In the store, we often hear parents (or grandparents) say things like: “We never had toys like this when we were young!”. This is always said with a slightly disapproving shake of the head, a sort of tut-tut that kids these days don’t know how lucky they are to have so many toys, and that the parent remembers when kids called themselves fortunate to own a hoop, or possibly just a rock or stick.
This is, of course, a load of horse poop. Kids, your parents — unless they grew up in some sort of recently-discovered Amazonian tribe still living a Neolithic life — had toys just like you do. Lots of toys. And often they were way cooler than anything you can get your hands on today, because we didn’t mind flirting with danger then. (Also the Consumer Products Safety Commission wasn’t created until 1972, so basically everything before that was a kind of safety free-for-all. Good times!) Here are just a few of the toys I remember playing with when I was ten or eleven years old, and the summers just seemed to stretch on forever.
- Incredible Edibles. This toy came from the fertile imaginations at Mattel (where else?), and involved an electric heating element housed inside that vaguely face-shaped apparatus in the
photo at left. The element heated up metal molds into which you had previously poured “Liquid Gobble De-Goop in Six Awfully Good Flavors”, and baked the stuff until it set into rubbery candies. You then pried your creations out of the molds, and ate them. Mattel made a big deal out of the fact that the Gobble De-Goop was sugarless, although heaven only knows what was actually in it. We spent hours inadvertently burning ourselves on the extremely-hot metal plates, and eating these gelatinous things. Mmmm.
- Creepy Crawlers ThingMaker. Although this was also from Mattel and involved pouring liquid good into metal plates, the ThingMaker was a different electric heating unit (“Sold Separately!”). The liquid stuff was
called PlastiGoop and came in bottles that resembled those of Elmer’s Glue. Our most prized bottle was Nite-Glo, which did, indeed, glow in the dark and with which we made armies of centipedes, spiders, flies, and other rubbery bugs. What made it glow, you ask? Who knows — probably something radioactive. I also remember that, at least with the many-legged Crawlers, it was often difficult to end up with a full complement of legs or antennae, since any bubbles in the liquid plastic would become weak spots in the baked creature. Very traumatic. The whole enterprise produced, unsurprisingly, a strong smell of hot plastic. God only knows what sort of off-gassing the whole production created. No wonder our mother suffered from migraines.
Chemistry sets. These were immensely popular when I was a child; I certainly had one when I was eleven or twelve years old (my childhood desk still bears the scars). Now, chemistry sets are still sold today, but they are nothing like those sets from the 1970s and earlier (one set even contained some mildly radioactive elements!): the experiments are easier and better explained, the chemicals are far less dangerous, and the processes are far less hazardous. The set I had contained an alcohol burner (the home equivalent of the famous “Bunsen Burner”, for heating up various solutions of chemicals) and the glass test-tubes and so on that were necessary (most of which eventually broke, either over the flame of the burner, or as they rolled off the desk onto the floor). Can you imagine a parent today encouraging a child to go to his bedroom and heat various chemicals together over an open flame? (Because you just know that lots of kids didn’t bother to read the instructions, right? I mean, come on.) I can’t either.
- And then there’s the Slip-n-Slide from Wham-O:
This cleverly-simple toy merged water, plastic, and humid summer days to great effect. It was also designed for small children, and from 1973 to 1991 at least 8 teens and adults suffered spinal cord injury or paralysis when they hit an obstacle on the Slip-n-Slide, and their greater body mass and height caused them to abruptly stop. The Consumer Products Safety Commission issued a recall in 1993, urging teenagers and adults not to use the product. If you think about it, it’s pretty unsafe even for children: any stick or pointy foreign object lying hidden in the grass under the plastic could be forced up by the pressure of the body scooting along above it, and impale the unsuspecting traveler in less time than it takes to say: “Should we have an ambulance standing by?”
So, kids, you can see that we did have toys when we were your age. Awesome toys (well, awesome for those that survived with all their appendages and eyes intact). And when Grandad looks at you sitting on the basement sofa in the summertime, as pale as a mushroom, playing Cut the Rope or Micro Miners on your iPod, and he makes that tsk-tsk noise and mumbles something about “You kids and your toys”, it’s really not that he is envious.
He secretly feels a bit sorry for you, that’s all.