From the Archives: GenX: The Toys that Warped a Generation

Editor’s note: Here’s a blast from the past, before we had so many readers.  This one goes out to our Olds, on a hot summer night perfect for nostalgia.

It’s time to step in to the TARDIS, fellow Gen Xers, to look at the toys that shaped our childhoods and our psyches from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s.  You Youthfuls may enjoy this as well, but I bet you’ll be shocked at how easy it was for us to seriously injure ourselves on our playthings. 

I was an only child, so I spent a good amount of time alone with my toys and my imagination. There weren’t a lot of kids my age in my neighborhood, so I was very adept at keeping myself entertained. This may or may not be a good thing, as I think my misanthropic hermit tendencies started around 1977.  I chose toys that I distinctly remember playing with or seeing advertised on Saturday morning TV. Hopefully you’ll enjoy this post as much as I enjoyed researching it, although I feel like I should take a Geritol now. The cute little beaver in the thumbnail is something called a Critter Sitter, and they were all over notebooks, Trapper Keepers and pocket folders throughout my elementary education. I had a few, and I’m pretty sure I had Mr. Beaver here on a folder in the third grade.  I seem to recall there being Critter Sitter stickers, too, but don’t quote me on that.

Let’s start with some of the toys that didn’t have long-term lasting effects on my self-image, physical or mental health, shall we?

Pound Puppies

Pound Puppies were plush dogs that came in a package that looked like a doghouse. Pound Puppies, like Cabbage Patch Kids, could be officially “adopted” and named by their owners.  They were also incredibly squishy and covered in super soft velour-esque fabric. I was a little old for these when they debuted, but I had one on my bed that made a fine pillow.  My younger cousin had what I remember as dozens of these.

Mini Stand-Up Arcade Games

Everyone I knew wanted one of these tiny video games around 1984.  In addition to Frogger, Sega put out similar games for Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, Q-Bert and Donkey Kong.  I had the Donkey Kong, and I played it until it broke.  The only issue with these is the joystick. (See how small it is?) Spending a couple of hours playing resulted in a serious hand cramp and a bad case of Gamer’s Claw. At 11, I didn’t care. I bet I could only play for ten minutes before whining now.

Speak and Spell

I loved the crap out of my Speak&Spell, although it did nothing to make me a decent speller as an adult.  Maybe I should still have one…  Made extra famous by the movie ET, the Extra Terrestrial, the Speak&Spell was a must-have toy in the early 80s.  I don’t remember much about the different functions, but I do remember the creepy digitized voice.

Holly Hobby

I was more of a Raggedy Ann girl, my grandfather worked for the company that owned all the rights to Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy merchandise, so I had a lot of Raggedy Ann stuff growing up. I did have a Holly Hobby sleeping bag, a set of Holly Hobby Colorforms and maybe a doll. She was awfully cute, wasn’t she?

Little People and Tree Tots

My Little People days were in the ’70s, and I had the house and the school, which you see here. My kindergarten classroom had a Little People Sesame Street that I thought was awesome at age five. I still love Little People; I’d love to track down a bunch of the old school versions which had wooden bodies and plastic heads, instead of the cheap-o all plastic versions of today. Charming in spite of their lack of arms and legs, my Little People had a bunch of adventures in the Lego and Lincoln Log village I built them. The Tree Tots were also made by Fisher Price, but lacked the charm of Little People, even though the Tree Tots got this awesome play house.

The Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker

I had a Kool-Aid man sno-cone maker, and I’m assuming the Snoopy model worked in the same way. After shoving ice cubes in the top, you had to simultaneously push down on the character on top of the machine while turning a crank.  This pressed the ice against a cylinder made of cheese grater material, which would shave the ice before it tumbled out the hole on the front of the machine.  Drizzle a little concentrated flavored sugar water on top and voila! Not-so-instant sno-cone.

The Gender Warp Toy Collection

Moving on to the less benign toys, the following were very popular girls’ toys through out the ’70s and ’80s.  Current toys are still trying to pigeonhole kids into interest by gender stereotypes, so these probably won’t surprise anyone.

The Easy Bake Oven

The ’70s version of the Easy Bake oven wasn’t pink, so that’s something. This could easily have been a gender neutral toy in my day, and I’m sure many parents who wanted to break down gender stereotypes purchased an Easy Bake for their sons as well as for their daughters.  Just not in my family. I did have a lot of fun with this toy, and I’m still baffled at how it bakes a cake with a light bulb.

The Sunshine Family

I’m including this not so much for offensiveness, but to poke fun at ’70s fashion.   Check out the tight turtleneck on ’70s Dad and the crazy frock on ’70s Mom.

Fashion Plates

I don’t care how gendered this toy is, it was my favorite thing in the whole world from ages 9-12, when I had visions of being a costume designer. Fashion Plates were awesome.  To begin, you’d create the basic shape by tracing over mix and match plates of different tops, bottoms and heads with a graphite tool in a holder.  This would give you, more or less, a coloring book style drawing of a fashionable lady. THEN you could slide various textured plates under the drawing and rub with colored pencil or crayon to make the clothes look like real fabric. Sort of. I spent hours with this toy. I wish I still had it. I had a similar interior design toy that let me create perspective drawings of rooms. I can’t remember the name of it, but I played with that as much as my Fashion Plates.

Get in Shape, Girl!

Weighted wrist bands, leotards, leg warmers and streamer for 8-year-olds looking to firm up.  This was also around the time Weight Watchers started a program from pre-teens in my city. And when my dad was still (in his own way) lovingly calling me Thunder Thighs. I bought into Get in Shape Girl.  Only problem, the tutus and the wrist weights and the legwarmers and the leotard didn’t fit, because I was too fat.  Fuck you, Get in Shape Girl.

The Downright Bizarre, Creepy and Dangerous Toys

Here’s where it gets really fun.

Perfection

Just looking at this makes me want to call a therapist. The idea of Perfection, and the subsequent Super Perfection, was to get all the little yellow pieces in the grid before the timer went off.  Easy, right? When the timer went off, the tray would spring up and all the pieces would fly in your face. High pressure spatial relationship skills are great if you’re a Navy Seal. If you’re a worrisome 8-year-old with lots of irrational fears and a perfectionist streak, this game is the devil.  *makes sign of protection, spits*

Holy shit, Head to Head Perfection looks even worse.  *shivers*

Play Doh Doctor Drill ‘n’ Fill

It’s your very own Marathon Man Playset! With Play Doh teeth instead of Dustin Hoffman’s.

The Clacker

I knocked my ten years older cousin out cold with one of these, and caused more than one knot on my own forehead.  This is not a toy for clumsy children.

Cher Half Breed Bob Mackie Barbie

Presented without comment.

There you have it, the toys that made me the cynical recluse I am today. Fellow X-ers, what toys do you remember?

Published by

[E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

14 thoughts on “From the Archives: GenX: The Toys that Warped a Generation”

  1. Little People! I loved Little People and I know I had the farm and the boat.
    I was born in the 80s but my mom is cheap and I had mostly hand me down toys. I cry a little inside when I see Little People today- they had to change them. I guess the old ones were a choking hazard or something…

  2. Oh God , the clackers!! I had a variation on this where the balls were held on rigid plastic. Clack, clack, clack, clack I can hear it in my dreams.

    I also remember thos balls on loops that you would spin round your leg and hop over with the other foot. They looked a bit like a ball and chain. Not sure how well I’m explaining this…eventually they brought out a fancy version that counted the number of times you hopped. They were deadly. By which I mean deadly as in you would get tangled up and smash up your face when you fell, as opposed to the Irish deadly meaning ‘awesome’.

  3. I had most of these, save for the culturally insensitive Cher-Barbie. There was another family doll set — the Hart (Heart?) Family? — where the mom gave “birth” to the baby by removing part of her stomach. This did exist, right? I did a lot of “body modifications” on my Barbies, so I very well could be imagining this.

    Also, Growing-Up Skipper. Pumped her arm and she sprouted breasts.

  4. I loved my fashion plates more than life itself. I would submit my renderings to my mom and beg her to sew me the (horrific) ensembles I put together!

    Perfection scratched my cornea…I kid you not.

    I still have my easy bake oven and snoopy sno cone maker.

    My little people collection was MASSIVE: Sesame Street, School, firehouse, A frame house, gas station/garage, jumbo jet, and others I can’t remember. I stupidly gave them to my niece when she was little and every bit of those cherished toys has been destroyed or tossed out. I wish I would’ve kept them foreverz.

  5. Oh wow, Fashion Plates. I was still playing with mine when I was in high school! I’m pretty sure I have them stashed away in a closet somewhere.
    I had that exact model of Easy Bake oven, too. But I think I only used it a couple of times. Real ovens bake more cookies.

  6. I had every single one of these toys, except the expensive and offensive Barbie. The Easy Bake oven was my favorite possession for about three years, until one day, the cakes just wouldn’t bake anymore. I definitely had Get in Shape, Girl, which is so messed up, now that I think about it. I loved that streamer-on-a-stick thing, though. I used to whip my brother with it.

    True story, when I was editing this post, Mr. PoM looked over my shoulder just as the picture of the Perfection game was on my screen, and he immediately started yelling, “THAT THING IS EVIL!” and we both had a moment where we tensed up, waiting for the *ping*POP*clatterclatter*. He has a theory that the military released it to train American children to disarm Soviet bombs under Cold War-era Reagan. I’m inclined to agree. That fucking thing was traumatizing.

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