Toys, we’re fascinated by them. More so this time of year but it’s always there. Toys are about play and as adults we don’t get to play enough so we either become fixated on toys we grew up with or we get new ones, like that red convertible in the garage. Let’s face it; secretly or otherwise, we love toys.
Toy collecting has been a serious pursuit for many years and there are a number of world-class museums dedicated to toys, but lately some have been changing their focus. Museums that used to feature things like dolls and hand-carved pull toys from the Victorian era are now turning to post-industrial, mass-produced electronic toys; games and stuff we have been throwing in the garbage for the last few years.
Some of the changes can be explained as a generational thing, kids have been playing differently than their grandparents did for some time now so you would expect them to be nostalgic about things they grew up with, but it is also a cultural shift; today toys are expected to do more than just sit there.
Automated, wind-up toys have been around almost as long as clocks but after the Second World War battery-operated, space-age toys became more popular and the innovation came not from the victorious industrial powerhouses but one of the defeated countries, Japan.
Japan had been totally decimated in the war but the U.S. was going all out to re-build it. They desperately needed a strong ally in the region and Japan was a willing partner, eager to learn from the victors. Japan had had a strong iron ore industry before the war and one way to get it going again was to start small and make toys out of tin. Japanese engineers had developed a small motor that could run on an ordinary battery so they could make much more interesting automated toys but to sell in the American market they needed a new angle. The whole cowboy-wild-west thing was fading; Hollywood was giving up on westerns and starting to produce movies about space exploration, which were really westerns set in the future instead of the past. The Japanese decided space was the next big craze and started producing space toys. Their biggest success was with battery-operated, lithographed tin robots.
In the 1950s robots fascinated young and old alike, much in the same way computers do now. We all dream of having machines that will do the boring chores and never complain, but we also fear they will get too smart, start to make their own decisions and take over. American companies were making wind-up robot toys out of plastic, they had lights but could not do the things the Japanese robots could do, like walk and talk and swivel. Kids overwhelmingly preferred the brightly-coloured tin ones from Japan. American companies could not make a similar product for anywhere near the cost the Japanese could so naturally, they designed their own tin models and outsourced manufacturing to Japan.
It wasn’t long before North America was flooded with Japanese tin toys. They made toy cars, novelty animals and all sorts of animated characters but the robots are the most collectable today.
Tin robots started as a disposable novelty, and then became a nostalgic interest for the kids who grew up with them. That interest kept growing until tin robots were a major collectables market, with some rare examples selling for tens of thousands of dollars. The market eventually collapsed of its own weight, with the help of the Internet which brought thousands of robots out of the basement, looking for riches. Although the crazy prices have dried up, the market is still vital but it’s a hard one to break in to. Reproductions abound and sometimes even seasoned collectors can’t tell the difference so the buyer has to beware, a lot.
Many other toys since then have followed, or are following, the same path. Vintage electronic game consoles from the 1980s are a hot item in the collectors’ market. Didn’t we all buy Pac Man or Pong for ourselves, or our kids then toss them away when something new came along? Better we should have kept them in their boxes for 30 years, and then put them on eBay. Who knew?
We should have done the same thing with those silly Star Wars figurines that came out in the 1970s.
Merch, or merchandise, has been more important than popcorn as a source of revenue for the movie industry ever since Disney showed everybody how to do it with Snow White in 1937. When Star Wars was set for release in 1977, George Lucas approached all the big toy manufactures to license Star Wars action toys. They all turned him down, Lucas was not well known and Sci-fi was seen as a goofy genre. A much smaller company, Kenner, figured they could at least turn a profit so signed a deal.
Of course Star Wars, a classic western set in the future, was a massive box office hit; Kenner could barely keep up with the orders, at one time they issued certificates wherein the buyer could get a set of action figures in a few months, when they were ready. Kenner reportedly had a tough time of it because they didn’t have access to the movie before its release, it wasn’t ready either. It was all worth the effort though; Kenner went from a bit player to a major toy manufacturer just because of that deal.
These action toys were designed to be sold to kids who would play with them for a while and throw them away when another movie came along. Now they are venerated collectors’ items and we are seeing a peak of interest in them right now as the latest, now Disney, Star Wars epic hits the screens.
Star Wars collectors want their toys in the original box or plastic blister wrap which has never been opened, heaven forbid someone should actually play with one. The merch is now planned in lock-step with the movie; Disney did invent the process after all. Collectors flock to special conventions before the movie comes out to get their hands on the latest releases, which will never be released from their boxes, maybe not even displayed at all lest the sunlight fade their delicate paint.
While space exploration is still a popular genre, robots have largely been replaced (except for R2D2 of course). We’re not scared of them anymore, we know their limitations. We’ve made robots that can assemble cars but we’ve yet to make one that can load a dish washer, they’re just not that smart. Now we’re more worried about computers taking over, like HAL.
Computer games are also a double-edged sword. The graphics are amazing, games drive computer innovation and studies show playing video games can improve a child’s cognitive skills significantly but those games can also be violent and totally immersive. We see kids literally waste away their youth playing them. Now we learn that multi-player games can even be used by terrorists as a secure messaging platform.
That’s not the kind of toy grandma and grandpa used to play with, but then, many of them are at the casino playing the slots so who’s to judge?
What’s coming next, computerized robots? Now that’s scary.