When Toys Ruled the World

This is a non-fiction essay about the way that toys ruled the world to us kids from the eighties...names have been changed to protect the innocent.

I was born in 1982 and during the next eight years of the decade and into the early nineties, I accumulated roughly two billion toys. They came via Christmas gifts and birthday parties, garage sales and hand-me downs, and as Dr. Seuss would say, by hook or by crook.

In the 1980’s, toys were at their most ridiculous, their most impractical, and if you were a kid, the most amazing. The excess of the eighties crossed over with great ease into the toy industry. Creating a perfect match between over-the-top aesthetics and the meteoric rise of Wal-Mart. The now corporate giant first became incorporated in 1970, but saw its highest rate of expansion during the eighties. In fact, it was such a behemoth that it had NASA-like technological advancements in communication years before the rest of the country. Including, by 1987, a one way video communication system typically seen only in sci-fi movies and the largest private satellite network in the world. All of this to get products into the hands of the American consumer. Things like toilet paper and rolls of film and sleeping bags. But anyone who was a kid during this time had one thing on their mind, toys.

When our first Wal-Mart opened, it was thirty miles away from our home in tiny little Amo to the town of Plainfield, Indiana. Opening day was like a miracle. There were balloons and bright lights and special deals. At risk of sounding like a Wal-Mart spokesperson, I can honestly tell you that my family had never seen prices so low or variety so large. I remember the toy aisle on that fateful day. Crammed with kids investigating toys they would normally have to go to Indianapolis to find. I remember a display of multi-colored bicycle streamers at the end of one of the aisles, how the shiny pink foil strands perfectly blended with the endless row of magenta Barbie boxes down the aisle as the hundreds of children running by created a mighty rushing wind. Think the running of the bulls. I remember boys taking guns still in their boxes and making sure to shoot everything in sight, especially each other. It was a free for all, with kids experiencing the mile high aisles of choices in glorious slow motion.

Not only was there a greater abundance of toys, but there was also a greater variety for the children of the eighties. This was a world of difference compared to the toys that my parents had to choose from. For example, the still appealing but mildly outdated Radio Flyers, bicycles, and comic books of their youth. What was really new was the idea of commercial saturation using merchandising correspondingly with film and television. Sure, it had been done before, but never to this extent. When my parents were kids, they had things like Buck Rogers ray guns, in multiple varieties, such as paper gun cut-out kits (with paper helmet!). But the types of merchandising opportunities were fewer and far between in decades prior. With more channels to broadcast on, better technology with which to make heart string-tugging commercials, and more toys to sell…business was, to say the least, good.

The excess of the eighties was evident in all the households in my neighborhood. Not only was it present in the caked blue eye shadow on the faces of our mothers, and not only in the teased bangs reaching straight to heaven on our sisters, but also in our own lives. One’s toy collection spoke volumes about their personal identity. The toys laying on your floor were a window into your psyche, a way to define yourself.

Picture if you will, my next door neighbor, Michael Haney. A small spindly blonde boy with a mouth permanently stained orange by Kool-Aid. Michael and I lived next to each other as far back as I can remember. He was one of a gaggle of children in Amo at the time. It’s a boom and bust market with kids you know. There were enough of us to have staged a rebellion against the adults any time we wanted to, but then, who would’ve cooked our fish sticks for us?

Anyway, Michael had a curtain-darkened pit of a toy room with red-carpet that hadn’t been swept in years. The place was full of dirty action figures and video game cartridges. Games like Castlevania, where a bare-chested hero with a “whip of alchemy” had to make it past wolves and other dangers in order to murder Dracula once and for all. (That guy just won’t go down without a fight, as evidenced by the games multiple sequels.)

Michael had toys guns, before they needed the orange cap and water guns and slingshots and wooden rubber band shooters. It was a boy’s paradise, a bat cave of masculinity training. I visited Michael’s house as little as was humanly possible because of the sensory boy overload it would create in my brain, preferring instead to play outside in one of our sandboxes or down at the cemetery. (It’s not as bad as it sounds, that was prime hide-and-go-seek territory.)

Okay, and we also played outside because Michael’s grandfather once accidentally shot himself in the foot while cleaning one of his shotguns. We all gathered to watch a stretcher take him away and after that, Mom and Dad were not too keen on me playing in their house anymore. But occasionally, curiosity would get the better of me and I just had to sneak in to see what was happening in there. To see what toys a boy played with and to watch him try and fail and try and fail to kill Dracula. There was an interesting thrill to seeing the way that he lived. But the thrill was always brief and was typically followed with a claustrophobic need to escape his toy pit.

By contrast, the home of our neighbors directly across the street, the Bellflowers, was a Barbie paradise. The Bellflowers had five daughters, all blonde and all energetic, sometimes moving as one big fun screaming blonde blur, sort of how the dust amasses under cartoon crowds when they’re running away. Like that. If you could manage to jump into the fray, you could gain access to Barbie dream houses, vans, pools, hot tubs, and airplanes. All made of disappointingly brittle pink plastic.

In order to keep the illusion of Barbie World going, we had to frequently pretend that Barbie had super human strength. How else was it that she was always managing to rip off the doors to her convertibles? To stop and fuss over such things would mean that all we were doing was, “playing” and not actually living Barbie’s glitzy metropolitan lifestyle for her. And living Barbie’s lifestyle was the whole point of playing with her.

There were entire storylines written into Barbie’s commercials. In the eighties, commercials were less subtle and subliminal with advertising, and why not? Nowadays, it’s out of vogue to just directly tell children that they need the toy onscreen. Now they have to sneak it in. But back then, it was common for the voices in commercials to directly address the kids watching at home. In fact, for the movie, “Toy Story 3”, Pixar actually created vintage commercials with the look of the eighties for some of the new toy characters they designed for the movie. The logic being that these commercials will make the new toys feel authentic. Why did they choose that decade? Because the commercials of the eighties were so brazen, so musical, and so very effective.

What type of Barbie you liked also said something about you. I had the “Peaches and Crème” Barbie that I thought looked like Ginger Rogers because of her long flowing peach-colored ball gown. The gentle sounding female voice from the jingle in her commercial sang, “We girls can glow from head to toe, right Barbie? Long luscious stole, what a look! Ken is hooked. Caught up in a whirl of a peach creamy girl. We girls can do anything, right Barbie?” We can do anything, even wear a peach dress and be pretty for Ken. What glass ceiling? I don’t even know what you’re talking about.

Consequently, I don’t remember owning a Ken. I don’t think anyone owned a Ken and if they did, they didn’t play with him. They just needed to know he existed in order to make the Barbie fantasy world complete. If you did own a Ken doll, you only owned one. Likely because there was a small twinge of curiosity about what Ken looked like in his, you know, nether-regions, and once you took a look once and saw that there was nothing there, there was no further scientific or anthropological need for Ken.

I also had DIVA, from Barbie and the Rockers, a red-headed rock star that reminded me of my own red-headed mother. Barbie and the Rockers was a brief and wild period in Barbie’s history where she got into the rock and roll game. (The truth is, Barbie was forced down the lonely road of musical fame when the toy company that makes her, Mattel, needed to compete with a then popular cartoon and spin-off line of dolls, “Jem and the Holograms” created by rival toy company, Hasbro.) DIVA, always with all capital letters, didn’t get much attention in her particular commercial. But Ken did get a bit of the spotlight, with a slowed down solo, “When Barbie asked me to join the band, I said, ‘That’s cool’.” What a hunk, and such a flair for language.

But my favorite Barbie was Tropical Miko. I liked her because she was a brunette, like me, and didn’t look like any of the other Barbies. I just thought that she was extraordinarily beautiful, like the kind of gal He-Man might go for. It turns out, she was Hawaiian. Miko was just as empowered as Barbie, according to her commercial, “We girls love it in paradise, right Barbie? Island girls, long flowing hair, tropical flowers to wear, beautiful braids, a tropical Barbie day! We girls can do anything, right Barbie?” Even though it sounds more like a recruiting pamphlet for the Navy during WWII, it hit you right where you lived if you were four when you saw it on television. The stylistic variety of Barbie was thrilling, even though she didn’t have quite as many career choices as she does today.

Though in all fairness, there was a Dentist Barbie, an aerobics instructing Barbie, and there was even a version of Astronaut Barbie, originally launched in the sixties. But in true eighties fashion, not only was Astronaut Barbie surely an accomplished scientist, her spacesuit also transformed into a mini-skirt that looked, according to the commercial, “real hot”, just in case she was, “late for a date”.

Of course, the tempting illusion here is that Michael Haney’s toy pit was dangerous and the Bellflowers’ Barbie room was not. But Barbie herself had the potential for actual physical danger as well as the risk she ran of shifting the collective girl consciousness entirely toward hairstyles and mini-skirts. After a few years of play, she would start to wear down. Then you encountered the very real possibility that the flexible wire inside of Barbie’s leg that allowed you to bend her knees would pop out of the bottom of her foot, effectively creating an accidental shiv. Injuries were often perpetuated once this happened, by accident against oneself and others. But the silent agreement among me and the Bellflowers’ girls was that nobody told. Otherwise, the injured doll would be taken away. Then who would remind us over and over again that we could do anything? Even wear flowers in our hair.

Baby dolls were a big deal too. There were some with sad faces that looked like they needed to be taken care of, some you could feed that would actually need a diaper change afterward, along with the very essential Cabbage Patch Kids. In fact, Cabbage Patch Kids were one of those must-have toys. Not just for the Bellflowers, but for everyone. They were the designer purses of the little kid scene in the eighties. Had there been a version of, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” for kids, Robin Leech would’ve been touting how all the kids in Cannes, France were toting these dimpled dolls to and from the playground.

They were invented by Xavier Roberts in 1978, and back then they were known by the accidentally embarrassing moniker, “little people”. In 1982, a business man named Roger Schlaifer bought the licensing rights to the dolls and changed the name, mercifully, to Cabbage Patch Kids. He also crafted an origin story for the dolls. Saying that a ten-year-old boy, by the name of Xavier, followed a bee past a waterfall and into a magical valley where the babies were being born in a cabbage patch. Effectively ensuring that parents for years to come would have to answer the question, “Where do babies come from?”, far earlier than they would’ve preferred and sending children everywhere running after bees with tragic, and markedly less magical, results.

The fictional ten-year-old Xavier character was spurred to save the babies by creating an underage and one can only assume, illegal, adoption ring in order to save them from an evil character named Lavender McDade. McDade intended to use these helpless fabric babies to operate his gold mine. This version of the dolls, complete with new humanitarian cause pressure, premiered at the International Toy Fair in New York City in 1983. By October, riots were reported in stores across the country as parents rushed to get the dolls for their children in time for Christmas. The same year, the Cabbage Patch Kids made the cover of Newsweek. Cabbage Patch story records were produced and they even had their own line of cereal. Gold mine, indeed. But I don’t think Lavender McDade was running that thing.

But I never asked for a Cabbage Patch Kid. I thought they were genuinely ugly, and the gold mine story pushed me over the rhetorical edge even before I was ten. I knew, for a fact, that dolls couldn’t move and therefore weren’t really under any kind of serious threat of being enslaved in a gold mine. The very suggestion was preposterous to me.

My toy collection was different than Michael’s or the Bellflowers’, remember, each toy collection was like a DNA strand. Telling and unique. My toys were an eclectic mixture that belonged to my three older sisters across the decade they existed before I came along, along with all the toys that I received brand-new. The older toys were mostly board games that we stashed in a window seat in the living room, effectively creating a little treasure trove of activities. Granted, our treasure trove was plagued with spiders. But even that added an adrenaline-pulsing excitement to the act of choosing your game.

This game collection, and the Japanese game show-like suspense of having to choose as quickly as possible or else be thwarted by spiders, is what I was known for around the neighborhood. Because in addition to Battleship, MouseTrap, Cooties, Candyland, Simon, and Connect Four, I had some games that could no longer be found in stores. I had E.T. the board game and an older version of Lite Brite. In the social world of little kids, old and new still counts toward status, but so does rarity. My Lite Brite looked different than anyone else’s and was, therefore, cool.

I played with that toy so long that the metal mesh would get hot under my hands and warp the clear colored plastic pegs you stuck through the holes. When I think of it, I can still smell the dust coating the hot light bulb inside and the frustration I felt at never being able to duplicate the intricate patterns the kids on the commercial could make. The kids in the commercial were geniuses with patterns and could duplicate Renoir and Cezanne while you were stuck trying to make some horrible clown face that came as a pattern in the box. But no matter what you felt when trying to construct your masterpiece, when you took it into a dark room and plugged it in, it never disappointed. Never. It was like having year-round access to a Christmas tree, and no other game or toy offered that same kind of satisfaction.

My parents didn’t have any hang-ups about toys and gender, not that I suspect any other parents did, I just know that I had toys for boys and girls both and most other kids didn’t. Give a little boy anything, anything, and he will pretend it’s a gun. Give a little girl a gun, and she’ll pretend it’s a baby. It happens, there’s something in our brains that just fires these commands without our permission.

Thankfully, however, there are exceptions to my rule. For example, on one occasion little Rusty down the street made me play with the toy grill he had, which was the closest thing to an “oven” and therefore most appropriate for me. This while he was fishing with his Fisher Price pole at the imaginary creek. It was my job to warm up the stove so he could bring home his kill and I could make dinner. I played this game once. Once and never again. I didn’t mind creating play food all the live long day at home by myself, but something about being commanded to play a certain way irked me. Still does.

So even though I loved She-Ra and identified with her, I also had a He-Man and a white ray gun with a tip that glowed orange and made the perfect space-age, “pew pew pew” laser shooting noise every time I squeezed the trigger. Maybe it was the combination of my parents’ active nurturing and growing up in the decade where Sigourney Weaver sky-rocketed to fame in the, “Alien” franchise. Whatever it was, life with plastic guns and Barbie dolls was good.

I had a beautiful light blue toy chest, hand-painted by my mother to hold my toys, roughly 5 feet wide and three feet high with handy shelves inside. On the exterior, there were fabric-embossed cabinet doors with crystal handles. Well, plastic. But they were crystal to me until I grew up and found out that they were plastic. Not that this well intentioned piece of furniture did any good whatsoever. At least one billion of my two billion toys were always spread out over the dark blue carpet of my bedroom.

My legion of She-Ra action figures existed almost solely to stab my parents and sisters in the feet whenever they had to carry me to bed at night. If She-Ra didn’t get the job done, Luke Skywalker did. Dressed in his all-white outfit from the planet Hoth, Skywalker was my smallest action figure. The major threat he posed was that, if stepped on as in the manner of all the other action figures, he could actually sink through the palm of your foot and be pumped through your bloodstream.

On the plus size, his tiny stature never deterred me from regularly holding wedding ceremonies between him and my Jem doll, who was at least four times his size. They were progressive, those two. So the dangerous risk of Skywalker by osmosis syndrome was worth it to me because of the regular marriage of the Star Wars universe with the fantastically terrible, “Jem and the Holograms” legacy. Think of the children they would have! Light-saber wielding magical rock-stars. I mean, come on...

Mom and I lived out an endless cycle of misery over my roomful of toys, pointy and otherwise. I would allow them to pile up roughly four feet high, creating a miserable ball pit of personal belongings. Mom would try to take her stand, demanding repeatedly and firmly that I clean up, “this ridiculous mess.” This would go on for days, and I would passively agree, always, to clean it up. But I never did. Not because I didn’t intend to, but because there were always better things to do.

You have to understand, playing was everything in childhood, especially before you were old enough to attend school. It was an enthralling experience that kept one very busy. Especially in a neighborhood as crammed full of children as mine was. I had a social calendar that adults couldn’t imagine keeping up with. There was hide-and-go-seek to play, action to jump into at the Bellflowers’ house, and cat feces to accidentally find in Michael Haney’s sand box. I was once so immersed in playing dolls with one of the Bellflowers girls in my own living room that I made the conscious decision to soil my pants instead of taking the time out to go to the bathroom about three feet away. That’s how important playing was.

Then, one inevitable day, I would hear a sort of low and angry mumbling coupled with the sounds of cabinet doors slamming coming from my bedroom. I would cautiously peek around the doorway of my room, careful not to make a sound. There I would see my poor fed-up mother cleaning the mess that I refused to tidy, talking to the toys as she put them in their place. Literally and figuratively. Interrupting this moment would only mean more pain for all involved, so I would slink away and let her finish, apologizing to my poor toys under my breath.

There was always a kind of guilt-ridden glee on these days. As guilty as I felt, the glorious shape of my room when she was finished was always so pleasant. No more tiny little stab wounds from She-Ra’s sword on the soles of our feet. No more wading through the ball pit or suffering the threat of being pulled under by a snag of Barbie hair. I don’t know where the woman managed to stow toys of that sheer number out of sight.

One day, in the year 3000, when they proceed to demolish our house in order to make room for the Jetsons people-mover, I suspect that the walls will be filled with toys. That Mom had been jamming them into every crevice, nook and cranny that she could possibly find for years in order to keep them off of the floor. That when they drudge up the Earth behind our house, they will find little Barbie shivs and tiny plastic She-Ra swords along with, the future foreman will say, “My God, is that petrified cat feces? Yes, I believe it is! What on Earth could’ve happened in this neighborhood that there would leave such a horrific mix of violent dirty artifacts?”

I can only hope that there will be a historian present to calm the poor shaken foreman and say, “Don’t worry sir, the layer you’re uncovering should date right around the 1980’s, it’s all perfectly normal.” They’ll rope the place off and send a team of archaeologists to excavate my sisters’ cans of aerosol hairspray and my Mom’s blue eye shadow compacts, and they’ll marvel at all of our stuff and put it right back where it belongs, in the museum re-created to look exactly like a Wal-Mart.