The secret to why children look happier in photos from 1973 than they do in photos from 1933 could have something to do with the toys they had to play with. Baby boomers, breakthroughs in plastic molding and the rise of television pop culture are all credited with the revolution in the world of play — and all are featured in Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, which opens tomorrow at the History Colorado Center.
“Toys offer a great look into culture and history,” says state historian Bill Convery. “Toys and popular culture are intertwined, and we hope to spark memories for visitors, but also to get them talking about how toys reflect the rhythms of American life.” Kids’ playthings also became household items during those years; accordingly, the exhibit presents replicas of living rooms and garages where toys often lived and includes the television commercials and other media that hyped them. In addition, you'll be able to play with many of the old toys — so Grandpa can show his iPhone-toting grandkids why a Slinky was so much fun.
Along with that bouncy coil, here are ten more toys that made growing up in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s so much fun:
Originally designed in the ‘30s to clean coal residue off of wallpaper, Play-Doh was given a second life in the mid-'50s when it was discovered that kids responded to the compound as a modeling clay (and emergency playtime snack). Consisting of five non-toxic ingredients — water, flour, salt, boric acid and mineral oil – the doh took on many colors and developed special accessories as the decades rolled on and its popularity continued to “stick.”
Stepping out on the scene in 1956, the brainchild of businesswoman Ruth Handler, Barbie wore nothing more than a zebra print bathing suit, a sassy ponytail and those shaped feet just made for heels — and the world’s girls went gaga. The ability to play “grown up” is attributed to the forever young lady’s success. Since Barbie's debut the world of dolls has seen a bazillion copycats and knock-offs, but none of them will ever push this beauty queen off her throne.
8) Hula Hoop
Did it come from outer space? The origin of the hoop is unknown, but the first successfully marketed version was put in stores in 1957 by fun favorite Wham-O. The simplicity of the toy — it’s a hoop that you spin around your body, and nothing more – was belied by its ability to sell more than 100 million before the hoop spun itself into the ‘60s.
7) Troll Dolls
Danish fisherman John Dam couldn't afford to buy his kids gifts, so he carved a little troll doll out of wood, and added sheep hair and glass — never thinking the toy would become a world-wide phenomenon. But after the children of his small town went nuts over the fuzzy-headed lil guys, Dam started a company and began manufacturing the toys out of plastic under name “Good Luck Trolls." An unfortunate flaw in his copyright opened the toy up to interpretation, and in 1963 the dolls invaded America — holding this country's children hostage well into the ‘90s.
6) G.I. Joe
Launched under the term “action figure” — as boys would NEVER be caught playing with dolls — the first generation of the military masters hit shelves in 1964. Originally a trio – Skip (a sailor), Ace (a pilot) and Rocky (a marine/soldier) – the figures quickly adopted a single name, G.I. Joe. At a height of twelve inches, Joe towered over other toys of the era. The war for commercial conquest never ends, of course, and the “real American hero” dropped in size to 3.75 inches in the ‘80s, when he also gained a massive universe, a cache of new characters and, most important, villains.
5) Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots
This was another simple plastic design: a boxing ring with large punching robots controlled by two separate players, who'd fight until one knocked off his opponent’s robot head. It was a great way for kids in 1964 to blow off steam, start rivalries with their siblings and lose a robot head under the living room couch, never to be seen again.
4) Chatty Cathy
Some toy launches were made possible by technical developments, and the invention of a small pull-string phonograph led to the design of this talkative pal in 1960. Mattel, which had taken over the Barbie world years earlier, modeled this doll after a five-year-old girl, and pushed Cathy into the market with a series of collectible dresses to purchase and, most important, a series of things she could say including “I love you,” “Take me with you” and “I’ll kill you in your sleep.” (Not really, but most Chatty Cathy owners assumed that she was thinking that.)
3) Stretch Armstrong
1976 brought us perhaps the oddest variation on the “action figure” with Stretch, a bodybuilder of sorts who could stretch his body from fifteen inches all the way to four or five feet. This fun was made possible by the toy's design of latex rubber filled with gelled corn syrup that allowed you to pull the doll any which way but it would still return to its original size. Better than attempting the same thing on your little brother or sister.
2) Evel Knievel
One of the first toys based on an existing person, these top sellers promised the ability to do all of the crazy, death-defying stunts that dare devil/lunatic Knievel did at the dawn of the ‘70s but without risking life or limb for the thrills. From special motorbike jumps to rocket leaps, these toys found new ways to keep danger alive by launching die-cast metal objects at your siblings and your own eyes.
1) Atari 2600
Without the debut of this legendary home video-game system in 1977, who knows how much free time would have been wasted on gaming over all of these decades? The very first system to use microprocessor hardware and small ROM cartridges filled with game code, the Atari 2600 kicked things off with the extravagantly designed “Pong” game. But it really exploded with a sleeker re-design in 1982 that brought all of the fun of going to the arcade into everyone’s home; its success led to the Japanese takeover of Nintendo and every other console that has come beeping and blooping its way into our global consciousness.
Toys runs June 13 through October 4 at History Colorado Center, 1200 Broadway; tickets are $8 to $12. For more information, go to historycoloradocenter.org.