- Historic Sites
"You Can Tell It’s Mattel… It’s Swell!”
Forty years ago, Cold War technology and memories of a still-recent World War II combined to make a plastic paradise of great toys—which wistful baby boomers can now revisit.
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
It is among the most famous scenes in all movie history. Citizen Kane on his deathbed utters his last word, “Rosebud.” We learn at the end that Rosebud was Kane’s childhood sled. As he faced death, it was not all his vast worldly possessions or his accomplishments and failures that occupied him; it was a toy. For this complex, rich, and powerful man, that sled embodied the long-lost, happiest moments of his life.
Surely most of us have had similar feelings. If we scratch our memories, there’s a toy somewhere in our mind that brings back the best moments of our own childhood. If you were a kid in the fifties and sixties, most likely it’s not a toy, but toys- and some of the niftiest toys ever created, at that.
My interest in the toys of my childhood was rekindled suddenly and unexpectedly at breakfast one Sunday morning about a year ago. My 11-year-old son, Malcolm, was playing with a toy rifle in the kitchen when he asked, “What were toy guns like when you were a kid?”
There was something plaintive in his voice. At least I thought so as I contemplated the weapon he was wielding, an amorphous piece of camouflage-pattern plastic with a vague resemblance to an AK-47. Any allusion to reality, however, was completely undone by the fluorescent orange cap on the tip of the barrel. That cap is now requisite on all toy guns in the United States so they won’t be confused with the real thing on mean modern streets. A victory for safety, perhaps, but a desecration of sorts nonetheless. The fact is, toy guns were much cooler when I was a kid.
I began to remember and tried to describe a particular favorite from my childhood arsenal. The Tommy-Burst sub-machine gun by Mattel was everything a contemporary toy gun is not. It strove for a sense of realism and authenticity in design, detail, and action. Pull back the spring-mounted bolt on the side, squeeze the trigger, and a burst of a dozen or so shots would fire off from a roll of caps that were perforated like movie film and stored in the clip.
Eager to share something concrete of this recollection, I got the notion that maybe we could find a Tommy-Burst on eBay. We logged on and, because at the time I couldn’t remember the exact name, searched under “Mattel.” I was astonished to find 50 pages of Mattel toys, including dozens of cap guns. Though frustrated initially in locating a Tommy-Burst, I started to remember, and bid on, other forgotten favorites. Soon the guns, robots, ships, cannon, tanks, soldiers, slot cars, and more of the toys I’d had and, more important, wished I’d had as a kid began arriving.
They came from dealers all over the country, from people cleaning out attics and collectors pruning and upgrading their own toy chests. Before the Web, it would have taken years of regular visits to toy shows, flea markets, and collectibles dealers to assemble even a small collection of these classic toys. Today, through eBay alone, literally thousands of such treasures change hands each week at prices ranging from a few dollars to several hundred or more for pristine examples in their original boxes. It is hard to know how many of a given toy in decent condition still exist. But their true value to me and to others, I imagine, lies less in their rarity than in the memories they evoke.
For starters, they are marvelous reflections of the times that produced them. The Cold War and the space race, for example, are palpable in the Barracuda Atomic Sub by Remco and the Astro Base by Ideal. What could be more evocative of American postwar affluence and aspirations than the Playmobile Dash by De Luxe Reading? I turned eight in 1961, the year that marked the centennial of the Civil War. It brought kids, among other things, the Johnny Reb Cannon by Remco, the Giant Blue & Gray Battle Set by Marx, and another toy that I’m still searching for—a musket by Mattel that shot cork minié balls. Among other charms, these toys were created free from fear of plaintiff’s lawyers. Mattel, in fact, produced a line of Shootin’ Shell pistols and rifles that, as the name suggests, fired “harmless” plastic bullets at velocities sufficient to hit a sibling, pet, or other target at ranges of 25 feet or so. Utterly unthinkable today!