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Toys of years gone by were made to last

December 30, 2012 - Don Williams

Did you get a toy for Christmas? Maybe we are never too old to enjoy a good toy; I heard that as the boys get bigger, the toys get bigger! After reading my memories of getting one good toy for Christmas when a child, several readers shared their memories with me about that special gift that they received in their childhood. It is good that we can have that strong memory of something special from our past. I hope that today’s children who receive those “high-tech” toys will have precious memories of them in their futures.

The word “toy” comes from the Old English word for “tool.” When I was an educator in my other life, I often reminded teachers and parents that toys were the tools of childhood and that playing with them was the business of childhood. Those toys of that day required a good dose of imaginative play, and their developing minds learned much from time spent with their toys. I once attended an all-day lecture at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum in Utica learning all the brain-strengths children gained from playing with blocks. And, remember, sometimes it is more fun, and more educational, to play with the box the toy came in than with the toy itself.

You might consider those toys of yesteryears somewhat works of art. They were well-designed and well-made, not always store-bought, but homemade in the household. The big WWII bomber that I got for Christmas in 1943 was from Sears-Roebuck and was carved from a chunk of wood with pressed-board wings — simple but good enough for hours of play. I loved it and still have a photograph of it.

In my antique toy collection, I have several works of the past that are not only “museum pieces” but were first-class toys in their day. The little wagon in the collection, gray with age, is still in perfect condition with its little wooden wheels and pulling handle. Interestingly, the bed of the wagon can be rotated on each side to create a “flatbed” wagon or a traditional tub-shaped wagon. The name, still visible in black letters on each side of the two-foot wagon, was “Junior Roadster.”

Bobsleds were in widespread use back in our day, and I have a small version of a regular bobsled complete with the moveable runners. Every time I look at it, I remember the fun days of riding on the village bobsled down Water Street in Northville with a big load of kids. My little 15-inch bobsled is also gray with age but still well-built and in perfect condition. Toys were made to last.

My great-grandfather, Adam Bellinger, was a dairyman in Dolgeville and peddled milk with his horse and delivery wagon, door to door. The four-wheeled vehicle was drawn by two horses, and his name was printed across the top of each side. It delighted me when I found one of those cast-iron toys in an antique shop that depicted the farmer delivering his milk with a horse and buggy. Again, built solid, it will last forever.

My chest of toys holds many of those built-to-last, useful toys of days gone by. The trapeze artists between two sticks come in various versions, including those you crank to make them swing and those whose sticks you squeeze together. The dancing man who can jig to music on a bouncing board — known as a “limberjack” —has never stopped dancing. Catching the ball on the string and making the button buzz on a string requires time and talent. Jumping rope and rolling a hoop can still be enjoyed today when the opportunity arises.

Maybe, just maybe, in this New Year, we can bring back some of those toys once enjoyed in yesterday’s Adirondack homes.


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