If your family was anything like Mister Boomer’s, you had brothers and sisters. Between 1950 and 1960, the U.S. population grew 19 percent to pass 179 million. In 1960, the average family had two children, and 60 percent of U.S. households had children under the age of 18. In Mister Boomer’s experience, almost every house on his block had at least three children, and often, more. Growing up with brothers and sisters posed lots of challenges, and one of them that surfaced annually was what gifts to get them for Christmas.
Once Mister Boomer’s younger sister hit the preteen stage, the Boomer children got together and decided to solve the dilemma by giving each other suggested gift lists, with a promise to adhere to the written word. This would ensure that no one got the gift they did not want. Mister B does not recall which of his siblings suggested the list, but all were enthusiastic about the prospect of avoiding the dreaded dud present.
In the earliest days, Boomer Sister would ask for board games, card games and View-Master slides. As she crossed into early teendom, Barbie dominated the lists. It was a welcome addition for Mister Boomer, since she would spell out exactly which ensembles to purchase, and since the cost was within his hard-earned budget, he managed to gift two on occasion.
Brother Boomer enjoyed building things, so model cars and Testor’s paint were often a safe bet for his lists. As he reached high school age, music was right up there on his lists. He would often buy 45 RPMs himself, but Christmas afforded the opportunity to ask for albums.
Mister Boomer always felt funny about asking for gifts, but also wanted to avoid receiving things that were unacceptable. His early lists might include model cars and planes, or building sets. In his late teens, music — albums and 8-tracks — made the list. Almost never would Mister B, Brother Boomer or Boomer Sister put clothing on the lists, but if they did, correct sizes and colors were a must.
As far as Mister B’s parents, they would go their own way in buying gifts for the kids, regardless of whether the kids gave them a list or not. Of course, that didn’t stop Mister B and his siblings from pointing out a commercial or two during Saturday morning cartoons. It was a given for the Boomer children that there would be socks and underwear. And long johns were a must in Midwest winters, so if the kids had outgrown the pair from the year before, Christmas gifting was the clothing staging center for the impending coldest winter months.
Mister Boomer’s father was always a big kid himself, so he enjoyed buying toys for his children. Though Mister B was always aware the family was on a tight budget, his father saw to it that each kid got one “big” gift every year. For the boys, it might be a football, ice skates or hockey sticks; and for his sister, Easy-Bake ovens, Creepy Crawlers and Operation. Every child had their own sled as well.
The idea of exchanging gift lists continued with Mister B’s brother and sister until one year, when all three children lived in different states and both his brother and sister had children of their own. It was agreed that they had exchanged enough gifts and sibling presents could stop; then the lists that circulated were for their children.
How did you treat gift buying with your siblings, boomers? Did you exchange suggested gift lists?
The 1950s and ’60s saw the heyday of model building in the U.S., and Mister Boomer was, like so many boomer boys, in the middle of it. Having got the model-building bug from his brother, Mister B built model kits for airplanes, ships and cars of all types. Yet the models he most treasured long after they were fully assembled and painted were his monster models collection.
Model kits have been around for generations, but before the war they were primarily composed of balsa wood, cloth, paper and metal. After the war, plastics fueled the model craze because they could be easily molded into any shape and were inexpensive to make. Consequently, several companies vied for boomer boys’ attention, each specializing in their own genre. The Aurora Plastics Company entered the market with plastic figurines in 1950. The company was interested in gaining a higher percentage of the burgeoning model market against stiff competition from the likes of industry giants Revell and others, and in 1956 they found a way; that year, Universal Pictures released its classic monster movies for television broadcasts. The company acquired the rights to make models of the classic monsters that had been scaring people on the silver screen for twenty years. Boomers were already feasting on a movie monster and sci-fi craze throughout the 1950s, so Aurora had an audience ready to buy what they were offering.
In 1961, the first Aurora monster model — the Frankenstein Monster — rolled off the production line and into the boomer zeitgeist. The model was an immediate success and sold as fast as Aurora could make them. In fact, the models sold so quickly that the company had to keep production going 24 hours a day. At its peak, Aurora was making 8,000 Frankenstein Monster kits a day, each sold for 98¢.
The prospect of a Frankenstein Monster kit for just under a dollar opened up the market for boomer boys, including Mister Boomer. After the commercial success of the Frankenstein Monster, Aurora developed an additional 12 kits known as the Aurora Monster 13: 1962: Dracula and The Wolf Man 1963: The Mummy, The Creature (from the Black Lagoon), and The Phantom of the Opera 1964: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and Godzilla
The Salem Witch and The Bride of Frankenstein were also sold in 1964, followed in 1966 by The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré, to complete the monster set. Technically, the Forgotten Prisoner wasn’t a movie monster, but it represented a collaboration between Aurora and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
Mister Boomer collected ten of the classic movie monster kits, including Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, The Creature, Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and Godzilla. Plus, he added Superman and the Chamber of Horrors Guillotine, both released in 1964. The affordable price meant he could buy them himself from his savings, but most often he asked for specific ones for Christmas. After all, he would need to buy glue and little bottles of Testor’s enamel paint to finish the projects.
Mister B spent hours assembling the pieces and painting them. He set up an entire wall shelf in his bedroom to house his collection, removing Superman from his base and suspending him in flight by a string. The guillotine was especially impressive since it actually chopped off the head of the condemned man. And painting the blood and guts of the prisoner mounted behind bars on the Phantom of the Opera base was satisfyingly creepy.
In the 1980s, Mister B paid a visit to his old homestead, only to discover, like so many boomer boys before him, that his mother had sold every model — monsters, cars, airplanes and ships — at a yard sale. Is it any wonder that many boomers are buying the kits again in their golden years? So far, Mister B has resisted.
Did you build these classic monster models, boomers?
It’s funny how, as we age, memories from decades ago are triggered by everything from a smell, circumstance or in this case for Mister Boomer, a mundane act. Recently, while Mister B was emptying the dishwasher and putting away the flatware, he pulled the knives from the drawer in the door and flashed back to playing pick up sticks with his sister more than fifty years ago.
Boomer Sister loved games of all types, from card games to board games, skill games to games of chance. Inevitably, she would receive games for Christmas, and would constantly attempt to rope the family into playing the games with her. She was instrumental in getting the family to gather around Candy Land, Monopoly, the Game of Life, Mousetrap, dominoes, checkers, Old Maid, Uno, Yahtzee and more. One of the games she enjoyed in her early years was pick up sticks.
Pick up sticks is an extremely old game known by many names in different cultures. It has been called Mikado, Jackstraw and Spillkins, among other labels. Most historians trace its origins back to 12th century China, where sticks of ivory or bone were used to make predictions that were centered around one stick of a different color that was called the Emperor stick. No one knows for sure when or how it became a game for adults and children, but the simplicity of it may have had something to do with the spread through Asia to Japan. It is thought it spread to Native Americans over the Bering Strait, around the same time it was moving through Asia into India, and then Europe. Native Americans taught the game to English colonists.
Somewhere along the line, the sticks were made of wood instead of bone or ivory, making it much more portable and affordable for average gamers. Native Americans used wheat straws in their version. In each, however, the sticks were designated — usually by color — as having different points when they were retrieved. The highest-point value was associated with the Emperor stick, which was usually blue. In several countries that knew the game as Mikado, the name comes from the translation of the name as “emperor,” harkening back to its origins.
The general consensus is the modern-day version of the game came from Hungary to the U.S. in the 1930s. The name we know — pick up sticks — is thought to have been taken from the children’s nursery rhyme:
One, two, buckle my shoe Three, four, shut the door Five, six, pick up sticks Seven, eight, lay them straight Nine, ten, a big fat hen
Boomer Sister usually played the game on the living room floor, which was carpeted with the sculpted broadloom of the day. This meant an uneven surface, increasing the difficulty level of removing a modern-age plastic stick without disturbing others. It was this scene that Mister B flashed back on, he and his sister stretched out on the carpeting, rising only to take their turn at dropping the sticks.
Astute readers pointed out to Mister Boomer that in last week’s episode on classic toys of the 1950s, he ended the list with two that were released in 1960. However, Mister B would like to say this was not in error as he was planning to segue into this week’s review of some of the popular classic toys released in the 1960s.
Mister B knew there were lots of fantastic new toys introduced in the 1960s, so he included the two in the ’50s category based on their patent date rather than release date. So without further ado, check out this list of now-classic toys that got their start in the boomer years of the 1960s:
Game of Life (1960)
Originally created by Milton Bradley in 1860 as The Checkered Game of Life — a modified checkerboard — it became one of the most popular board games of the late 1800s. It was reinvented one hundred years later with the now-famous plastic spin wheel and other three-dimensional mountains and buildings imbedded into the playing board.
Mister Boomer’s sister asked for one for Christmas just as she was growing out of Candyland. She loved all types of board games, and would try to rope Mister B and Brother Boomer into the game. When she couldn’t get her brothers to play, she’d insist her father play the game with her. Mister Boomer was never all that interested in board games.
The Ken Doll (1961)
Did you know Ken’s full name was Ken Carson? He was named after Ruth Handler’s son; she had invented Barbie just two years earlier. He was conceived as a love interest for Barbie — the ultimate accessory for the doll who had everything. Ken came first with flocked hair, then with a plastic-molded crew cut in blond or brunette, and shipped with a red swimsuit, yellow towel and sandals.
Again, Mister Boomer’s sister got a Ken to go with her Barbie. However, Mister B recalls she generally preferred dressing up Barbie.
Duncan Butterfly Yo-Yo (1962)
The toy we call a yo-yo has been around in various forms for centuries. There is evidence of a yo-yo type of toy as far back as the Egyptians and Greeks. In the 1920s, a Filipino-American named Pedro Flores made the toy out of wood. Donald Duncan (the same entrepreneur who gave us Good Humor Ice Cream) bought the rights from Flores in 1929 and released his own version. In the 1950s, Duncan sponsored teen events and competitions to spur interest in his yo-yo. By the 1950s, Duncan’s version was made out of plastic, and in the following decade dozens of manufacturers became Duncan competitors.
In 1962, the company released the Butterfly Yo-Yo to try to regain dominance of the market. Looking like a butterfly-shaped spool, it had an inward-sloping center that made the toy easier to manipulate into tricks. Due to a national TV commercial blitz that year, interest in the yo-yo resurfaced to its highest level. Both Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer had several yo-yos made of wood and plastic, though he doesn’t recall owning the Duncan name brand or a butterfly style. Mister B remembers Brother Boomer performing trick with his yo-yo that lit up when it spinned.
Slip ‘n Slide (1961)
Who else but an American could conceive of a toy that consisted of nothing more than a sheet of vinyl? But when boomers set the family’s garden hose on it to wet the surface, hydroplaning action made it super-slick. Boomers could slide the length of the sheet face down or feet first.
Mister Boomer recalls somebody in the neighborhood having one, but he found all too often wrinkles in the vinyl could scrape the skin. He and Brother Boomer made their own version in their backyard using the vinyl liner of their 1950s kiddie pool, with unsatisfactory results since they didn’t repeat the experiment.
Another in a series of scientific toys released in the Boomer Era, Vac-U-Form molded plastic sheets that were set over a heated metal plate. When the boomer child pulled the handle to pull the top of the mold over the plastic, a vacuum would form and force the heated plastic into the mold’s shape.
Brother Boomer got one, and Mister B watched the process with a fair degree of fascination.
Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone (1962)
Following the success of the Corn Popper in the 1950s, Fisher-Price released the Chatter Telephone with a dial, handset and buttons that all made sounds when activated. The intent of the toy was to let kids mimic their parents using a telephone. It became the company’s best-selling toy throughout the 1960s and 70s. Original versions were made of wood, which was then replaced with plastic.
Easy-Bake Oven (1963)
Kenner gave us light bulb baking at its best in this super-popular home economics toy. The original version was made of blue plastic, which was changed to green the second year of production, then yellow the year after that.
Mister Boomer’s sister got one, but Mister B does not recall that she ever successfully baked a mini-cake.
Creepy Crawlers (1963)
Another toy that could potentially burn boomers’ fingers, Creepy Crawlers let boomers squirt a liquid rubbery substance into a mold that was heated by a hot plate. When the liquid cured, it became rubbery toy spiders, snakes and lizards.
Mister Boomer’s sister received the toy one Christmas, probably in 1963. Though he does not remember his sister burning herself, the toy was declared too dangerous for children and taken off the market in the 1970s. It was refitted with safeguards and re-introduced in the 1980s.
Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots (1964)
Two “robots” in a boxing ring could be controlled via joystick handles with push-button punching action. Boomer players would literally try to knock the head off the opponent’s robot. When struck correctly, the head would lift from the body along a metal shaft, which could be snapped back down for the next round.
Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer did not have one, but got to play the toy when they visited his cousin’s house.
G.I. Joe (1964)
Controversial in its time, G.I. Joe was called an action figure rather than a doll to counter calls that boys should not play with dolls. Designed as a macho hero from World War II, it was aimed squarely at boys. Articulated arms and legs allowed for action poses to interact with a plethora of weaponry, tanks and Jeeps (sold separately).
Neither Brother Boomer or Mister B had one, more than likely because they were out of the targeted age range.
See ‘n Say (1965)
Fisher-Price followed the success of the Chatty Cathy doll with talking toys for the younger set. Little hands could choose the sound they wanted to hear by turning the center pointer to a circular melange of potential sounds and pull a ring to hear it. Later the company made different versions to highlight particular categories of sounds, including the Bee Says, Farmer Says, Mister Music Says, and more.
Mister B recalls younger cousins having versions of the toy, especially Farmer Says.
Super Ball (1965)
Wham-O was on a roll with boomer toys, from the hula hoop and Frisbie of the 1950s to the Slip ‘n Slide and Super Ball of the ’60s. (See Boomers Had A Ball With This Fad)
A similar toy made of wood was available in the 1908 Sears catalog as The Marvelous Wondergraph. The toy used mathematical formulas to draw shapes by way of gears rotating on a fixed ring. Kenner’s 1960s version had plastic gears that were detailed so when a pen was inserted through designated hole, and the gear operated, would produce geometric designs.
Mister Boomer got one and was constantly enthralled by the geometry of the designs that could be drawn.
Barrel of Monkeys (1966)
Literally a plastic barrel filled with a dozen plastic monkeys, the game took its name from the phrase, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.” Each monkey had “S”-shaped arms that could be linked with one another. Monkeys were dumped from the barrel to a table, where a player would grab one and try to make a chain by linking the arms of all the monkeys in the pile. A player’s turn ended when a monkey was dropped. One point was assigned for each monkey remaining in the linked chain. The first player to get to twelve points won the game.
Lite Brite (1967)
Hasbro was another toy manufacturer well known to boomers. The Lite Brite was essentially a small light box covered by a sheet of black paper. Kids poked small pegs through paper in templates that formed shapes and objects, or free-form, causing them to light up the resulting shape.
Hot Wheels (1968)
Following the success of Matchbox cars, Mattel went one better with Hot Wheels. The cars were insanely fast when pushed on plastic track accessories, thanks to special ball bearings invented for the purpose. If you are a mid- to late-era boomer male, chances are you had a Hot Wheels collection. Mister B and Brother Boomer were teens by the time Hot Wheels were introduced. In fact, Brother Boomer got his his first real car in 1968.
While this list is by no means all-inclusive, how many of these toys did you play with, boomers?
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.
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 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.
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?
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?