Confession time: I’ve probably spent a small fortune over my lifetime buying kitschy toys that remind me of a gentler, more innocent era in time. Lava lamps, Rubik’s Cubes, those little Evel Knievel stunt cycle action figures – you name it, I’ve owned all of those and many more.
Owning a nostalgic toy – or a dozen of them – is something I celebrate. I reject the notion of some philosophers who dismiss nostalgia as a denial of the present. Neither would I – as the popular song lyric goes – “trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday.” Wave off all the cosmic commotion over living in the past and let’s just agree on this: It’s fun to have these fun little reminders from our younger days. It really can be that simple. Here are the items that still make me smile.
Fun for a girl and a boy
I still remember the words to the commercial jingle: “It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. For fun it’s a wonderful toy. It’s fun for a girl and a boy.” Believe it or not, the first Slinky made its debut at a Gimbels department store in Philadelphia way back in November 1945. The “toy” was invented by a naval engineer named Richard T. James, who was working to develop “support springs” to stabilize instruments on ships sailing through rough seas. With a $500 loan, James and his wife had 400 units created for Gimbels’ toy department. They sold out in a mere 90 minutes.
Personal fortune teller
“Oh Magic 8-Ball, will I be able to read this entire article without buying another one of you?” Answer: “Don’t count on it.” Though the idea of a fortune-telling billiard ball reportedly dates back to a “Three Stooges” skit from the 1940s, Mattel gets the credit for manufacturing the modern-day Magic 8-Ball in the ’50s. Ever wonder what’s inside? It’s a white plastic die floating in a pool of alcohol that has been died dark blue. The 8-ball’s instructions originally cautioned users from shaking the ball because the motion created white bubbles that made the die difficult to read. (In 1975, a “bubble free die agitator” was added so feel free to shake away now.)
An English engineer officially gets credit for inventing an “Astro Lamp” in 1963, but leave it to two Americans to discover it at a trade show, buy its rights and give the world the newly renamed Lava Lamp. Far out, dude! Of course, that’s not actually “lava” in the lamp – the original lamp used a mixture of mineral oil, paraffin wax and other chemicals to create the oozing effect. These days, the exact formula is a trade secret.
In a time before social influencers were cultural icons, there was Evel Knievel. The motorcycle stunt performer wowed audiences with audacious performances, including jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. In the ’70s, Knievel performed his stunts in front of sold-out crowds in some of the national’s biggest stadiums – breaking more than his fair share of bones in the aftermath. His image helped sell a estimated $125 million worth of toys during the decade, particularly this crank-up action figure and stunt cycle. It’s low-tech but high-imagination fun – something we all could use a little more of today.
Symbol of a decade
The 1980s has plenty of iconic toys, but the Rubik’s Cube seems to have stood the test of time. Ernõ Rubik, a Hungarian professor, created the first prototype in 1974 to help his students understand three-dimensional problems. But it took until the ’80s for a toy manufacturer to turn his idea into a phenomenon. Since 1982, international competitions are held to determine the world’s fastest cube solvers.
Tamagotchi is a virtual pet simulation game that’s played on a device the size of a keychain. Since its invention in Japan in 1966, nearly 100 million devices have been sold.