Recently I read an article in the newspaper stating that pediatricians recommend things like wooden blocks, puzzles and even empty cardboard boxes as better toys for children than many of the more sophisticated electronic tablets and games that seem to be so popular now. I recently enjoyed a visit to a toy store in Brookville dedicated to just such “tech-less” toys and games, no batteries required. I enjoyed wandering the aisles where I found some great toys for Violet to unwrap on Christmas.
That made me think about the toys my brothers and sister and I played with when we were growing up. I did a bit of research to find out just what toys were most popular in the 1950s and 60s, and was surprised to learn that many of them are still being played with today. There was Mr. Potato Head, which originally only came with facial features that you pushed into a real potato, but I guess wasting potatoes wasn’t such a good idea, so in the 60s, a plastic potato was included in the kit. Then there was Play-Doh, which was invented as a wallpaper cleaner that could clean coal residue from walls easily. Some creative teachers decided to make Christmas ornaments out of it, and soon children were using their imaginations to make other things. Now it has versions that glow in the dark, have glitter in them or have various pleasant odors. Also available are the Play-Doh kitchens, barber shops and towns to spark the young imagination. It has even been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame! Not bad for a toy made from just water, salt, sugar and flour, with a petroleum additive that gives it a smooth feeling.
The Slinky toy has been on the market for more than 70 years and still holds as much appeal as it did when I was little and was fascinated watching it “walk” down the stairs. It had its origins in Philadelphia, where a man with a degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State built tools for submarines. One day he accidentally knocked a tin can of spare parts from a shelf onto his desk. He noticed a spring that wobbled across his desk, down a stack of books and onto the floor. He experimented for a year with different properties of steel and different tensions and knew he could make a product that would “walk.” By the end of 1947, Slinky was a national phenomenon, and is still being produced in Holidaysburg, Pa.
Wooly Willy is another Pennsylvania invention. Remember dragging his black, magnetic filings to make hair, eyebrows, a mustache and whiskers on his face, trying to make him look as weird as possible? He was created by two brothers in 1955 while working at Smethport Specialty Company that produced tops, horseshoe magnets and other toys. The face of Wooly Willy was drawn by an artist friend from Bradford. The cost of the original Wooly Willy was $.29, and it is still being produced in Smethport, although the price now varies from $3 to $8. And there is even a Buddy Beagle and a Hairdo Harriet for your creative enjoyment!
Then there’s the Holgate Toy Company, which was originally located near Philadelphia but in 1929 moved to Kane, Pa., because of the abundance of lumber for making an assortment of wooden toys. Many of the toys were designed by Jarvis Rockwell, Norman’s brother, with input from early childhood educators. It is the home of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood Trolley, and I remember taking my two children there when Mr. McFeeley made an appearance when they were tots. The Holgate store has beautiful wooden toys like Noah’s Ark complete with all the animals, a U.S. Mail truck, the old woman who lived in a shoe with all those children, and hundreds more simply delightful toys and kid size furniture.
I also discovered a wonderful toy factory called Channel Craft in Charleroi, Pa., that makes nostalgic wooden toys and games that are sold to customers nationwide. At a time when so many toys are made in China or other foreign countries, isn’t it refreshing to find the Made in the USA label on such quality playthings? I recently spoke to Dean Helfer who launched Channel Craft in 1983 when he purchased a 1972 Ford van and installed his grandfather’s woodshop tools in the back. Among the toys he crafted were boomerangs, which he started making by hand and selling from his van at craft shows while he was still a college student. He also formed a boomerang club at his college, and they performed at halftime during football games.
Channel Craft now makes more than 100 toys and also distributes toys made by other American craftsmen. His wood-crafted toys include yo-yos, hardwood spinning tops, train whistles, Jacob’s Ladders, Pick Up Sticks, wooden blocks, puzzles, Tiddly Winks, Kazoos, the original nose flute (this was a new one for me!), balsa wood glider planes and log cabin building sets to name a few. They also distribute authentic metal Jacks sets, jump ropes and marbles as well as many educational materials to stores such as Cracker Barrel and Cabela’s, and to gift shops at museums and national parks.
I can’t tell you how many of my elementary school recess times were spent sitting on the floor playing jacks or out on the playground jumping rope to the chanted rhymes that added to the fun! There is an art to playing jacks, and my grandchildren had some trouble getting the knack of it. We also played marbles at recess time. We kept our marbles in a Velveeta cheese box with a round hole in the top. You held the marble waist high and attempted to drop it into your friend’s box. If you got it in, you got your own marble back plus you got to keep one of their marbles.
How many of you remember playing with baking powder submarines, rubber band guns, sock monkeys, paddle balls, pogo sticks and hula hoops? I never got the hang of a pogo stick or a hula hoop, but I loved the submarines that used to come in a cereal box. What fun we had playing in water at the kitchen sink with those things! We also played croquet in the summer, and our carom game was a popular front porch activity. I never knew that it originated in southern Asia after World War I and that carom tournaments are still held in various countries. It’s a great game for up to four players, and I found the carom game that I have now on Amazon.
So many toys that we played with as children have withstood the test of time. That’s remarkable, considering that only 1 out of 1,000 toys makes it to the big time and doesn’t fade into obscurity rapidly! Dean Helfer of Channel Craft says, “There is an appeal for nostalgic toys. Most of the people who buy them are like me – they don’t want their kids or grandkids growing up without games and toys that provide them with a truly interactive experience.” I couldn’t agree more!
q q q
Marilyn Secco is a retired teacher and the author of the book “Front Porch Tales.” She has two children and five grandchildren and lives in Kersey with a temperamental cat named Tidder.