- 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!
As historical objects, perhaps more than anything else these toys are part of the coming of age of television. They were not only mass-produced; they were mass-marketed. There were tie-ins with popular TV shows, and memorable one-minute spots vividly detailing all the fun to be had. It’s impossible to look at an Ideal Mr. Machine without having the ditty from the commercial echo across the decades: “Here he comes! Here he comes! The greatest toy you’ve ever seen, and his name is Mr. Machine.…” When I see a Remco Fighting Lady, I can hear the tag line: “Every boy wants a Remco toy… and so do girls.” The clear afterthought quality of the addendum seems astonishing—until you remember that Remco made mostly boys’ toys. The reference to girls was really a pitch to the tomboy set. Generally, these commercials appear crude- and often not a little misleading—when seen again today, but back then they were visions of desire itself.
Commercials and tie-ins were only the most obvious dimensions of the interplay of TV and toys in the fifties and sixties. Just as today, TV defined and developed themes of interest that spilled over into other areas. World War II was a fresh memory for baby-boomer parents, and many of them were veterans. Documentary shows such as “Victory at Sea” were immensely successful and influential. Watching them certainly helped spark my lifelong interest in history and no doubt contributed to my—and other kids'—appetite for war toys.
My favorite TV show at the time was “Combat!” It portrayed the exploits of an Army squad in the hedgerow country of France following D-Day. The central character was “Sarge” and he carried a Thompson submachine gun. As it happened, my father had been a sergeant in the war. Wearing one of his uniform jackets with the sleeves shortened by my mother and armed with my Tommy-Burst, I spent countless happy hours shooting imaginary “Krauts” in the woods behind our house.
This recollection goes to the heart of the matter. These toys are personal time machines.
I cannot have been more excited as a kid at Christmastime than I was when a coveted Tommy-Burst bought on eBay finally came in the mail. With Malcolm looking on, I loaded a roll of vintage Mattel perforated “greenie” caps and squeezed off a burst. As the wonderful, slightly acrid smell filled the air, I was watching “Combat!” and playing in the woods of my childhood again. Only for an instant, though. I’d gotten this Tommy-Burst to show Malcolm what a “real” toy gun was like. Now it was his.
Occasionally, when I walk down a hall, Malcolm will pop out of a doorway and cut me down in a hail of fire. Alas, such scenes themselves will soon be only memories. His days of playing with toy guns are fading fast. I am oddly touched by the thought that before they are gone, his childhood and mine have overlapped in the form of an old Mattel Tommy-Burst.