This past holiday season, classic toys — the ones we loved and played with as kids — were de rigueur gifts for all the children on my shopping list. I had just finished writing a book on the 50-year history of a classic toy — the Easy-Bake Oven — and decided to limit my shopping list to toys that had made it into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York. The good news was that many of the toys on my list were still being produced and available at traditional toy stores and online retailers.
What surprised me was how many of the toys from my childhood had been redesigned – resulting in some of the “new and improved” pale facsimiles. That’s right, I’m looking right at you, Lite-Brite, with your LED flat screen! Here are my top 5:
1. BIG WHEEL
Then: Growing up in rural Massachusetts in the ’70s and ’80s, the Big Wheel was a big deal. On my street this toy “low-rider” with a huge front wheel was a status symbol that afforded the rider street-cred. We all joined together and peddled from driveway to driveway like a pack of bikers visiting Daytona Beach during Bike Week. I like to think of that time in my life as a precursor to The Fast and the Furious movie franchise, albeit at slower speeds and with pint-sized fury.
Now: Today’s Big Wheel is essentially an exact replica of the original that was introduced in 1969 by Louis Marx and Company. The current Original Big Wheel Racer retains many of the classic features of the model I piloted, including the yellow, blue and red color palette, the adjustable three position “grow with me” seat and the large 16-inch front wheel. Vroom! Alternate models are also available in different colors with names like “Hot Scorcher”, “Pink Cyclone” and “Cycle Fever” — proving that even after 45 years, the Big Wheel remains a cool ride.
2. CANDY LAND
Then: Introduced in 1945, Candy Land was the first board game I ever remember playing. Coincidentally, it was also the game where my grandmother let me cheat. She let me arrive at the Candy Castle long before she did, but in order to even sit down and PLAY the game, she would require me to eat one of several vegetables that I despised at the time. Tradeoffs.
Now: The current incarnation of Candy Land is clearly channeling its inner Justin Timberlake and bringing sexy back — well at least enough that Granny might have blushed a little. Friendly characters added to the board game from the ‘80s have undergone some significant transformations over the years.
For example, Queen Frostine has been demoted to a Princess and vamped up to look like a high-class call girl — this from a character that used to “spend her day ice-skating or having tea with visitors to her gazebo.” King Kandy is clearly in the midst of a turn on the Paleo Diet – having slimmed down over the years, even though he owns a castle made of stuff that will rot your teeth.
3. BARBIE DREAM HOUSE
Then: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Barbie upgraded from a simple townhouse to a new Dream House: a two-story, A-Frame mansion that most mid-century modern enthusiasts would love to inhabit. In our house, Barbie and friends often through big parties, ones that included drop-ins by GI Joe, Big Jim and his special friends Big Jeff and Big Josh.
Now: These days, Barbie’s crib is of the McMansion variety. The latest Dream House is three-stories tall and includes not one but two elevators — one for Barbie and her friends, and another for transporting clothes from the master closet on the third floor to the bathroom below. And just in case she runs out of space, Barbie can always hop in her corvette and stay beach side in her Glam Vacation House or Malibu Dreamhouse. So many options, so little time!
4. EASY-BAKE OVEN
Then: Kenner Products introduced the Easy-Bake Oven in 1963 and it quickly became one of most sought-after toys that holiday season. The toy oven, which was powered by an incandescent light bulb, quickly took “playing house” to a level of realism that was nearly impossible for a child to believe.
The Coopee household had an Easy-Bake that was shared amongst the five of us. Ours was the lime green, Betty Crocker-branded model from the ‘70s — which made for quite a contrast with our harvest-gold kitchen. Although we had no idea who Betty Crocker was at the time, the appeal of the toy was instantaneous. We managed our own kitchen, invented recipes using real ingredients and routinely foisted our culinary concoctions onto unsuspecting parents and visitors (sorry, Mom!).
Now: Hasbro continues to market and sell the Easy-Bake, but what a difference 50 years makes! The latest model, the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, has replaced the light bulb with a heating element, primarily because the newer, energy-efficient light bulbs don’t generate enough heat to actually bake treats properly inside the plastic shell. The design of the oven is also VERY different, resembling a toaster oven that has been featured on an episode of TLC’s Overhaulin’. One thing that hasn’t changed? The ability for kids to plan, bake and share baked goods with others.
5 TINKERTOY, LINCOLN LOGS and LEGO
Then: Growing up, we had a large playroom in our basement. The benefits were two-fold. From my parents perspective, it prevented “toy sprawl.” But to me, it was the perfect place to unleash my inner engineer using construction toys like Tinkertoy, Lincoln Logs and Legos.
We’d spend rainy days building and modifying cars, trucks, ships and buildings. These toys also made for some easy tie-ins to the television shows that I was fond of watching on TV. One time, for example, I built a Love Boat out of Legos and had it make a cameo appearance at a Tinkertoy version of Moon Base Alpha from Space 1999. I honestly can’t recall if Charo was the musical guest in the Acapulco Lounge at the time, but I’m willing to bet that she was.
Now: Today, all these toys remain largely the same, despite their age. Lego has morphed into a toy institution, while Tinkertoy and Lincoln Logs have remained much closer to their over three-quarter of a century roots.
How about you? Which classic toys should remain loyal to their roots and which are better with a facelift? Oh and while we’re reminiscing about the 70s, who was your favorite Love Boat character?