Lazy Luddite Log

26.12.14

Playsets

I went on a quest for information recently. I wanted text and I wanted images. It involved a flurry of online hunting followed by several months of forgetting it till some stranger in the world gave me the key to what I was seeking. And the key was the right words to use. If you cannot find something online because you lack the right search terms then sometimes you can throw questions into the ether and hope that one day someone will answer. This is the ultimate virtue of the Internet - other minds that will always understand you better than a dumb search engine.

I have blogged about toys before but they were ones I am an expert on and can name all the names. That information will be something I can always find as they were toys I got into as an older child and pop-culture icons that I am still into today. But what of toys you barely remember let alone can name?

I wanted to find images of two very cool things from a more formative time. I had a department store playset while Lukas had a service station playset. I remembered them as having the same very basic human figurines. They only had a head and body and never limbs but they did have ball bearings set into them that allowed them to roll down inclines (like a Dalek). But what were they called? Who had made them? I had a few basic words and an assumption they were made in the 1970s.

I was mistaken in thinking they belonged together at all. A bit of hunting online showed me that the service station had the Little People figurines by Fisher-Price which lacked ball bearings. It was the Play Family Action Garage which you can see here and here. A characteristic of all these sort of playsets was lots of levers and buttons to do things like tip ramps or move lifts or rotate sections of floor. The figures sat nicely in the cars. It all just worked.

But what of the ball bearing figurines? They must have come from my department store specifically. I hunted some more and eventually discovered that such figurines belonged to a range of playsets made by the Japanese company Tomy and had names like Merry-Go Zoo and Merry-Go School. You can find images and footage of them online and they are super cute. But it seemed like nothing had ever existed called a 'Merry-Go Store' or anything like that.

And a problem with the phrase 'toy department store' is all it gives you is images of toy departments. So I abandoned my quest several months ago. However the last thing I did was to post questions on relevant web pages (such as YouTube reviews of other playsets) describing my lost toy and then went on with life (or at any rate moved onto the next retro or nerdy interest).

Then last week I got a response to one of my messages. Some lovely stranger knew exactly what I was looking for. It was called the Push Button Small Mall and was apparently from the department store Sears. Now I only know of Sears from pop-culture references like the Billy Joel song Scenes From An Italian Restaurant and I know Sears has never been in Australia. But I punched in those words and this is what I got. Wonderful!

Small Mall has all the push-button fun of the other set but it was also made for the ball bearing enabled figurines. Every floor sloped so that shoppers could move along one floor then fall via a hole onto another level and so on. My hunch is that Tomy made the playset for Sears and that (furthermore) some other Australian department store then imported them (whether from the US or directly from Japan).

You will notice that there were these transparent pink coins (life size) - they too had tracks that they ran along. The coins could be superimposed over back wall decals of products (thus representing a purchase) and roll from floor to floor all the way to the cars at the bottom. We had those coins way longer than the set itself.

And now we come to the sobering part of this story. This image reminds me of more recent recollections of the broken parts of the playset. We later on utilized them as background fixtures in science fiction action figure displays. Somehow we had broken the department store and sections of it had moving parts that just made them work well as things like a super computer for robots to use. Gone all but for the memory and (now) these images that I have photographed from the Internet and put on my own websites.

Why does all this matter to me? Is it some childhood nostalgia? In part it is and I do get a warm fuzzy feeling from looking at these good-time playthings. But I think it is more than that. It extends to an interest in history because of what these products tell us. They show how toys have developed over time. The design is reminiscent of trends in Twentieth Century architecture. And then there is this.

A boy and a girl (of different backgrounds too) are playing together with the same playset on its promotional packaging. Here we see late-70s manufacturers wanting kids of both genders to share a toy. Things seem to be different now and there is a lot more 'gendering' of toys. We tend to have this simplistic and mistaken notion of history as progress. Sexism is slowly reducing in our culture we are told. And yet now we have a lot more 'toys for boys' and 'toys for girls'. I suspect the motivation is economic rather than political - if kids share then parents can spend less money but if they all have to have distinct toys then toy sellers make more profit. What dismays me most is how much adults have become dupes to this con. And we ourselves had different childhoods from the ones we now impose on our kids.

I look at that image and at old kids TV shows. In this post (under 'Marashara! Wirra! Ari!') I suggest that the central character of a program full of dinosaurs and alien technology was a girl even if those things are more regarded as for boys. I look at other old shows or adverts and see a world in which both boys and girls wandered around in jeans and striped shirts and floppy haircuts. They all rode bikes. They all got drawn into adventures and they all argued over how best to escape the crooks. I expect this vision is the product of selective memory but I also feel like we were closer to that vision in my childhood than we are now. But I cannot tell for sure because I have nothing much to do with the programming or products of children of today. I wonder what others think.

By the way there is a problem with hunting for things from your past. Sometimes you chance upon other things you had forgotten till you see them once more. I guess we must have had this rescue centre too. Our parents gave us some awesome things. There are still plenty of awesome things in the shops today but we just need to filter them more than our parents had to and it may take a bit more work these days to instil in children the practice of sharing.

Cross-posted here.

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2 Comments:

  • Dear Daniel,

    you are right about the gendering.

    One of the lovely things about having a kid has been the donations of old toys. My aunt gave Ruth all the playmobil toys from her boys (who are about 10 years younger than me and my brother, and have not reproduced yet). We've finished with those and handed them back.

    And another friend gave me her kids' old collection of lego (from the 90s). My brother got our joint collection (from the 80s).

    see you in the new year,

    Julie

    By Blogger jc, At 26 December, 2014  

  • I never did have Playmobil but have always been impressed by it. This handing around of quality old toys is fantastic.

    Hope you have a fantastic Festive Season. :)

    By Blogger Daniel, At 27 December, 2014  

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