A Lifelong Intrigue When it Comes to Toys

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 24, 2021

There was a time when the very word “toys” was magic to me, and the idea of a big department store, with a whole section devoted to them, was probably as close as I’ll ever come in this life to conceiving Heaven.

Of course, there have always been children at play — and children must always have needed some kinds of things to play with. Archaeologists often find what were presumably favorite toys — sometimes miniature animals of clay or straw — buried with the child who owned them. In my own childhood, the boys’ toys I was familiar with emphasized construction, weaponry, and transportation.

It must have been about two centuries ago that toys began to be commercialized. By the time I came on the scene, there were certain big names and products which dominated the toy market. There were Lionel Trains, Gilbert chemistry sets, Erector sets, Tinkertoy outfits, and, of course, Parker games, including the much-loved Monopoly. And then as now, an association with the names and images of certain celebrities — including characters from the “comics” — made for profitable marketing. 

Walt Disney personalities like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were already so popular in England just before World War II, that each child in the nursery school I attended had a chair and toothbrush with his or her own particular Disney character emblazoned on it.

The war years, which I spent mostly in Washington, D.C., were a special era for children. Most of the radio programs we listened to, and comic books we read, even the games we played, were in some way related to the war. I had a board game called “Spot-a-Plane,” in which you moved little airplane tokens around the board a certain number of spaces, depending on whether or not you were able to identify friendly or hostile aircraft from their different silhouettes, as displayed on a card you drew from a pack of possibilities. Thanks to this training, I can still tell a Spitfire from a Messerschmitt, or a Curtiss P-40 from a Zero.

But one big drawback of a wartime childhood, even in a prosperous country like the U.S., far from the battle zones, was that the available toys were necessarily of an inferior quality. This was particularly true where paper had to be substituted for wood or metal. (The Age of Plastics hadn’t yet begun.) So, the toy soldiers, tanks, and forts which would normally be of sturdier material, now consisted of cardboard, which came in a box of sheets from which you punched out the desired objects and assembled them by following instructions about folding along line A and inserting Tab B into Slot C.

This shortcoming at least had the advantage that, when your forces were arrayed against those of your opponent, some of the less substantial installations, like individual soldiers, could be more easily knocked down with a projectile from your gun, which fired rubber bands.

I did, however, also have a metal “Lone Ranger” gun, with a trigger, which was supposed to fire a little wooden rod with a rubber suction cup on the end, at a metal bullseye target. But, as with many of my other toys, I could never get it to work properly.

There was a time when toy steam-engines were all the rage — but since the introduction of electricity and electronics, the very concept of “play” has become a whole new ballgame. And speaking of balls, they are, and always have been, ubiquitous in toy-land. It’s amazing how many games and playthings are based on some kind of spherical object. Marbles have been so popular that they’ve become part of our language — for some reason, relating, in particular, to mental health, as in having, or not having, all one’s marbles — but also connoting poor sportsmanship, when we speak of someone who, in the middle of a game, picks up his marbles and goes home.

Girls’ toys were for me a separate and remote world. But I had a younger sister, and, paralleling my interest in cardboard weaponry, I was aware of her fascination with “paper dolls,” which came with a variety of paper wardrobes. Strangely, this phenomenon seems to have inspired the popularity of the song “Paper Doll,” which reflected the insecurity of wartime relationships:

“I’m gonna buy a paper doll that I can call my own —
A doll that other fellows cannot steal —
And then the flirty-flirty guys, with their flirty-flirty eyes,
Will have to flirt with dollies that are real.”


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