Toy Story

Barbie and friends, and their vintage Dreamhouse, adorn the 1960s living room. (photo by Linda Baumeister/Review)

Building blocks and Cootie are on display in the Minnesota History Center's newest exhibit -- Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s. And who could forget the wisdom of Mister (Fred) Rogers in looking back on toys and play of the past?

The national traveling Toys of the '50's, 60s and '70s exhibition takes a trip down memory lane with a collection of 4,700 toys and dolls, including Tonka trucks.

The toy exhibit at the Minnesota History Center covers three decades and captures the sheer joy of imaginative play.

Jessica Kohen and Ian Lilligren look over a corner of the unfolding exhibit, which includes three living rooms and one garage setting. Viewmaster, Flintstones, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, and board games are included, as well as televisions in the living rooms playing commercials from each era.

All kinds of wheels, from a banana-seat bike, Big Wheel tricycle and skateboard are displayed near the white picket fence and garage toys. A photo backdrop shows the creativity of what to do with the leftover appliance box.

Minnesota History Center offers a ‘trip down memory lane’

Play Doh. Hot Wheels. And Barbie. Sound familiar? Those toys and a whole lot more are featured in a fascinating interactive exhibit called “Toys of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” that may take you back to your carefree days as a child; back when you needed a break from the day-to-day worries about bullies, the opposite sex and overdue homework. 

The exhibit just opened at the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul and it sounds fascinating, with lots of reminders of the toys of your youth. It will remain on display until Jan. 4, 2015, before moving on.

Through three brightly colored living rooms and one garage setting, visitors can explore hundreds of toys in four play zones. It’s where visitors can immerse themselves in hands-on activities with the likes of Nerf balls, a hula-hoop, a Big Wheel, giant Tinkertoys, a dollhouse, or a barrel full of oversize monkeys.

Adam Scher, the senior Minnesota Historical Society curator, says that working with the collection of 4,700 toys and dolls “was like a trip down memory lane.”

Others on the Historical Society staff have memories as well. The only time limit on LEGO play for instance “was when a parent told you to put them all away because you were taking up the entire floor,” recalls museum planner Jodi Larson, “or when someone stepped on one in bare feet.”

Remembering the Easy-Bake oven, archaeologist Eva Terrell says, “I loved mine! You had to send away for the little boxes of mixes. Waiting for them to come from the mailman was an 8-year-old’s introduction to the concept of eternity.”

“Herb” Schaper, a Minneapolis postman in 1950, invented the Game of Cootie. “I don’t think Herb realized what he had,” says his wife Fran. Fashioned after a head louse that you would assemble and first introduced to the public at Dayton’s department store (now Macy’s), the game with its plastic figure went on to sell 50 million copies, worldwide.

American Flyer trains, LEGOS, Big Wheels, Star Wars action figures, the Pet Rock: the list goes on and on.

And when you go, be sure and take a look at the Mr. Potato Head commercial, one of the first toys to be advertised on television.

Trains, planes and army men

Of course my editor urged me to include personal experiences involving some of these toys.

My memories are sporadic, possibly because it’s been a really long time, but also, well, take the American Flyer model train, for example. My train went around and around but there was nothing else to look at -- no real layout, just the plywood board, the train and the track. So it wasn’t long before the plywood sheet was flipped over and, at my house, we started playing ping-pong on it.

But others remembered some lean times back in those days. “At Christmas, we were allowed one present,” remembers truck sales manager Richard Klick. “My wish was for a train.” 

Truck driver John Brundidge seconded the lean times back in the ‘50s, and remembered substituting creativity for money. “We used pillows and couch cushions to make hills and valleys to run the tracks up and down,” he says.

You really needed hills, a pond, and animals in either a farm or a forest setting, cars, people and tunnels to make a train layout interesting.

Another of my childhood memories involves toy soldiers, a BB gun and a schedule that only allowed gunfire when neither parent was home. BBs in our secret shooting gallery up in the attic could absolutely destroy the metal soldiers. So alas, it was a hobby that depended on re-investment, at least until we later utilized the word Mr. McGuire said in the movie  “The Graduate:” “plastics.” You could buy plastic soldiers in bags of 50. And they were indestructible.

Then there was my attempt at model airplanes.

The picture on the box of parts was great. But if you really studied it closely, you realized your setup would require a large body of water, lots of other planes, gunfire, smoke, several ships and an actual battle, if not the whole war, going on in desktop fashion. So a few wrinkled decals and way too much glue on one model plane just weren’t going to cut it.

Man overboard!

Better are my memories of my children and their toys. The first one that comes to mind, I’ll call, the “Fire Department and the Bible.”

It was the night before Christmas and time was hanging heavily on the hands of my two oldest children, then ages 9 and 7. They were staring at the tree, which shaded a fair number of wrapped gifts piled high, and with hours to go. This, of course, is the only time where everything under those wrappings is the right color, everything fits and everything is exactly what you wanted. Finally, their mom and I decided the kids could each open one gift early: recommending they choose carefully and pass by the suspected clothing, because what you open will have to entertain you for hours, we said.

Stephanie selected, (oh no!) a children’s bible from her godmother. And like a good, although disappointed, sport, settled in for some serious reading. Her younger brother Drew, opened a large Fisher-Price fire department set staffed with a myriad of firefighters with helmets and movable arms and legs, and was entertained for hours. (The firehouse however, suffered a devastating blow that spring when all of the little firefighters were standing on a board, heading down the creek behind our house, making the turn in the swift current and disappearing under the bridge. The board arrived empty on the other side. All the little firefighters had gone overboard and were never spotted again.)

The Barbie “house”

I asked Steph about her playtime memories and she first, surprisingly, mentioned Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.

But what she really wanted to talk about was Barbie. “I remember hauling pieces of 2 x 4s out of the garage to build Barbie a house,” she told me. Did Steph become an architect? Or a carpenter? Nope, she’s a fourth-grade teacher in Rio Rancho, New Mexico.

And occasionally, some introductions resulted in raised eyebrows. When I took my son Drew to see Spiderman at a store opening, he arrived home disillusioned after spotting the zipper on the back of Spiderman’s costume and the Addidas on his feet.

Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer of “Toys of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s” says, “People get it; they connect immediately; they can’t wait to learn more. They launch right into stories about play time and lists of their favorite toys. Developing the exhibit has been great fun.”

The exhibit certainly was a fun trip down memory lane. And it’s surprising how many toys introduced a half-century ago are still popular. Play-Doh, Hot Wheels, Barbie ...

Check the Minnesota Historical Society website for further information at

Denny Lynard can be reached at or at 651-748-7823.

If you go...

What: Toys of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, a national traveling exhibit.

When: Now through Jan. 4, 2015. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul.

Cost: $11 for adults; $9 for seniors and college students; $6 for kids ages 6 to 17, free for kids age 5 and younger and Minnesota Historical Society members.


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