A New Toy – Why Is This A Thing?

Toys QUICK-CHANGE-MACHINE-1-600x600

I was reading something over at the Curbside Classic site the other day and saw a post about a classic kids’ toy from the 1970’s.  It was a “Power Shifter Quick Change Machine” – a toy car that was a Chevy Blazer and a dragster all in one.  OK, perhaps “classic” is not the best term – for two reasons.  First, I had completely forgotten all about this.  And second, it came after the era that I would consider “classic toy”.

But it reminded me of a question I have pondered for quite some time – why is there ever a need for a new toy?

What is “classic toy” in terms of era?  It would be those toys that were advertised and offered during the time I was about ages six to eleven.  Your classic toy era would be different from my classic toy era if we were born in different years.

There is the occasional toy that reaches a more nearly universal “classic toy era”.  The Marx Big Wheel was one of them.  The Big Wheel, as most are aware, was/is a low-slung plastic tricycle with a large front wheel with pedals.  I remember seeing the first ads for the Big Wheel when I was a little older than the intended demographic.  My initial reaction?  I felt cheated.  How could something this cool not have been thought of when I was 7 or 8 instead of when I was 11 or 12.

But the Big Wheel was just one of a bazillion new toys that were hawked to kids during the Saturday morning cartoons on television (and probably still are).

Which all reminds me of a question I have been asking for awhile.  Why, exactly, is it necessary for someone to come out with a new toy?

I get why “new and improved” is a big thing for we adults.  We have long lives which are spent earning money and buying things that will make our existence better in some way.  Or at least that’s the theory.  But with toys?  Not seeing it.

Kids, you see, have a short lifespan.  Even shorter when they are broken down into age groups.  A toy that is appropriate and appealing to, say, a three year old is completely different from what is appropriate and appealing to an eleven year old.

Here’s the thing – a three year old is only three for a year.  One single year.  Next year he will be four.  In two years he will be five.  Every year he (she as well, of course) gets older and has a whole new group of toys appropriate to newfound developmental skills.  And at five or six, those toys geared to three year olds are last week’s newspapers.

The flip side is that every toy out there has this steady, constant supply of new children lined up and ready to play.  For every kid who grows bored with a particular toy there is another who will be along to demand all rights to possession and control.

So with such rapid and constant turnover, why is it ever necessary for new toys?  The Jack In The Box that pops up with a turn of the crank or the little wooden people and animals that come with the barn (that emits a “mooo” when the door is opened) is something new and exciting to every single three year old.  Have there really not been enough toys invented for a kid of three?  Yes, those things may be old hat to you and I (or to the jaded seven year olds out there) but to the kid of three they are new and exciting things never seen before in the history of the world.

Well, you may reply, if there were never any new toys kids would just keep playing with old ones and all the toy companies would go bust.  An excellent point, but have you ever seen a toy after a kid has finished playing with it?  It is chipped, scratched and battered and dismembered far beyond what Hertz would ever put up with on any rental car you might turn in.  Even the most durable toys are thrown away or donated to charity, and besides – find me a set of young parents (or especially grandparents) who don’t want to watch little Cody or Lilly rip open plastic packaging.  At least before they give up in the face of the dozen teeny zip ties holding everything together.

So while I fully understand the need to keep pumping familiar shapes of plastic into your local big-box store, I remain skeptical about the necessity of new toy designs or ideas.  Is this where we explore the dark side of Capitalism?

It is a brilliant game, really.  I remember the year one of my own youngsters simply had to have a Combat Claw Godzilla.  It was a toy monster whose little spring-loaded upper arms could be cocked into their upward position, awaiting the push of a button which would release the Fury Of The Beast as the claws of death brought destruction to anyone unlucky enough to be in their path.  Wait, that was the official version.  What really happened is that the little plastic arms flipped down.  Yay.

The Combat Claw Godzilla was the most fabulous thing ever invented – in the opinion of the young giftee.  For about an hour or two, anyhow.  And in the coming decades it is highly doubtful that the Combat Claw Godzilla will make the cut when conversations turn to favorite toys of childhood.

But those guys did their jobs.  They designed a new toy, sold it to a company, which generated a splashy ad campaign to sell it to my kids, who then got to work selling it to me.  Who, of course, caved and bought the stupid thing.  Which, by the way, I knew was stupid as I was buying it.  And once the market was saturated it was on to the next thing.  Because it was not a toy being bought, it was a fad, an idea that “this fabulous thing will make my life wonderful and I will be happy forever.”  I wonder if this is why one of my children went into advertising?

So I suppose I must make peace with a world which provides a never-ending supply of things like the Power Shifter Quick Change Machine or the Combat Claw Godzilla.  I don’t even want to know what is the must-have this season.  Perhaps these things do their real jobs, which is to teach kids that those things they think will make them happy really won’t.  It’s an expensive and elaborate and not necessarily effective way to teach that lesson, but it’s a way.

Photo Credits

Power Shifters Quick Change Machine – from Pioneer_Fox’s piece on CurbsideClassic.com about his very own example.

Combat Claw Godzilla commercial from the YouTube Channel of Trendmasters.

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23 thoughts on “A New Toy – Why Is This A Thing?

  1. The Big Wheel was timed just right for my age. I owned two before I aged out of them — I wore the first one out. The front plastic wheel got so thin it went “flat” in one spot. Wap wap wap wap wap it went down the street.

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  2. Big wheels were great – on paved surfaces. We had a huge driveway but it was entirely gravel. So when my grandmother sent the yard sale sourced Big Wheel home with me after I rode it non-stop for over a day on their concrete patios and sidewalk, I drove it again exactly once after getting home. Trying to drive a Big Wheel on gravel was a futile exercise as it would only spin.

    It was as big a disappointment as learning about Santa Claus.

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    • Yes, that plastic front wheel had next to zero traction under the best circumstances. Our drive was gravel when we got one for our little kids, but we at least had a long concrete sidewalk. Then we paved the driveway and life was roses.

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  3. Yeah, I wanted a Big Wheel so bad, but we had a gravel driveway, no sidewalk and lived on a tar & chip country road frequented by dump trucks. So no big wheel for us, Mom was worried enough about us riding bicycles when that time came.

    I wore out two of those Power Shifters things, so they were fun but not highly durable when subjected to my duty cycle.

    I’d be happy if (darn) kids these days were actually interested in toys, mostly they are interested in phones and video games. I find it quite alarming that my 3 year old nephew lies motionless on the couch playing a game on his mother’s cell phone. He should be running, jumping, zooming toy cars and falling off of things.

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  4. Total food for thought as it relates to adulthood and the consumerist mindset – the idea that the next purchase is somehow going to change one’s life and set one up for happiness, peace or contentment in some way.

    And the ease of making purchases online with a few clicks of a mouse can compound this – especially if the purchaser is feeling less than stellar.

    A timely and well-written read, JP – thank you.

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  5. Methinks the Old German is having an internal battle with the enthusiastic capitalist; correct me if I’m wrong. I think that often the simplest toys—like Silly Putty, slinkies, yo-yos, and hula hoops have brought great pleasure to kids over the years for substantial amounts of time. Thus, I’m not quite sure I agree with your conclusion.

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  6. The point you’re missing is that every toy (or “artifact”) is a product of the culture and period in history which created it. (Look up “Semiotics”). The toy accurately reflects the tastes and desires of the people of that time and place. New toys come out because new ideas are thought up, and improving technology makes more things possible. A big part of the appeal of a toy is that it is NEW and never seen/experienced before. A Big Wheel could not have been made in the 1920s because we didn’t have plastic. And even if we did, the Big Wheel would look different (probably it would have spoke wheels and would be adorned with little curlicues on the body). Sure, certain classic toys and games will have ongoing appeal, but unless you freeze technology Amish-style, the ever-resplendent creation of new things will continue. This ongoing evolution is what life and inspiration is all about.

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    • I realize I was making an argument that takes the point a little farther than is reasonable. I agree that new materials make new things possible. And what kind of a childhood would I have had without toy cars? But what I see happening goes far beyond cultural shifts. Or maybe not – you say that toys reflect culture and you are right. Has our culture become so obsessed with consumption of “stuff” (whatever that stuff might be) that our kids live the same tendencies in their lives? If I think too hard about this I don’t think I will like the answer.

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  7. I was a little too old for the BigWheel and I think the craze had passed when our kids were young. Or perhaps, because I never had one, it never occurred to me to get one for our kids. They did briefly enjoy the Lil Tykes Cozy Truck I bought. The one “new” toy of recent years, or at least new execution of a very old concept, that really makes sense to me is the pedal-less Strider style bike. We’re mountain bikers, and live in a community where mountain biking is popular, and seeing 18-24 month old kids riding dirt pump tracks on these bikes is amazing. The kids’ feet have far better traction than a plastic Big Wheel and they’re picking up balance (and jumping) skills as well.

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  8. I recently browsed through a Toys R Us Christmas flyer – yes they are sending them out already – and was not impressed with the selection of new toys. There’s something to be said for classics like Hot Wheels which my younger brother played with when they first came out with the track all over the living room and I see they still make them.

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