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Early Boomer Toys Became Classics

Once upon a time, every city of a decent size had a family-owned department store that served as headquarters for visits to Santa and, just as important, a Toyland. This area, usually positioned before the line to visit Santa, offered kids a hands-on look at the toys they might not have known they wanted. These Toylands opened with a great fanfare each year on the day after Thanksgiving, when Santa took up residence. Though most, if not all, of these stores carried toys year round, they expanded their inventory for Christmas, and especially for the most sought-after products.

Boomers had been influenced by TV shows and commercials right from the start. Peer pressure added to their wish list, but a trip through Toyland could cement their desires into a list for Santa. Of course, many parents of boomers had to explain that Santa was very busy, and had to have many helpers, so there was no guarantee that their kids would see the real guy on their visit. But, the tale continued, kids could rest assured that their requests were given directly to the Big Man. The parents of boomers tried to get their kids much more than what they had, and did everything in their power to fulfill the lists.

Every decade has its special toy debut, but the boomer era spawned some of the most iconic toys in the history of toy making. The earliest boomers mainly grew up with toys that originated and were popular in the 1930s and ’40s, like Slinky, Legos, Magic 8 Ball, bottled bubble solution, sock monkeys and Tonka trucks. The 1950s kicked it up a notch, introducing a vast array of toys that have gone on to become classics. A good many are still sold today. Take a look at just a few of the most popular toys of the 1950s:

Silly Putty (1950)
Mister Boomer and his siblings all received Silly Putty as a gift. The stuff was a terrific toy because it would bounce like a ball, could stretch great distances, break like taffy if a sharp motion was used, and it would lift images from the Sunday comics. Ink was petroleum-based then so the putty picked up the color. The image could then be stretched to outlandish proportions, and transferred to another piece of paper. Mister B recalls lifting images of Dennis the Menace and Beetle Bailey.

Colorforms (1951)
Shiny vinyl cut into simple shapes could be positioned and repositioned on a laminate background that Mister B recalls was black in the set that his sister had.

Mr. Potato Head (1952)
The first Mr. Potato Head kits were nothing more than a series of plastic parts with a pointed stick mounted on the back of each. Boomers would get a real potato (or other vegetable) and plug in a nose, eyes, lips, mustache, hat, and body. This is the kit Mister B had. Mrs. Potato Head arrived in 1953, and the plastic head for Mr. Potato Head was introduced in 1964. Mr. Potato Head made history in 1952 by being the first toy to ever have its own dedicated TV commercial.

PEZ Dispensers (1952 in U.S.)
Originated in post-War Europe, the PEZ dispenser was a way to attract more kids to PEZ candy. It came to the U.S. in 1952 as a plain cigarette-lighter shape. The earliest character dispensers, around 1955, were Santa, the Easter Bunny, a Halloween witch, astronaut and Popeye. Mister B had a Popeye dispenser but the head quickly broke. He continued to use the dispensing function without it. In the 1960s, additional heads joined the PEZ line up, with Casper, Bozo the Clown and Mickey Mouse, followed by a full line of Disney characters.

Wiffle Ball (1953)
One of the great things about Wiffle balls was you could bat them around a yard and not worry about breaking windows or hurting younger siblings. Mister B, though not having a Whiffle ball and bat himself, recalls playing games at his cousin’s house with boys and girls of varying ages.

Matchbox Cars (1953)
Tiny metal cars that would fit in a matchbox, boomer boys took to these toys right away. Mister Boomer was not one of them. He and Brother Boomer had small slot cars instead.

Play-Doh (early 50s)
Like Silly Putty, another strange substance from our youth, Play-Doh could be molded like clay, but was much easier to shape. It could also be baked into permanent items with the help of boomer moms. Mister Boomer and his siblings all had their own Play-Doh kits for several years.

Gumby (1955)
Gumby first appeared on TV in 1953. Gumby toys hit the stores in 1955. Boomers could not resist the bendable figures of Gumby and Pokey. Mister B had cousins who owned the toys, but he and his siblings did not.

Fisher-Price Corn Popper (1957)
A good many boomers had this early development toy that encouraged kids to walk. Resembling a lawn mower, as kids pushed it, small colored balls would pop inside a clear dome. Again, this toy didn’t make it into the Mister Boomer household, probably because he and his siblings were too old for it, but his younger cousins did have them. Fisher-Price also gave the world Busy Bee and Snap-Lock Beads in the 1950s.

Two-Handed Pogo Stick (1957)
A single vertical-poled pogo stick was around since the late 1800s, but a two-handed stick debuted in 1957. Mister B didn’t have one, but some neighborhood kids did. It took a while before he got the hang of it and could compete with the kids for highest number of consecutive bounces.

Hula Hoop (1958)
Based on a gymnast’s ring, which had been around for centuries in China, Wham-O introduced the plastic hula hoop in 1958 and launched a huge worldwide fad. Youngsters to teens were all mesmerized with the task of rotating the hoop around their waist for as long as possible. Advanced users could rotate them around their necks or arms. Mister B and his siblings each had one. Mister B enjoyed flipping the hoop. The proper flick of the wrist would send the hoop out and back to the place of origin.

Barbie (1959)
The doll that launched Mattel toy sales into the stratosphere for years began during the boomer years. Mister Boomer’s sister loved her Barbie, and Mister B and Brother boomer liked the fact that they could always count on getting a new outfit for her each Christmas, making gift buying for their sister that much easier.

Chatty Cathy (1959)
The first talking doll activated by pulling a string, the doll appeared in stores and in TV commercials in 1960. Mister B’s sister got one of these dolls for Christmas one year. (See Boomers Knew What a “Chatty Cathy” Was)

Etch A Sketch (1959 in Germany, 1960 in US)
Etch A Sketch has become one of the most iconic toys of the Boomer Era. The Ohio Art Company saw the toy at a toy fair in Germany in 1959, envisioned its potential, and brought it to the U.S. market as a new decade appeared. Mister Boomer had his for many years, eventually becoming proficient enough to draw circles using the horizontal and vertical control knobs.

Whether you were an early or late boomer, chances are good you or your siblings got one of these toys for Christmas. Which ones did you enjoy, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Holidays,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)

Boomers Loved Troll Dolls

If you are a mid- to late-boomer, you probably remember troll dolls, the weird-faced creatures with crazy hair that stood up. They were around in the mid-60s and reappeared each decade after until the 1990s. The story is, though, the original maker was copied and most of the imitators commandeered the eighties and nineties. It was boomers who had the best access to the originals.

Now Disney has decided to take up the troll doll banner and will be releasing a Trolls movie this coming week. You can already see the blitz of toys and collateral merchandise growing on TV commercials in anticipation of what they must believe will be a blockbuster franchise.

As early as the 1930s, Thomas Dam, a Danish fisherman and former bricklayer and baker, created the doll for his daughter one Christmas because he couldn’t afford a present. He fashioned the doll from his imagination, carving the face and body out of wood, with inset glass eyes and sheep skin pieces for hair. Clothes were sewn for the doll, increasing its already unique qualities. Other people saw the doll and asked Dam to make one for their children. By 1959, the doll was being manufactured by the Dam Things Company and sold in Europe. It was made from rubber filled with wood shavings, but retained the original sheep skin hair.

Trolls originated in Norse mythology hundreds of years ago. They became part of the legends of Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Trolls were a non-human race that have been depicted as everything from human-like dwarves to., more often, giants. They resided in caves and dark places near stones, and were known for their skillful work with stone and metal. They sometimes have magical powers attributed to them, and could be oafish and evil or cunning and devious, but rarely were they ever helpful to humans. In most stories, trolls would turn to stone if exposed to sunlight.

The troll doll, called a Dam Doll, made its way to the U.S. in the fall of 1963 and was an instant success. Called Good Luck Trolls, they were produced by the millions in a wide range of sizes, from three inches high to more than a foot tall. The body was made of plastic and the hair, now a synthetic product, was dyed a variety of colors, most often bright orange or blue. The dolls appeared clothed in a variety of outfits or could be sans apparel. Boomer girls would brush the troll’s hair like they did with their Barbie dolls. To the best of Mister Boomer’s recollection, his sister did not have a troll doll. Nor did Mister B have any incarnation of troll paraphernalia.

Mister Boomer recalls seeing them everywhere, from the small ones inside gum machines to the popular six inch models (which did not include another four or five inches of hair) at the discount stores. Whole mythologies grew around the dolls, from assigning them sinister properties to calling them good luck charms. Older boomers had them hanging from keychains and car rearview mirrors.

Many companies copied the troll and sold them in a vast array of products, from coloring books to comics; dolls to TV shows. There was an attempt to bring back trolls in the 1990s, but it failed to catch the interest of the public. In 2005 Dam Things reclaimed control of the copyright and shut down the operation of its many imitators. In 2013 Dam sold the rights to use the troll image and name to Dreamworks, which was later purchased by Disney, paving the way for the upcoming movie.

Did you or someone on your family jump on the troll doll fad, boomers? Did you find them cute or ugly?

posted by Mister B in Film & Movies,Fun,Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)

Boomers Knew What a “Chatty Cathy” Was

This past week Mister Boomer was once again reminded that he is, in fact, an aging boomer. In a conversation with a co-worker, he was regaled with the previous day’s occurrences and how the co-worker’s supervisor just wouldn’t shut up. Whether under the influence of caffeine or psychotropic medication, her supervisor rambled on more than usual. “I heard her,” said Mister B, “she was a real Chatty Cathy.” When his co-worker returned a blank stare, Mister B realized that the person to whom he was speaking would have no recognition of the term, having not been born when the Chatty Cathy doll was popular.

Mattel Toys, Inc. produced Chatty Cathy dolls from 1960 to 1964. Doll makers had been experimenting with some form of talking doll since the 1800s, but it took Mattel and the Baby Boom Generation to popularize a production model to the level of Chatty Cathy.

The doll “spoke” by means of a ring located on the doll’s back. Pulling the ring activated a pull-string mechanism that in effect played a track on a phonograph record inside the doll. Mattel chose June Foray to record the 11 phrases the initial production-run doll would speak. Ms. Foray is well-know to boomers for her cartoon voice over work. She was the voice of Rocky the Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Dudley Do-Right’s girlfriend Nell Fenwick and practically every female character on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Rocky and His Friends as well as Lucifer the cat in Disney’s Cinderella, Granny in Tweety Bird cartoons, and Ursula in George of the Jungle. She had performed voices on Woody Woodpecker cartoons and also appeared on The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Tom and Jerry, had numerous roles in Disney animated movies and voiced many other TV and movie characters. She continued to voice Looney Tunes characters through the 2000s. In January of 2016, news of her death spread across the Internet, but was quickly branded a hoax.

Chatty Cathy’s phrases from 1960 to ’64:
I love you
Will you play with me?
Please change my dress
Please brush my hair
Where are we going?
I’m hungry
Please carry me
Let’s play house
I hurt myself!
I’m sleepy
Tell me a story

Chatty Cathy grabbed the imaginations of Baby Boom girls, including Mister B’s sister. Some time between 1960 and 62, Sister Boomer received a Chatty Cathy from Santa for Christmas. This was a bit unusual in the Boomer household, as brand names were generally eschewed in favor of less expensive imitations. Sister Boomer got her brand-name Chatty Cathy and later, Barbie.

The Brothers Boomer were fascinated by the pull string mechanism, looking to inspect it whenever they could, much to the complaints of their sister. A pre-teen Mister B was, however, spooked by the creepy gaze of the doll, conjuring up episodes of The Twilight Zone in his mind. Chatty Cathy became Sister B’s constant companion so much so that within a few weeks Mister B was sick of hearing, “Please brush my hair.” As time went on she continued to play with her Chatty Cathy, but pulled the string less often. More than likely, once the doll’s repertoire was committed to memory, the novelty wore off.

Mister B wasn’t able to pin down an origin for the term, “Chatty Cathy.” It may have been a label that pre-dated the doll and therefore made sense as a name for a talking doll. Or, it may have originated with the doll’s appearance since the mechanism allowed little girls to make the doll speak repeatedly, to the chagrin of others within earshot. Nonetheless, make no mistake: boomers know a “Chatty Cathy.”

The doll was brought back in 1969, with the voice of Maureen McCormick from the Brady Bunch, then again in 1998 and 1999 for the collectors’ market. Original Chatty Cathy dolls are selling online for hundreds of dollars, with the most sought-after in original boxes.

Did you, or your sister, have a Chatty Cathy doll, boomers? Have you ever caught yourself referring to someone as a “Chatty Cathy”?

posted by Mister B in Getting Older,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)

Twister Made Boomers Twist & Shout

It happened this past week: The National Toy Hall of Fame inducted another boomer toy — Twister — into its ranks. The Hall was established in 1998 by Ed Sobey and originally resided at A. C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon. When it had outgrown its surroundings in 2002, the Hall was moved to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

The Hall was established to recognize toys that had staying power beyond fads and trends to establish themselves as icons that cultivated learning, creativity and discovery through innovative play or design. A look at the inductees over the past decade and a half reveals many Boomer Era favorites, including Etch A Sketch, Barbie, Play Doh and many more.

Now Twister joins the illustrious ranks. Twister was conceived in 1964 by Reyn Guyer as a promotional item for Johnson’s Shoe Polish, a client of his father’s design company, Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design. He called his game Pretzel. When salesman Charles Foley called on the purchasing agent of the company, he saw a model of the game displayed. Foley approached Guyer, telling him he had some connections in the toy business and thought his game might be viable in the marketplace. With funding from his father, Guyer started a toy division with Foley and another man, Neil Rabens.

The three men worked out the now-familiar mat design of colored circles arranged in rows, with each row having the same color, and added hands to the original feet-only-placement game play. It was simple enough for people of any age to play: a spinner card was printed with color blocks of red, yellow, blue and green repeated four times, with each of the quadrants assigned to the left foot, right hand, right foot and right hand. So, a spin could result in the spinner card arrow pointing to “right foot, green,” for example. The player would then have to find a green colored circle on the mat to place his or her right foot. When a player touched a knee to the floor or fell, he or she was eliminated; the last person remaining on the mat was the winner. The game was designed for two or more players.

In 1964, the men submitted Pretzel to the Milton Bradley toy company which saw merit in the game and agreed to produce it. However, when Milton Bradley discovered the name was already trademarked the name was changed to Twister, much to the chagrin of Reyn Guyer.

The game was not well received in its early days. In 1965 Sears Roebuck told Milton Bradley they would not sell it in their stores because toy competitors had labelled it “sex in a box,” referring to the potential of co-ed play with overlapping body parts. Milton Bradley was reconsidering whether there was a future for the game when a P.R. firm got word of it to Johnny Carson in 1966, and arranged for Eva Gabor to play a game of Twister on air with The Tonight Show talk show host. That TV appearance invigorated sales and Foley and Rabens submitted it for a patent that same year.

For many boomers, Twister was a family game. As early TV commercials suggested, children, parents and grandparents could participate in the fun. For teenage boomers, Twister became a party game — a chance to interact with the opposite sex while listening to increasingly popular rock ‘n roll 45 RPM records in many a suburban basement. In Mister Boomer’s household, both were true.

His younger sister was the gamester in the family. She had all the popular games of the day — including other Hall inductees Candy Land and The Game of Life — so when Twister hit the scene, she wanted that one, too. As with all “major” toy purchases, her games were acquired by way of birthday or Christmas gifts. She’d enlist Mister B and his father in the game. His mother rarely participated, and Brother Boomer, a high school teenager, was hardly ever home. The mat, once spread out on the living room floor, took up all of the space between the couch and TV.

Mister B didn’t find the game all that interesting, but then his brother told him teens were playing it at parties. Brother Boomer went to many parties, carting his collection of 45s with him. Those 45s, marked with his name so if they got mixed on the turntable stack, he’d be able to retrieve which were his, are now in Mister B’s possession. The Twister game, however, did not survive the years.

How about you, boomers? Was Twister a family game for you, or a “sex in a box” teen party game?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)

Boomers Made Things Ready to Fly

As boomer kids, we made things; big things like tree houses and snow forts, and small things like slingshots and throwable rocket ships. We made go-karts out of two-by-fours and Halloween costumes out of rags. Whether we borrowed our dads’ tools or mothers’ sewing baskets or used no tools at all, we were always making things.

One of the things Mister Boomer and his neighborhood friends enjoyed making was parachutes for their plastic Army men. It was an easy thing to do and provided hours of fun, not to mention exercise, throwing the things up in the air and re-enacting scenes they had witnessed in World War II movies.

Every boy had some Army men. There were just some things a boomer boy had to have: marbles, baseball cards and Army men were among them. Every household had a rag box or bin and some thread or string available, so nothing else was needed except a pair of scissors. The boomer boys tore off an appropriate square of lighter-weight fabric, like from a sheet or pillowcase, then got together at one boy’s garage or another’s front porch for assembly. They snipped slits at the corners and center edges of the square with a pair of scissors. After cutting equal lengths of thread or kite string, the strands were looped through the slits in the fabric and tied into knots. Next an Army man was chosen. The ones with two armholes worked best, or at least the ones that had arms raised so the string could be wrapped and tied around the torso and held in place. Neatness didn’t matter, as long as the contraption could drift in the wind.

Mister Boomer fully admits that his attempt at recreating the Army man parachute of his youth turned out to be more complicated than he remembered some fifty-plus years ago. He quickly learned at the first trial of this conglomeration that the chute was too small, and since the Army figure he ended up with was smaller and lighter than those of the 1950s and '60s, the string could have been replaced with thread.

Mister Boomer fully admits that his attempt at recreating the Army man parachute of his youth turned out to be more complicated than he remembered some fifty-plus years ago. He quickly learned at the first trial of this conglomeration that the chute was too small, and since the Army figure he ended up with was smaller and lighter than those of the 1950s and ’60s, the string could have been replaced with thread.

Task completed, the boys headed to the street or nearby schoolyard to make them fly. How the rig was folded seemed to affect whether the chute would open correctly. The boys folded the chutes in half lengthwise, then rolled the chute from the top down until it met the back of the Army man.  With the Army man facing up, the boys could wind up and give it their best baseball pitch skyward. If the full-throttle heave into the air was successful, the chute would would unravel along the string line on its upward trajectory, and then would deploy as the air lifted under the fabric square. A good toss and a nicely made parachute could drift for several seconds, which was long enough to position the enemy on the ground to shoot up or the parachutist to shoot down. As far as Mister B was concerned, the flight was the main attraction. He and his cohorts would toss the plastic figures again and again until their arms hurt.

One of the younger kids on the block had a G.I. Joe and decided to try and make a chute for it. The construction went according to plan and in theory it looked like the thing was going to fly. The boy wrapped it according to neighborhood tradition and it gave an immense overhand throw into the air, but the weight of the action figure was too much for the rigging to support and it crashed to the ground.

Since the boys had a full understanding of physics and the forces of gravity, one suggested it might work if dropped from a higher height. The G.I. Joe boy’s house had a garage behind it, so he grabbed a ladder and climbed to the roof. Giving it a good wind up, he slipped and practically fell off the roof. After gaining his composure, the boy tossed G.I. Joe into the sky with as much might as he thought he could manage without falling. The chute was barely deployed when it hit the ground. The theory was plausible, but something wasn’t jiving in the coefficient. Either the height wasn’t enough to counter the pull of gravity on the heavier figure, or the chute was too small, or maybe both. The boy gave up and got down from the roof before his father could see him up there. None of the neighborhood kids tried to repeat the experiment.

What’s interesting about stories like this to Mister B is the contrast that has developed among subsequent generations. As boomers we were always outside — regardless of season — and always making our own fun. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were developing a team mindset as ideas and suggestions bounced from one to another. We were learning to use tools, though Mister B doesn’t know how he or his neighborhood pals didn’t draw more blood more often than what occurred. We were learning engineering principles and how to solve problems, like wheels that wouldn’t turn correctly and things that wouldn’t glide. And we learned that we could make functional things on our own, with some scraps and simple materials.

What memories of making things do you have, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Fun,Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comment (1)

Twister Inventor Takes His Final Spin

Inventor Charles F. Foley died this past week. Boomers may not recall Mr. Foley’s name, but mention that he was the co-inventor of the game Twister, and there will be an immediate recognition.

Foley and a co-worker, Neil Rabens, were employed by a manufacturing firm in St. Paul, Minnesota in the mid-60s when the company decided to branch out into toys for the burgeoning boomer generation. Together, the two men came up with the idea for a simple game that got people entangled to such a degree that they suggested the name be “Pretzel.” When they applied for a patent in 1966, the name had evolved to Twister.

A distribution deal was struck almost immediately with Milton Bradley, and game boxes were on store shelves in 1966, where it rang up only modest sales. It was a simple game intended for any number of players, but most often was practiced with two or four. The entire contents of the box were a spinner card, instructions and a white vinyl mat emblazoned with red, yellow, blue and green circles. The spinner card had a circle containing swatches of each of the same colors, along with an indication of which appendage the player should use to touch that color of circle. So a spin could request the player place a left foot on a green circle, or a right hand on a yellow. Players quickly became intertwined as they reached under and over opponents in an effort to touch the selected color circle while avoiding touching a knee or falling on the mat. The fact that people of any age or gender could play the game caused competitors to brand the entanglement as “sex in a box.”

Then on May 3, 1966, Johnny Carson played a game of Twister on his TV show with that evening’s guest, Eva Gabor. That gave the game the star-power boost it needed, not to mention a flirtatious element since Eva Gabor entered the game in a cleavage-exposing dress. Sales spiked immediately, and the game has been selling ever since.

Twister quickly caught on around the world, in all types of cultures and levels of economic strata. Some say it was its simplicity and all-age inclusion that led to its easy acceptance. Despite its success, Foley and his co-inventor did not receive royalties. Several years later, the inventor was awarded $27,000 in a negotiated buyout.

Charles Foley was a prolific inventor, holding 97 patents, including his second-most famous invention of a liquid adhesive remover. Still, none eclipsed the popularity of Twister, as it became a mainstay for boomer teen parties.

Mister Boomer’s sister was the big game person in his household. She had all the popular board games of the era, including Mystery Date, Mousetrap and Operation. Sister Boomer had received Twister as either a birthday or Christmas gift. Mister B was never much into games, especially one that required a player to twist into ridiculous positions. She would attempt to get the family involved in the game in the living room. That was logistically challenging in itself since there was barely enough space between the Twister mat and the TV on one side, and the mat and couch on the other. An added task to a player’s contortions was not to fall into the TV or the feet of the remaining family members sitting on the couch.

Born in 1930, Charles Foley was not a member of the Baby Boom Generation himself, but thanks to his co-invention, Twister, he has left his mark on the memories of boomers across North America.

Today the game is marketed by Hasbro. Teens play the game in various ways, including holding Twister parties for charity, to set world records for the number of people playing the game at once. Twister has come a long way since being branded “sex in a box.”

What memories do Twister evoke for you, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Toys and have Comments Off on Twister Inventor Takes His Final Spin