Thursday, June 12, 2014

Toys Were Us

I was talking with a friend the other day, and the subject of our favorite old toys came up.

When you want to look at the massive changes between now and say the 60s and 70s, one peek at kids toys and games will tell the tale.  Our games were the model of simplicity, often using nothing but basic properties of physics and chemistry.  Very few things lit up, unless you were playing “Operation,” or had an “EZ-Bake Oven.”

I never see kids now playing with anything that doesn’t move, blink, light up, make noise, or appear on a screen.  Granted, all that stuff is pretty cool.  But I kind of feel sorry for them, that they missed out on the simple pleasures of childhood.

So I figured I could make a nice post out of remembering some of my favorite games, from Back in the Day.  But as I look over my list, one thing sticks out… We never actually owned many of these.

Much like Pop Tarts, soda pop and sugared cereal, we weren’t allowed to have the cool toys.  I’m pretty sure Mom made us play with toilet paper tubes, broken glass and dirt.  At least that’s how I remember it…  So the only time I got to play most of these games was when they belonged to someone else.  Neighbors, friends, cousins, they seemed to have all the cool stuff.

In formulating my list, there seemed to be some natural divisions, so I’ll stick to that format.

Basic Games

 Battling Tops

This one was just physics in action.  Two or more people would pick a top, wind the string around the stem, snap it into the starter gate, then pull the string.  The tops would circle around the “arena” and eventually bump into each other until only one was left standing.  I don’t know why I was so entertained by watching things spin around… maybe that’s why I liked playing records so much.


Another game based on basic physics.  The discs were stacked on the three poles, with the little guy balancing on the top.  You’d spin the spinner, then use the plastic “fork” to remove that color of disc.  Whoever made the little guy fall, lost.


This one is still around, but has gone through various incarnations, plus a major motion picture.  Each player places their ships on the grid, and then they take turns calling out grid coordinates to where they think their opponent’s ships are.  It’s kind of like blind, reverse bingo. 

The biggest problem was cheating.  If your opponent called out a square that your ship was on, you could lie and say it was a miss, or you carefully move it to another location.  I had a friend who used to stack four of his ships on the aircraft carrier.

I think they had to make this game electronic, just to deter cheating kids.  It was either that, or the game had to come with a proctor.


This was a simple stacking game.  You took turns stacking up these oddly-shaped blocks, until someone couldn’t place the next piece without toppling the tower.  I think we mostly liked it because there was a piece shaped like a butt.

Sports Games

The mack daddy of old sports games, Electric Football

We first got this one in the late 60s; our teams were the Packers and Browns.  My brother and I used to spend ages arranging the players into various formations and conceiving of trick plays.  Then when we’d turn on the switch, they’d mostly just spin around in circles.  I don’t think anyone ever completed a pass, or made a field goal, with those little felt “footballs.”  Ever.

The companion piece to Electric Football: Table Hockey (Source)

We had this one too, and it might be the same version as pictured.  I think our teams were the Leafs and Canadiens.  At least this one worked like it was supposed to.  Of course the puck always seemed to end up in that one square inch where no player could reach it.

My brother and I really liked these last two.  It’s no surprise to me that he got both of them for my nephews, even though the players still don’t do much more than spin around.)  I wonder if he ever gave the boys a turn?

My favorite out of all of the sports games were the “Stratomatic” games.

 Strat-O-Matic Baseball player cards

Strat-O-Matic was like the forerunner of fantasy football and baseball.  With the baseball, every player had a stat card.  You’d put your team together and roll some dice.  The stat cards told you what the player did for that dice roll, and you’d chart the game on a board, or a piece of paper.

We had a football version as well, but the stats were team-based rather than play-based.  One year my brother and I decided to play the entire NFL schedule.  We never finished the first game, because while he was in the bathroom, I peeped on his card and saw that his defense couldn’t stop one particular play no matter what was rolled on the dice, so I ran it every time.  Yeah, it was kind of a dick move.

Building Toys

Tinker Toys

I loved these!  I don’t think I ever built anything slick, like you’d see on the box.  Instead I’d just build these giant gizmos that only made sense in my head.  It was like, if I could use every piece, I won.

They’re still around, but are now made out of plastic.  Bah!

The Erector Set

We got this one when I was in 6th or 7th grade.  It was really nothing but various beams, plates, nuts and bolts, and a small motor.  Best thing we built was a fully functioning model of a Pittsburgh Incline.  Worst thing was that the nuts and bolts ended up everywhere but back in the box.

I know Legos are still around, but I am no longer impressed.  My best memory of Legos was playing with a giant tub full of miscellaneous bricks and platforms.  When you look for Legos now, they’re all sold in specialized packages, meant to build one particular thing.  I suppose you could just combine a bunch of disparate packages together, but then you’d end up with a tractor-trailer with helicopter blades.

Whenever I think “Legos,” I also think Lincoln Logs.  But I was never too keen on those… there wasn’t much variety in building subjects.

Oh gee, another log cabin!

They at least should have come with a miniature, wooden Abraham Lincoln.

Hot Wheel track and connectors

Hot Wheels were cool!  Granted, my brother and I probably spent more time beating each other with the track than playing with the cars, but still, we put on some serious tournaments.

We had a neighbor who also had Hot Wheels stuff, so we’d combine our assets.  First of all, we rarely used the curves, loops or jumps, because the cars almost always sailed off the track.  So we’d go outside and construct a long straight-away down the hill in our front yard.  The neighbor had a starting gate contraption, for fair starts.  So we’d take turns picking cars, then stage a round-robin tournament until we crowned the Hottest Wheels.

The biggest problem was that after a few times, we all knew which cars were the fastest, so we probably spent more time arguing over who got which car, than actually racing.

Creepy Crawlers

(I’m including this in the “Building” section, because they were something we created.  Same with Hot Wheels… we built the big race courses.)

Creepy Crawlers were the little boys’ version of the EZ-Bake Oven.  You’d put the “goop” in the molds, in any number or combination of colors, put it in the little oven, and in a few minutes, you’d have a rubber bug.  (Eventually they made an edible version.)
The finished product.

I remember the first time I made some… I brought them home to show Mom and ended up chasing her around the house with them.  She was NOT amused.  And that’s probably why I never had a Creepy Crawler set of my own.  (Dirt doesn’t hold up as well, in the oven.)  And because I couldn’t have my own Creepy Crawler set, I found I could chase her around with discarded cicada shells instead.  I suppose it’s no wonder I wasn’t allowed to have nice things.

Board Games
We got a lot of mileage out of the Big Three: Monopoly, Life, and Clue.  We got Monopoly when I was in 3rd grade, and we played the hell out of it clean through high school.  Not sure we ever actually finished a game, though.

Hey, let me ask you… did you ever use “Free Parking” as a kitty to win all the various fines and penalties called for by Chance and Community Chest?  That was one of our “House Rules.”

We also liked playing “Life,” mostly because the bill denominations were so freakishly high.  It’s been ages since I’ve played that, so my memory is a bit hazy, but I’d like a chance at redesigning that game.  I could think of a number of ways to make it more realistic, in the short loop through college, alone.

We didn’t have a Clue, so we had to play it at a neighbor’s house.  (“Sorry.”)  (Oops, that’s another game we didn’t have!)  And when we wanted to get into Trouble, we had to go to Grandma’s, because we didn’t have that game either.  (The best part about Trouble, was that the dice was encased in a little bubble on the middle of the board.  You’d push the bubble down and it would bobble the dice.  That was one game where we never lost the pieces.

I do remember the first time I played Clue, though.  I was convinced that the deceased was killed with the lead pipe.  How did I know?  Because the pipe game piece had a bend in it.  Forget deductive reasoning; I had physical evidence!  Sadly, the grownups I was playing with were unmoved by my logic.

So what were your favorite toys and games of Olde?


  1. Good Lord...You were SOOOO deprived!
    In the OLDE days, we had REAL bugs to terrorize Mom.

    1. It was a tragic childhood, I know. Not sure how I managed to survive...

    2. Don't know how I did either. Sorry you never got an Easy-Bake Oven to cook the Creepies but they were ruled unsafe for all critters including bugs and little boys.

    3. Banished, just like Jarts... Another favorite game we didn't have!

  2. Harper encountered her first cicada shell just today! Not surprisingly, she was not the least bit grossed out and actually thought it was pretty cool.

    I'm pretty anti-toys-that-light-up-and-do-stuff. I kind of think that if toys do too much, then kids don't get a chance to develop their imaginations. That's why Harper is the only kid she knows with a jack-in-the-box. Unfortunately, The Guy's parents labor under the delusion that electronic = educational, so we have our fair share of annoying and garishly-colored hunks of plastic that eat batteries. (Sigh.)

    1. I was fascinated by cicada shells... Wasn't quite sure what they were all about, but definitely cool.

      We almost played a game that lit up... We had a friend who had "Operation," but the nose light never worked. Oh, and there was Lite Brite, but that's not quite the same thing.

    2. Sarah has a jack-in-the-box!

  3. Oh yes, I remember most of these. Table Hockey and Tinker Toys were my world when I was a kid. For board games, though, I was more of a Connect Four kind of kid.

    1. Connect Four was fun (when I played it at a friend''s house. We probably would have lost all the discs within a week though.

  4. My family was definitely into the old-timey, boring, Lincoln-Logs-type stuff. The most advanced thing we owned was Mouse Trap, and I'm pretty sure we played it exactly once. Legos, Barbies, blanket forts–we liked to use our imaginations. Strat-o-Matic is pretty awesome to me now that I work for a fantasy sports company. My boss collects old toys, so I might have to try to find him a set!

    1. We used to have Mousetrap too, and loved it. Of course, we never actually played the game, we just built the contraption and set it off, over and over.

      Blanket forts were also a staple... Probably a precursor to our Barn, in that we hung out there, out of the house, away from direct parental supervision.

  5. We played Battleship! Candyland and Life were staples of my childhood.

    Sarah has a few things that light up and make noises, but not many, mostly because I get annoyed too easily. Instead she spends the majority of her time building castles out of blocks for her princess dolls or jumping on the trampoline. Also, toilet paper rolls are a huge hit around our house.

    1. Both grandparents had greats sets of blocks for us to play with. We used those forEVER! Granted, my brother and I also spent a great deal of time whacking each other them as well. Versatile toy...

  6. I had so many of these same toys. And I, too, feel sorry for kids of today. I used to skate up and down my street, and ride my bike all over the neighborhood, play kickball. You never see kids doing those things anymore. We had it good!

  7. Maybe that should be my follow-up piece... a rundown on our favorite outdoor neighborhood games... (Although I may have mentioned them in a prior post.)


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