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Wednesday, April 14, 1999

A visit to childhood memories


By JANE FAULDERS

PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- Barbies, Slinkies, Silly Putty, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys and Duncan yo-yos -- what baby boomer does not remember these classic toys?

"Kidstuff: Great Toys From Our Childhood," an exhibition that opened at the Berkshire Museum in February is set to travel around the country for the next five years in a tour bound to stir up childhood memories as adults in midlife take their children and grandchildren to play with the toys they loved.

The exhibition was inspired by David Hoffman's book of the same name, which is filled with interesting facts about the toys Americans have grown up with over the past 50 years. Hoffman spoke at the museum shortly after the opening, regaling the audience with the history of now classic toys.

Four full rooms of toys are cleverly classified in child-friendly sections: Don't Make a Mess -- Crayolas, Ant Farm, Magic Rocks and Play Doh, I'll Trade You -- Pez and Matchbox toys, Go To Your Room -- Magic 8 Ball, Raggedy Ann, Silly Putty, Slinky, Wheel-o, Mr. Potato Head, Viewmaster; and I'll Never Ask for Anything Else -- Lionel Trains.

The experience is enhanced with period advertisements, illustrations and classic commercials. There's a giant Willy Wooly to cover with iron-filing hair, Viewmasters of beautiful scenes and Barbies and G.I. Joes to pose with. Barbie, who is celebrating her 40th birthday this year, comes in classic forms with lots of clothes and houses. A newer model, with a nose ring and a butterfly tattoo, is not on display.

G.I. Joe, whose fluctuating career was marred with plummeting popularity during the Vietnam years only to rise again with the Gulf War, was also present. The Slinky emerged out of World War II, originally designed as a device to measure battleship horsepower, while Silly Putty was created as a rubber substitute. These days Silly Putty does not pick up colored pictures from the comic pages as it did in our youth, but that's because printing methods have changed.

Play Doh, another enduring substance, was originally a nontoxic compound used to clean wallpaper. Enlisted by a creative teacher as a substitute for hard clay, which was too difficult for children to manipulate, it was an instant hit in the classroom. The rest is history. According to Hoffman, the recipe is a closely guarded secret.

The oldest toy at the exhibition is the Flexible Flyer sled, made in 1889 by a farmer who needed income in the off-season months. Raggedy Ann is almost as old. She was created in the early 1900s by a cartoonist in memory of a daughter who had died. The cheery redheaded doll with the big heart on her chest, beloved by many generations, has the longest running character license of any toy.

Twister, not originally thought of as a child's toy, became a bestseller after Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor demonstrated how it was played on the "Tonight Show" in the '60s.

The original Easy-Bake Oven, the hands-on activity that spawned a generation of women chefs, is also on display. At one of many exhibit-related events, the Berkshire Museum is sponsoring an Easy Bake bake-off for local chefs and bakers.

Monopoly, the game that has come in every version from chocolate to braille to underwater, was originally rejected for having "52 fundamental errors." The exhibition boasts a 1936 copy of this internationally popular Parker Brothers board game.

Pez, the colorful candy with the collectible containers, was a Swiss peppermint sweet that didn't take off in America until fruit flavors were introduced. Betsy Ross was the only real person to ever be featured on a Pez container, because the manufacturers considered living people too controversial.

Alas, there were no Hula-Hoops. Still, the exhibition is a lot of fun. It's filled with great toys and interesting information that is meaningful to several generations because of their connection to our individual as well as collective childhoods.

Jarvis Rockwell, son of illustrator Norman Rockwell, is concurrently showing 8,403 of the more than 100,000 20th-century toys that he has collected. Jarvis's toys will show through the entire year of 1999.

"Kidstuff" leaves the Berkshire Museum at the end of May, traveling on to the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt.


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