Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

“You can’t ride in my little red wagon/Front seat’s broken and the axel’s draggin’…”

Now that the gift bags are folded and every electrical outlet in the house is sprouting at least two charging cords, I think of a simpler time.

There was a reason most of the apartments and homes of our youth had only one or two electrical outlets in each room—we did not need any electricity to power our toys; in fact, I don’t remember many toys that came labelled—“batteries included.” I don’t think any of us thought that our learning process or imaginations suffered as a result.

The toys that we probably most fondly remember were those of the 1950s—and included some years that there wasn’t even a television in the home, let alone one in every room. I think the most mechanical toy of my youth, besides my tricycle and balloon-wheeled bicycle, was a small reel-to-reel projector that did require a plug, and came with elaborate instructions on how to feed accompanying 8mm celluloid film through the various slots. We simply hung a white sheet on the wall, and had our own “drive-in” theater, complete with pillows and blankets arranged on the floor. I’m sure Mother made popcorn.

For most of our youth, we, like our parents, were sent out to play—in back yards, on convenient dirt lots and often in the street. There were few organized recreational activities. Most of the rules governing pick-up games of baseball, for instance, were made up on the spot, with general agreement on what constituted the bases, home plate and “out.” Wooden bats were tossed, grabbed, and the first team to bat was determined by an elaborate system, ending with the successful captain being able to place his or her fingers on the top of the bat. Alternately, “throwing fingers” helped determine first-up.

My neighborhood sand lot, fondly called “the hill,” was at the corner of Lafayette and Franklin Streets. The hill served as our gang headquarters. In truth, it was little more than a grassy knoll next to a large stone house housing a religious order. The hill was about more than baseball—it was the place the neighborhood kids gathered to share secrets, settle their arguments—in those days with our fists—and learn a little bit about coping on our own. I don’t remember ever involving our parents in our disputes, even when we ended up with bumps and bruises; today’s enemy almost always became tomorrow’s ally, as we stepped our way toward junior high. It also served as the incubator for adolescent romances, and often was the site of our very first kiss.

There were many passing fads in our youth—chief among them was the hoola-hoop—requiring a technique of moving the hips that I never mastered. Toys that encouraged potential architectural careers included Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and Erector sets. Matchbox cars, toy soldiers, GI Joe, Easy Bake Ovens and Play-Doh all appeared in our rooms. Dolls underwent a major change, with the introduction of Barbie and Ken, Francie (Barbie’s cousin), Midge, Skipper and the crew—all replacing our Vogue Ginny dolls and their extensive wardrobes. Chatty Cathy and Betsy Wetsy added additional dimensions to our doll collections—and Mr. Potato Head, using real potatoes, often added mold to our closet.

Our manual dexterity was challenged by Jacks, Pick-Up Stix, Paddle Balls, marbles (although these belong more to my parents’ era), and Tiddlywinks. Creativity was encouraged with Etch-a-Sketch, Silly Putty, Colorforms, Magic Slates and plain old Crayola Crayons. Our View Masters took us around the world and animated our favorite story books. Among my collection of reels was a three piece set picturing Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. I will admit that I dragged it out on the occasion of the Queen’s 60th Jubilee.

Our family also played many of the popular board games and endless hands of cards. The traditional wobbly card table was often set up in the “front room” for weeks, with ongoing games of Candy Land, Uncle Wiggly, and Chutes and Ladders in our early years, and Monopoly, Scrabble and Chinese Checkers as we outgrew Gumdrop Mountain. Yahtzee was also a favorite–a game we played well into our college dorm days.

Card games were a big part of our family’s life—especially during the summer at camp. My Mother was a long-time bridge player, which proved a little too sophisticated for us at ages 8, 10 or 12. However, we were very adept at Old Maid, Crazy Eights and Go-Fish. We quickly learned the rules of camp’s card game of choice–Hearts—played almost every night during the summer by those who gathered at our camp around two or three tables. I also remember that my grandparents and parents played endless hours of pinochle after we all went to bed. Mom paired with Grandpa, and over the steady tick-tock of the Regulator clock in the quiet of the night, almost always ended with a victory.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Bingo was also played almost every night at camp. The shore line would gather, we’d drag out the dog-eared cream colored cards, clear red plastic markers, the red and white call pieces with their raised numbers, throw in a penny a pot for each card we played, and rotate the honor of calling and picking the Bingo format for the next game (four corners, one row, an X or some other variation.) The true highlight of the game was not winning but when we took a brief intermission from the action and Grandma broke open the one bag of gum drops, mint leaves or orange slices we would share.

The nostalgic toy list is truly endless. I’m sure you can all add your own personal favorites. As I was doing a bit of research for this column, I came across two quotations I’d like to share. The first still holds true: “It’s amazing how much a few pieces of plastic and paper will sell for if the purchasers are parents or grandparents.”—Lawrence Kutner

The second—maybe not so true: “Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of toys, and personal entertainment depended on individual ingenuity and imagination—think up a story and go live it for an afternoon.”– Terry Brooks, author of over 20 New York Times bestsellers of epic fantasy fiction.