Category Archives: Retro Toys

All About … Mancala

Mancala, as it is commonly known in North America, is a game derived from a whole family of games described as “count-and-capture” games.  The word mancala is thought to have come from the Arabic word naqala, meaning “changed” or “relocated”.  The earliest known version of such a count-and-capture game is represented by a board found in what had been a 4th-century Roman fortress in eastern Egypt, while other, more fragmentary, versions have been dated to the 6th and 7th century AD.

The variant of Mancala most often played in North America was originally known as Kalah, and was introduced around 1940 by a man named William Julius Champion. Champion was born in Colorado in 1905 and attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. According to Champion family legend, Willie was a colourful character, who put himself through university (no mean feat even in 1905) by working odd jobs, including a summer job stint with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and is said to have walked from his home in Michigan to New Haven, a distance of about 1,370 km.

A Folding Mancala Board

A Folding Mancala Board

Champion conceived and marketed Kalah as an educational game, and there is no doubt that it does reinforce basic skills of counting and strategy.  At first glance, the game appears simple.  Forty-eight pebbles are distributed equally amongst twelve pits in the board. Each player “owns” the six pits directly in front of him, as well as the larger “store” to his right.  On his turn, a player takes all the stones from one of the pits on his side of the board, and distributes them anti-clockwise around the board (including dropping one into his own store). If he manages to drop the last stone from his handful into his store, then he may play once more.  If he drops his last stone into a previously empty pit on his own side, then he may take all the stones (if any) from the opponent’s pit directly opposite, and add them to his own store.  A player never drops a stone into his opponent’s store, but rather skips over it.

Ethiopian Pitted Stone Board

Ethiopian Pitted Stone Board

And that’s it. A surprising amount of strategy is required — there is no luck involved whatsoever. Mancala is an extremely enjoyable game that can be played over and over by children and adults alike.  You don’t even really need a board to play any of the Mancala family of games:  it has been suggested that, since this version can easily be played by scraping twelve holes into the ground and finding 48 beads, seeds, nuts, or stones, the count-and-capture game may be far, far older than 1,500 years — but these early versions would leave no archaeological traces.



Finally, here’s a super-low-cost version you can try at home.  You can use any small objects for the counters: buttons, beads, coins, marbles, or candies. (Bear in mind that small objects do pose a safety hazard for children under the age of four.)

Got Eggs?

Got Eggs?

And now you know. So get cracking!


2 players, ages 5+, 10 minutes. In stock ($14.99).


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Back in the Olden Days, When Toys Were Toys


Scooter Skaters from 1922, courtesy

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.

  1. 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
    incredible edibles

    The Incredible Edibles Thing Maker

    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.

  2. 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
    Creepy Crawlers

    The Creepy Crawlers ThingMaker from Mattel

    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.

  3. chemistry set

    At Least He’s Wearing Goggles

    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.

  4. 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.

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All the World’s a Stage … Top Ten Toys List Part 4

And without further ado, here are Numbers Six, Seven, and Eight on the Scalliwag Toys Top Ten list —

6. Puppets.  From finger puppets to complex stage puppets, these give your child the ability to move outside his own head, so to speak, and create an alter ego — literally, another self.


Puppeteer Shari Lewis and Lambchop

Parents can nurture creativity by making puppet production part of the experience; small paper lunch bags can be given faces with markers, crayons, or stickers and used as simple puppets.  Inexpensive tube socks (especially those kind of furry ones that you can buy in the dollar stores) make super hand puppets; the facial features are easily made using bits of felt, stick-on googly eyes, or buttons, and the faces themselves can be very expressive (just think of Shari Lewis’s Lambchop).

Let’s check the category against our three criteria for great toys:  first, are puppets interactive? Sure – puppets (well, except for Horror Puppets like Chuckie, I guess) need children to give them life.  The child and the puppet form a team.  Second, do puppets foster creativity? Yes, in the making and in the using.  Who can put a puppet on his or her hand and not start a conversation with it?  Third, is puppet play open-ended? Yes, puppet play is a kind of theatre, after all, and that theatrical and dramatic imagination can lead to all kinds of adventures.


Christopher Robin and Winnie-ther-Pooh

I think that these qualities — dramatic possibility, interactivity, and creativity — are also possessed by a puppet sub-set, namely, stuffed animals.  After all, what are stuffies but puppets without a sleeve, and lucky enough to find themselves with entire bodies?  Any parent who has peeked around a corner to see his little boy solemnly teaching his stuffed rabbit to “read”, or who good-naturedly sets a place at the dining table for his daughter’s teddy bear (“She needs her supper too!”) has acknowledged the power of drama and imagination, and the role that puppets fill.

7.  Dress-up clothes, or costumes, are the companion-piece to puppets.  Costumes allow children to become the stars in their dramas (one of my children confided in me that she liked to assign our family dog all the non-speaking roles in her plays, because “he never complained”.)  Sure, costumes may not be strictly necessary to drama, but anyone who has ever attended a play built around the ideas of No Costumes and No Sets, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet with all the characters dressed as police officers or something, may agree that some props and costumes add more to the event than others.  It’s easier to feel like a pirate when you are dressed like a pirate!

Dress-up clothes need not all be specially purchased.  In fact, I think that children understand the difference between costumes that are purchased, and real — usually adult — clothing that is worn as costume, and sometimes the repurposed adult clothing is far superior.  It is authentic, for one thing (even if it doesn’t really fit), and the real thing adds a level of verisimilitude to play that store-bought costuming just doesn’t manage.

EVA Foam Armour, Shield, Helmet

EVA Foam Armour, Shield, Helmet from Creative Education

Of course, not every kind of costume can be created from Mummy and Daddy’s old clothes (unless Mummy and Daddy live more exciting lives than we did, and have their own cast-off suits of steel armour or diamond tiaras), and so sometimes judiciously-purchased foam swords or shiny “chain-mail” capes can put a marvelous cap on imaginative dramatic play.

8.  Dolls.  Dolls are humanoid stuffed animals, really (or stuffed animals may


Baby Stella from Manhattan Toy

be anthropomorphised animals, but whatever), and fulfill many of the same roles.  The fact that they resemble us more closely, that they are identifiably copies of people, means that they are often preferred for role-play (Mommy and baby, for example — and note that here I’m mainly talking about baby dolls, not fashion dolls such as Barbie).  Dolls give parents the opportunity to watch their children model nurturing behaviours, and to reinforce good behaviours on a more patient subject, as in the potty-training methods that use drink-and-wet dollies.

Next time, I’ll discuss the final two items (I’ll bet you thought we’d never get there!) on the Scalliwag Toys Top Ten List:  Play-Doh® and activity books.

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Think It. Draw It. Build It. Meccano.

2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frank Hornby, the creative genius behind the Meccano building system.

This illustration accompanied Hornby’s 1901 patent application for what would later become Meccano.

By day, Hornby worked as an accountant, but his creative imagination led to his spending many happy leisure hours in his home workshop.  He was making toy models for his children when he hit upon the elegantly simple idea behind what would become Meccano: simple, identical elements stamped from metal could be bolted together in many different ways to form different models.  Hornby further realized that, by perforating the structural pieces, he could not only make assembly easier (pre-drilled holes meant more precision) but also increase the strength and stability of the finished models (the holes meant each model used less metal overall, as well as acting as supports for axles).

By 1902, Hornby’s Mechanics Made Easy was in production.  Within 5 years, demand had outstripped the capabilities of his parts suppliers, and Hornby acquired his own factory premises in Liverpool.  The name was changed in order to broaden the product’s appeal in non-English-speaking countries, and with the registration of the trademark in 1907, Meccano was born.

When we first opened in 1985, we had a gentleman customer who had been an avid Meccano fan all his life, and who vividly remembered saving part of his weekly pay packet as a youngster in England during the thirties so that he could, periodically, buy a new set of Meccano.  At the time, the sets were sold as a series of sets, each with one accessory set that, when added, equaled the next set up (i.e. set 5 plus 5A equaled set 6).  This meant that the initial purchase didn’t have to be enormously expensive–a good thing during the Depression and afterwards–and that enthusiasts could grow their collection slowly.  The customer did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and figured that, when one compared the percentage of his pay packet that the Meccano had represented to today’s cost as a percentage of a minimum-wage day’s wages, the Meccano had–allowing for inflation–been roughly the same cost then as it was some fifty years later!

A one and a two and–

The real beauty of Meccano was in the open-ended construction possibilities that it offered.  If you could think it up–and you had enough Meccano–you could build it, an idea cleverly exploited by one of Meccano’s ad campaigns.

Meccano is still going strong in the 21st century.The basic sets are now marketed in a different way–they are now divided into 5-model, 10-model, 20-model sets, and so on–and they are no longer made in England, but the basic pieces are entirely compatible with those of any set sold in the past.  Engineers, inventors, and hobbyists still use Meccano to build prototypical machines and models.  Meccano is so much more than “just a toy”!

Exterminate! Exterminate!

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to work on the robots I’m building to assist me in my plans for world domination …

If you can think it up, you can build it.  Thanks, Meccano!

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Counting Down to Christmas

Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin’ me late
Is keepin’ me waitin'”
Anticipation, lyrics by Carly Simon

When I was a child, the year had two poles, two obvious highlights:  my summertime birthday, and Christmas.  (I always felt vaguely sorry for people whose birthdays fell close to Christmas, so that their celebrations were over in one fell swoop, and they had to wait through most of another year for the next occurrence.)

The last month before my birthday seemed to take on a heightened significance, as the excitement and anticipation built.  (Needless to say, it doesn’t really do that any more.)  Christmas was the same, the season becoming more and more apparent with each benchmark:  the first snow that fell and stayed to blanket the ground; the appearance of Christmas lights and decorations around the city; the Christmas carols that mingled with pop songs on the radio; the preparations for the school’s holiday pageant.

One of my favorite traditions marking the holiday season is that of the Advent calendar.  The Advent calendar is a fairly recent invention:  according to Wikipedia, first commercially-produced Advent calendar was made at the beginning of the 20th century in Hamburg, Germany.  The 24 dates marked upon Advent calendars do not necessarily coincide with the actual dates of Advent, which is defined by Church calendars as beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas (this year, 2012, the season of Advent begins on 2 December).

Advent calendars serve both to demonstrate the less-than-tangible passage of time (who has not crossed off the days on a calendar before some important event?) and to channel the rising excitement of children who are waiting for the arrival of Santa by revealing a little picture, a chocolate, or a small toy with each new day.

advent calendar wooden house

Wooden House Advent Calendar

The Wooden House Advent calendar is a charming reusable miniature chest of drawers into which parents or grandparents can place 24 little goodies–small toys and trinkets, wrapped candies, chocolate coins–for children to reveal day by day.  The beauty of the Wooden House (and the Wooden Truck Advent calendar from the same manufacturer) is that it can be used year after year, creating a wonderful holiday tradition.  The drawers are large enough (about 4cm x 4cm x 4cm, or about 1.5″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″) to accommodate a variety of things.

The Original Playmobil Advent Calendar

Playmobil, the German manufacturer of extraordinary imaginative playthings, has for many years produced Advent calendars featuring its toys.  This year, Playmobil offers what I believe is a record 5 different calendars:  two traditional (#4161, Christmas Post Office; and #4166, Forest Winter Wonderland) and three entire non-religious versions (#4162, Dinosaur Expedition; #4165, Princess Wedding; and #4164, Pirates Treasure Cove).  The calendars come with each day’s numbered box filled and ready-to-go (parents used to have to fold and fill each box before assembling the calendar).  These are hugely popular sets, as they contain lots of interesting pieces and the price is very reasonable at $22.

lego advent 1298-1

Lego’s First Advent Calendar Contents

Lego got behind the idea in 1998, with an Advent calendar that was composed of basic bricks and instructions that allowed children to build holiday-themed creations.  As themes grew, Lego began offering Advent calendars containing Pirates, City, and Star Wars components.

This year, we have two Lego Advent Calendars in stock.  The first, #4428, is City-themed and has Santa and other minifigures, as well as vehicles and scenery.  The other is the Star Wars

lego star wars advent 9509-1

Lego Star Wars Advent Calendar 2012

Advent Calendar, which has an interesting assortment of tiny vehicles and minifigures–including Darth Maul as Santa, and R2D2 as a snowman with a top hat.

P.S.  I know, I know– it’s early to be talking about Christmas.  But these things arrive early (I mean, they arrived in September!), and they’ll be gone early too.  All these are in stock, both in-store and on the website, right now, so don’t wait too long if you want one.  When they are gone, they’re gone–until the new sets arrive next year!

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BRIO Trains Are Chugging Back to Scalliwag Toys!

Brio Figure 8 Set

Classic Figure 8 Set

When we opened Scalliwag Toys in 1985, one of the very first lines that we ordered in to our bare little store was BRIO wooden trains.

We were entranced by the high quality, the attention to detail in manufacturing, and the timeless appeal of the toys–the trains, buildings, and accessories were instantly recognizable as such, but just abstract enough to represent the idea of trains (or buildings, or trees), rather than any one train or character in particular.  This, we thought, would help children make full use of their imaginations as they played.

And it did.  We carried BRIO toys for almost 20 years, until BRIO, still manufactured in Sweden and facing stiff competition from cheaper brands manufactured in the Orient, withdrew from the North American market back to Europe.  We were very sorry to see them go.

Mighty Red Locomotive

Mighty Red Locomotive from BRIO

This story has a happy ending, however, as BRIO trains will be reappearing on the shelves of North American specialty toy shops this summer.  The company has regrouped and reissued their classic trains, track, and accessories at very attractive prices.  The Mighty Red Locomotive, shown at left, was CDN$39.99 the last time we sold it in 2005.  When BRIO comes back into stock in August 2012, however, the same Mighty Red Locomotive will sell for only $29.99!  Other items have seen similar significant price reductions.

The whole line will be arriving in the month of August, along with a brand-spanking-new train table for kids and adults to try.  We’ll be sure to post an update to let you know as soon as they steam in the front door!

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Everything Old is New Again

Now that even the tail end of the Baby Boom generation is approaching retirement age, we are developing our own forms of nostalgia for the experiences of youth.  In the store, we are seeing a fresh interest in retro toys, the toys that we grew up with — classic games, action figures, fashion dolls, and activities.  Two of the most popular retro toys on our store shelves this Christmas are the Chatter Telephone and the Two Tune Music Box TV from Fisher-Price by way of Basic Fun toys.

The Chatter Telephone was introduced in 1961, billed as “the ultimate pretend play toy” with its friendly interactive design.  Technology may have changed — how many children have ever seen a dial telephone? — but this iconic pull toy remains as engaging as ever.  The eyes still roll up and down when the telephone is pulled along by a toddler, and the dial makes a chiming sound.  Bri-i-ing! Bri-i-ing!

The Two Tune Music Box TV has been charming children since 1966.  Wind up the yellow plastic knob (remember when televisions had knobs?) and watch the pictures scroll across the screen.  The TV plays “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and “London Bridge is Falling Down”.  It does not come in an 80-inch version, or in 3D, and you can’t use your Xbox with it — but it doesn’t need any batteries, either.  Ever.

BF1694  Chatter Telephone  $19.99
BF1696 Two Tune Music Box TV $39.99

In stock now.

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