Toys! The New Exhibit at the History Colorado Center

colorado history museum toys exhibit logoI’m still a kid at heart, I admit it. I play games with my friends, I have a LEGO minifig on my computer bag and a plastic M&M’s guy on my dashboard. I mean, really, who wants to grow up and be that stuffy, boring guy that makes you constantly have to stifle your yawns so as not to be too impolite?

When I was growing up we didn’t have a lot, middle class living in the ‘burbs, but somehow my parents made the checkbook balance and for my part from as early as I can remember, I was hustling for a buck from the neighbors. Waxing cars, doing yardwork, and even running a bike repair business complete with advertising in the local paper, all out of the garage.

And so I had plenty of games and toys, ranging from incredibly inexpensive trinkets acquired at the five and dime to big, fancy presents that required saving up on my part or even my parents part. Bikes, a basketball hoop and ball, baseball mitt, home taxidermy kit (just kidding on that last one, Norman!). That was also the era of the Sears Wish List Christmas toy catalog and I can remember being pretty excited when that’d show up. A chance to dream of owning every toy available, while discovering cool looking toys that I didn’t even know existed.

When the History Colorado Center announced that its summer exhibit was going to be about toys of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, I immediately made plans with my pal Steve and his delightful dad Ron for us to head there together, and so we did. And it was terrific fun, really enjoyable, and a chance to not only see and remember all the toys my friends and I had, but to marvel at the cultural mirror that toys play for their era. Lots of photos too, of which here are some of my faves, with commentary:

history colorado museum toys exhibit, main area

For people paying attention, the areas set up for each era are themselves representative of a popular toy or game from that same historical period. Here the 60’s looks like a Barbie Dream House or similar. The wall decorations were interesting too and it was clear that at least one curator had a great time exploring flea markets and swap meets for a few months.

the green machine, for boys 9-11

Apparently girls who were the right age and “really know how to ride” weren’t allowed to get a Green Machine. This is one that I have to admit I don’t recall seeing, but they did also have Big Wheels, and I think I had one of those when I was young. Not sure, actually, but definitely remember seeing them all over the place.

lawn darts history colorado museum toys exhibit

I remember we had these “lawn darts”, apparently properly called Jarts. With appropriate supervision it still seems like a fun toy for a summer afternoon, but no surprise, it was pulled from the market after too many children were injured. Too bad. Hmm… maybe I can make my own? 🙂

I remember having fleets of these too:

matchbox car history colorado museum toys exhibit

The original “matchbox” cars were made to fit into a standard matchbox, actually, because that was the rule for how big a toy could be that a child could bring to school. Neat. I still have a few of these old, metal Matchbox cars sitting on shelves in my house, actually, including a great London double-decker bus.

Then there was the great American competitor, Hot Wheels. And not only did I have those, I still have a few Hot Wheels car and enough of the bright orange snap-together track to make a proper loop-the-loop.

In the 60’s, one of the biggest activities that fired up the imagination of children throughout the western world was the space race. The fact that it was an outgrowth of the Cold War and that each nation was afraid the other would be first to space with Buck Rogers-style laser beam weapons? As a kid I was utterly oblivious. I was just thrilled at the idea of man in space, of the Moon landing and of the commercialization of space. In another universe I’d have ended up working at NASA, I certainly had opportunities when I was younger. Oh well.

Still, though, even decades later, a toy like this both reflects the excitement of the era and makes my heart beat just a tiny bit faster too:

space capsule history colorado museum toys exhibit

Of course I’m pretty sure it’s not airtight, but, um, when a 7yo throws it up in the air and it doesn’t break on impact, it’s de facto a great spacecraft.

Another hobby I had as a child that consumed lots of my time and attention, though hasn’t survived the jump into adulthood, was making models. And no company owned the model car and auto space more than Revell. I can remember spending countless hours assembling WWII planes, ships, classic cars and more, though this particular model wasn’t one that I recall:

revell models history colorado museum toys exhibit

If I could go back in time to meet my young teen self, I’m pretty sure I’d have assembled model planes hanging from fishing line on my ceiling. I’d also advise myself on some stocks to buy after I’d complimented myself on the excellent assembly job!

colorforms batman

Again, I didn’t have this particular one, but I absolutely remember having Colorforms where you could build up layers of comic illustration elements on the sticky board, then peel it all off and do a completely different setup, again and again. In some ways these just seem like precursors to the far more sophisticated iPad games with the same premise, but to be honest, the kinesthetic experience of touching, peeling, flattening, moving around beats the digital experience of touch and drag.

In fact, one thing I couldn’t help thinking about as we explored the Toys exhibit was that with the rise of devices and electronics, our children have lost the kinesthetic and social aspect of most toys, games and play. Now they jack in and “play” games with people they don’t know from around the world. Kids they’ll never meet, kids that’ll never hang out in the tree or share a lousy lunch prepared by an overworked parent. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but if childhood is about learning how to socialize, why are we letting them not socialize by getting so immersed in electronics and the online world?

And it’s not like older toys were more gentle or inclusive. “Politically correct” wasn’t really a concept when I was growing up, and I dunno, I’m not convinced that was such a bad thing.

I mean, toys like this Atomic Blaster Cap Gun didn’t produce Columbine shooters, did it?

laser gun, history colorado museum toys exhibit

Then again, has our view of the future always been dark and violent? Yeah, pretty much. That’s one reason that so many geeks still love Star Trek: it’s one of the very first TV shows where the future was somewhere you’d want to be, not a place to avoid.

home chemistry set

I remember seeing ads for these in comic books and Mad Magazine, but I don’t think I ever had one. Pretty darn cool, though, with its pre-CSI crime scene investigation tools. Nonetheless I’d be mighty leery of my kids saying “you go to work, Dad, we’re going to try glass blowing this morning with the new Chemistry Experiment Lab!”

test your environment

The 70’s were the height of the anti-corporation movement, where every hippie and a whole lot of other people realized that we really can’t just trust the government or corporations to do the right thing and protect the environment. Remember The China Syndrome? That came out in 1979 and it’s the zenith of that movement. But a toy that let you perform your own tests on the environment? Genius, actually.

Nowadays I’m afraid that our children don’t much care. They’re told that it’s all getting better and that the government and non-profits that deal in hundreds of millions of dollars have the situation under control. Me? I think it’d be a wonderful thing to get a few thousand of these kits out in the wild and have children take ownership of their environment, not just unplug.

I never had an environmental test kit. But I did have one of these:

pet rock with packaging

If that’s not the ultimate in brilliant marketing, I don’t know what is. Pet Rocks. Who the heck buys a rock with a care and training manual included? Apparently I did. Yikes.

atari handheld football lcd game

How this kept my attention I have no idea, but I sure remember a lot of kids having these iPod and smart phone precursors from Mattel Electronics. Did you have one?

Meanwhile, traditional gender roles continued to be affirmed, whether the Green Machine that only boys could ride or the sewing kit that was for the “Junior Miss”:

sewing jr miss kit history colorado museum toys exhibit

So happens this looks pretty fun and ready for hours of imaginative play. Instead, my 11yo daughter has a full-size Singer machine, and it definitely did not come packaged like this!

Pretty sure that they didn’t have 3D printers back then, but check out this Flintstones toy set:

Flinstones figurines and models

Looks like something that you could program and print off a modern 3D plastic printer in just a few minutes. In an interesting trivia twist, my best pal in middle school was Mitchell, and his uncle was the voice of Fred Flintstone for Hanna-Barbara. Never met the guy but that was definitely pretty cool!

There were Marvell models, and then there were the very different sort of playful monster models from Aurora:

aurora monster scenes model

I admit it, I had some of these and loved the wry, satirical look at horror creatures from both the Aurora model line and the many different sticker sets, trading cards and related that characterized the era. Dr. Deadly? Oh, heck yeah.

And finally, how can we talk about how toys and games mirrored the cultural zeitgeist of the era without citing this delightful game that sought to create happy little consumers of us children (and our parents):

"charge it" credit card game

“Charge It!”. Yeah, no. We reap what we sow, culturally, and now there are way too many people living in debt. But that’s the subject of another post.

For now, let me just wrap up by commending the History Colorado Center on a delightful, fun and playful exhibit of Toys of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. It wraps up October 4th, so don’t miss out. I’ll be back at least once more with my children in tow. After all, I think they should see some of the toys I grew up with!

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