In the wake of the first Star Wars movie and its merchandising empire, toys became massive business in the eighties, and there have been some spectacular books on that period of playthings (Totally Tubular 80s Toys; Just Can’t Get Enough: Toys, Games, and Other Stuff from the 80s That Rocked; The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures). Of course neither George Lucas nor Kenner was the first to tap the toddler market, and timeless toys have existed since the beginning of recorded history. Wooden dolls have been unearthed in ancient Egyptian tombs. The children of 2,000 B.C. made the most of their limited life spans by skipping rope. Those in the late seventeenth century learned their letters with wooden alphabet blocks very similar to the ones kids still stack today.
Alessandra Sardo’s new book Vintage Toys acknowledges the essential post-Star Wars classics my generation adored, but sets her sights back a lot farther than that. Smartly, the book eases us in with familiar faces like the Furby, the Tickle Me Elmo, Super Mario, and C-3PO, moving backwards in time through the most iconic classic toys found all around the world. There is a Japanese robot that billows smoke from a deadly mechanism that zaps sparks into oily cotton, an intricate Indian Snakes & Ladders board, an exquisite Scottish kaleidoscope, and a masterfully constructed German doll house. Sardo’s text (printed in English and German) is spare but witty and informative. I had no idea the Pez dispenser started life as a tool for helping smokers kick the habit or that the jigsaw puzzle was originally an aid for teaching geography. I was taken aback to see that Belgian kids had been playing with those eighties icons, the Smurfs, since the late fifties! I was also smacked by waves of nostalgia whenever I crossed an item I’d completely forgotten I’d played with as a kid, such as the ultra-tedious water ring-toss game or Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, which involved blowing toxic gunk through a straw.
The images that are the main point of this coffee table book are wonderful and get more so the further we go back in time. The marvelous graphics on a sixties-era Twister box. A photo of a little crew-cut fifties stereotype hopping on his pogo stick. Tin toys, pop-up books, and backgammon boards crafted by true artists. I only wish there were captions to provide some information on the specific items used to illustrate the various toys and games (anyone out there have any details on that bizarre ring-toss game that looks like an old woman with a penis nose?). There are a few glaring omissions in Vintage Toys. I can’t believe space was not made for Cabbage Patch Kids or the jack-in-the-box or plastic army men or Lincoln Logs. But given the rich history of its topic, it’s surprising how satisfyingly Vintage Toys covers the major players in 170 essential items… and in case those items give you the urge to get down on the carpet and start making like a kid again, this slip-cased edition conscientiously includes a bonus game of Nine Men’s Morris playable on the book’s back cover.
Get Vintage Toys on Amazon.com here: