving out occasional whistles and a stream of smoke. They had Western Flyer wagons, tricycles and bicycles, and accessories to make up little villages to go with the trains. Even the hardware stores added a toy section during this time of year. They carried a few big toys, but really pushed their sporting goods that included baseball gloves, fishing rods, bats, and for dad, some shotguns, waders, and boots. Wow! These were the real practical things that promoted excitement in a man’s or a man-child’s heart.
I remember once when one of the stores (forgot which one) actually advertised that Santa would be there to hear the ‘wants’ of every little boy and girl on a certain day. Mom dragged me downtown and had me stand in line until it was my turn. At first, I was shy and really didn’t have anything in particular in mind to say. While sitting on Santa’s knee I finally blustered out a list of things that would be wonderful to find under the tree. Having done my duty, I was given a piece of candy and let down so the next ‘youngster’ would get their turn.
While I was hoping for ‘play cars’ and trucks, I was also born into a time when fighter airplanes and army tanks were very desirable for boys. After all, the movies we saw at the Garden matinees were filled with shooting and noises of recent WWII battles. Before the main movie they’d show newsreels of scenes of freshly destroyed towns and cities in Europe and in the South Pacific. With just one or two of those toys we young fellows could play for hours, making the sounds of propellers, and guns, and bombs going off. With guys, the urge to make things even more realistic led us to make explosions (firecrackers under the tanks). Slamming of cars against each other was another common practice that radically shortened the life of some toys. It was not uncommon to find burned toy jeeps with missing tires, or planes with broken wings.
My cousin Julia, the little girl that I was closest to, wanted dolls, doll clothing, and maybe a baby buggy so she could take her new doll for a ride. While I didn’t understand that, I was willing to give her room to live in her world so long as she didn’t get into mine. All that shooting would keep the baby doll awake. I joined her in play a few times when I knew no one was looking. That’s the Christmas spirit!
Most toys were gender specific like electric trains, plastic army helmets, cowboy six-shooters, and erector sets. They had microscope sets, chemistry sets, and a science kit. The girls I knew liked to play homemaker with miniature kitchens, bake sets (some really made little cakes), dressy up things like jewelry, or makeup, dollhouses, or princess outfits. They had a nice nurse set that included the cap, a stereoscope, thermometer, and some candy pills. Oh, there were some cowgirl outfits that came complete with pink six-shooters, cowgirl boots and a feminized cowgirl hat. I remember Julia’s Dale Evans shirt with the long fringe on the sleeves and cuffs. When she wore that we let her play cowboys and crooks with us. When we played cowboys and Indians it was the cowboys who drew the short-end. We Indians got to take our shirts off and cover our bodies in war paint. If we could find some feathers we’d put those to work, too, but none of that ever was found under a Christmas tree. I did get a bow and arrow set. The arrows had rubber suction cups on their tips. I got in trouble when I played with that in the house. I remember using a towel once for a breechcloth. It wasn’t comfortable and threatened to work its way loose, so I changed back into pants.
Some toys that society considered to be neutral meant they were fair game for either sex. Examples are: ‘Pick Up Sticks,’ ‘Lincoln Logs,’ wooden blocks, (later it would be plastic ‘Legos’), ‘Tinker Toys,’ tricycles, bikes (boys, or girls, as appropriate), spinning tops, and bubble sets. When playing with blocks I was always amazed when a playmate that I thought was a friend, waited for me to finish my skyscraper, and then without any feeling for the architect knocked it over into a big pile. Really?! I had put serious work into the marvelous structure, but with one or two swipes it was no more. What a shame! Sometimes, we held contests to build the highest building, or to finish one the fastest. Occasionally, we’d ‘accidentally’ bump the other’s and they would have to start over. That destructive behavior was easily learned so even toddlers quickly learned to crawl over and knock down everything. Then they’d sit and giggle. As a serious builder, it took some lonely ‘quiet time’ to make a masterpiece.
As I grew a little older I enjoyed a board game or two. Monopoly was a favorite, as was chess. Many hours were spent, oft times into the middle of the night, playing these games. I remember that we had two different kinds of electric ‘plug-in’ football games. After all, this was the modern era. One required us to set up our players and then turn on the game which vibrated and caused the metal players to move. In a while you could tell if the ball carrier would score. This required no particular skill. The other had sets of translucent cards with offensive plays and defensive plays represented by dots. When both were inserted over a ‘light table’ one could see if the ball carrier was able to advance. This was a game that head coaches would find useful until decades later when the computer arrived on the scene.
I loved my bag of little rubbery, plastic soldiers that I got one year. The little men were posed in the position of throwing a grenade, shooting from a prone position, crouching behind a tank, etc. With those you could set up an entire battlefield. A playmate then would shoot a volley through my line, but my airplane would bomb his headquarters. Hours would go by with boys making all the noises of battle. We had no notion of time or of anything else that may be going on around us. This was war!
Cap guns were fun, too, but the caps didn’t always advance as they were meant to do. If you misfired, you could be killed by Billy the Kid, or Jesse James. I remember once or twice getting a slight burn on my hands when I was too close to the hammer when it came down. There was one kind of gun in which you inserted a roll of caps, and another that had a cylinder that round caps fit flat against. This last kind only had six shots each, but was more dependable than the other since the pistol’s cylinder turned instead of a paper roll. Older kids had ‘BB’ guns, but caution was needed with these. They actually shot a BB, which could put out an eye. Even if it hit a shirt sleeve it would sting. It was also possible they’d penetrate the skin, too, that would lead to possible infections.
There were years when special toys, like ‘Hula Hoops,’ or ‘Davy Crockett’ hats, or ‘Silly Putty’ was popular. I remember when ‘Slinky’ came out. The slippery spring actually walked down our stairway by itself when one of us got it started at the top. I think ‘Barbie’ came out during my growing up years, but that would have been Julia’s prize. I think it was mostly girls that got jump ropes, and jacks. She never had a toy sewing machine, but I saw them around. I remember a toy grocery store that had little boxes that were copies of things sold during the day, like: Ritz crackers, Rice Krispies, Domino Sugar, Wheaties, and Karo Syrup. These were placed on the shelving and the kids could play ‘store.’
Stereo Viewers were enjoyed by both genders. The round slides had pictures of places from all around the world. Kids liked art supplies, too. I remember watching Julia cutting out paper dolls and sheets and sheets of clothing. I had to teach her to cut around the tabs that allowed the clothing to stay on the doll. Most of the dolls were of ladies and girls. I don’t remember seeing any gentlemen. I wonder if girls still play with these?
Before the war, I’m told, large metal trucks and construction toys were common. The demands of the war meant that metal drives took place seeking any and all kinds of metal that could contribute to the war effort and was melted down. When the plants switched to making shell casings, the stoppage of toy production made them rare. After the war ended a few metal toys were made again, but most factories changed to making plastic toys. A lot of them started coming from Japan, as a way to restore their industry. These were inexpensive, but not very well made. The new material didn’t stand up to the punishment we tended to levy. We learned to shutter when we saw ‘Made in Japan,’ on various items. The metal ‘matchbox’ toys didn’t appear until later.
There was a trend that I never got into. That was all the hullabaloo about space travel, ray guns, rockets, robots, and the like. I know those are very collectible today, but they weren’t part of my life. I was into WWII games and Westerns. I always wanted one of those steel pedal cars or planes until I got too big to fit into them. Those are collected like crazy, today, some restored to like ‘new’ condition, others displayed with the original rust, the faded colors, and missing parts. I think they are neat either way, but one showing its age is preferred.
I suspect that the toys of yesterday we knew so well would be a mystery to kids today. While we replayed the movies we saw about the Second World War, the newest generation plays video games about the gulf war, or zombies, or space wars. Movies today are aimed at maximizing the kinds of threats that can only be imagined in an advanced civilization. Well, maybe not so civilized. At any rate, these battles take place on video screens over their phones, or on game pads, laptops, or tablets. Between calls, texts, and research, they download apps and fight the wars of tomorrow. Whew!
Some of the best toys weren’t toys at all. These required imagination and ingenuity. I loved to play with old Quaker Oats boxes. They made good drums, tanker trucks, army tanks, and other things. Tin cans were good to make telephones which actually worked over short distances. We made our own bows and arrows, and wooden knives. We all remember when a broomstick sufficed for a horse. These were not the things usually found under the Christmas tree, but they filled in just fine when those shiny new toys were broken, forgotten, or lost. Sometimes dad or grandpa would whittle out a rocking horse, or a whirligig, some playhouse, dollhouse, or play furniture. An old baby cradle was perfect for dolls and stuffed animals. These were the special things that would become heirlooms that would be passed down through generations.
Then there were sports items. A new football, a basketball, or catcher’s mitt, or a ‘Louisville Slugger’ was maybe the best thing a boy could wish for. Those were immediately put to use and would last for a good while. Some of you readers may have those original items still stored away somewhere today. They likely have great value to collectors, but may have more sentimental value for those ‘long term’ memories.
When we grew older we got record players and often an album of our favorite star. I’m sure there were Elvis pictures, or maybe others found under the tree for those wild teens. The ‘British Invasion’ came a bit later so the Beatles would have to wait a while. ‘Mo town’ was just embryotic, but we were on our way toward some big changes all around in the music industry. Our toys were to become real muscle cars and High Fi stereos. That’s part of growing up, but even those things are archaic by the standards of this electronic age. Who would have guessed?
Whatever the gift, the toy, or other fitting presents, I wish that you all receive what you need this year and that it will bring all the gratitude and happiness you deserve. Merry Christmas to you all! As for me? I’ll try to remember whatever it was that I didn’t remember.