By Jean Stratton

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During the Festive Holiday Season No One Is Ever too Old for a Toy

Harrison is five years old and in kindergarten. He wants a globe so he "can see where all the places are;" he also wants a new bike because his legs are too long for the one he has. His brother, Spencer, who is three, wants a fire engine, and both boys want "diggers". These are sit-on pieces of equipment with manually-operated shovels, "and you can dig very big holes in the sand."

Mary, nine, is expecting the latest Barbie and all the trimmings, including the Barbie radio-controlled Volkswagen Beetle pink convertible. Jennifer, 12, a jewelry maven, hopes for the Jewelry Design Workshop (with every bead ever made) and the Slide bracelet kit.

Jesse, 17, likes videos, DVDs, CDs, and the full range of high tech games.

Now, fast forward to Dave, 35, once an aficionado of dinosaurs, puppets, and "Build Your Own Bear." Today, he has his eye on "Soda Club", a motorized machine to make club soda at home in a jiffy.

His three-year-old daughter, Hannah, on the other hand, likes Bobble Heads, stuffed animals, and toy musical instruments.

Hal, now retired, still likes additions to his train set, but also is excited about his gift certificate for "oil changes for life". Last year, according to his wife, "he bought himself (from the family!) a book of coupons for discount car washes. A true romantic!"

S'mores Maker

His wife, in a moment of nostalgia, has asked for the new S'mores maker. "You don't need a campfire anymore to have s'mores. It comes with a little grill, plus ceramic holders for the graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows. It does not come with a book of ghost stories!"

She is also enthusiastic about the possibility of "Roomba" – the futuristic robotic floor vacuum cleaner.

As she describes the phenomenon: "Just press a button to tell Roomba what size room to clean. The adjustable timer lets you customize its run-time, based on the size of the room. Once set, the cordless, rechargeable robot goes to work – navigating around obstacles, avoiding stairs, guided by infrared sensors.

"It moves easily over thresholds and carpet-to-floor transitions. Roomba sweeps till it drops – that is until its battery runs out after 90 minutes."

"My husband Harold's favorite toy store was a hardware store," recalls another friend. "His eyes would light up for even the slightest fitting or dry wall screw or glue gun. He positively strutted down the aisles with the saws – radial arm saws, band saws, circular saws, jig saws, even wooden-handled hand saws.

"The year we bought the cement mixer, he knew he had a tool of reckoning. But he could be just as happy if we stopped in only for carpenter's glue, wallpaper paste, or single-edge razor blades.

Red Wagon

"Plumbing fittings were also exciting, especially if they had built-in gadgets. As for Harold's other toys, he talked one of his employers into getting him an airplane – a Cherokee – for work, of course! And there was the big shiny motorcycle for Sunday morning spins.

"But Harold could and would fix bicycles, dolls, and little red wagons, and he made toys, including a wooden riding airplane for one son. He could have been Santa, with his white beard which he kept trimmed, enough girth to fit the costume, and a rosy northern European complexion. Actually, I think he was Santa!

"Just remember that old saying: 'The only difference between men and boys is the size and cost of their toys!'" Indeed. Toys, like people, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and personalities. And whatever one's age, somewhere, a toy is waiting!

Toys, in one form or another have been with us since humans first figured out it was fun to play. An ancestor of chess is said to have been played in 6000 B.C., evolving from an Indian game Chaturanga. In 3000 B.C. a game resembling backgammon was played in ancient Samaria. Stone marbles were first used in Egypt (glass marbles were popularized in the U.S. in the 1800s).

Also in 3000 B.C., Egyptians made dolls from string, fabric, and paper and the first iron skates were used in Scandinavia.

Roller Skates

Kites were flown in China in 1000 B.C. (and probably before), the same time that stone yo-yos appeared in Greece (the popular Duncan yo-yo was introduced in the U.S. in 1929). Playing cards were used in Asia in 969.

In Colonial times in America, children enjoyed games such as hopscotch, tag, jump rope, blowing bubbles, spinning tops, cards, and puzzles. They usually had to make do with what they had – toys had to be found around the house, or adults had to make them. Dolls were made from corn husks and rags. Leftover wood and string could be used to make spinning tops, and hoops from barrels were used in races and a variety of games. Roller skates came along in 1789.

In 1840, the first American doll-maker was granted a patent, and dolls began to be mass-produced in the U.S. In 1867, a westernized version of the Indian game "Parcheesie" was introduced in England. Parcheesie is the oldest continually-marketed American toy.

The popular Brio wooden train sets originated in Sweden in 1884, and were brought to the U.S. in 1977. In 1889, the Flexible Flyer sled came on the snow scene, and in 1900, Joshua Lionel Cowen created a battery-operated train engine as an animated advertisement in a store window display. To his surprise, customers were more interested in his toy train than the other merchandise, and it was the precursor of the longed-for Lionel trains of every boy's dreams.

In 1903, the first box of Crayola crayons was produced, and in 1916, John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, invented the famous Lincoln Logs. In 1926, Ole Christiansen, a Danish toymaker, began to manufacture toys with a new twist, and the very popular Lego was born.

Scrabble, then known as CrissCross, was invented in 1931, and Monopoly saw the light of day in 1935. The endlessly entertaining "Slinky" appeared in 1943, followed by the Frisbee in 1948 and the Hula Hoop two years later. 1949 saw the introduction of Silly Putty, and then Play-Doh in 1956.

Today it's Beyblades, Big Wheels, Hot Wheels, Power Wheels, Pac-man, Nintendo, Gameboy, GameCube, Finding Nemo and Freaky Friday DVDs, Palm Pilots, cell phone cameras, and all those tiny technological marvels. But the toys that have stood the test of time appear and reappear every Christmas: finger paints, kaleidoscopes, Chinese checkers, pick-up sticks, pogo sticks, jacks, jack-in-the-box, music boxes, drums, xylophones, trading cards, sidewalk chalk – the list is endless, and everyone has a favorite.

Never more so than during the holidays, of course, and while it can seem like over-kill during the frenzied shopping scene leading to Christmas, many of us recall those special moments when a longed-for, unexpected, or "perfect" toy was waiting under the tree.

Train Wrecker

A World War II veteran recalls the year he wanted a train wrecker and a red bridge to go with his electric train set, and he got it. He continues to enjoy his trains as a hobby to this day.

His younger brother got his first full-size bike when he was 10. "It had an odometer, and I rode 20 miles the first day! I also always wanted the Thornton Burgess animal books for Christmas, and I would often finish one by the end of the day. The first one I got was "Paddy the Beaver." I still have all the Burgess books I received, and my children have enjoyed them over the years too.

"I also built lots of things with my erector set, and I liked to make model airplanes, which I would then fly off our fire escape. In the summer, for the Fourth of July, I put firecrackers in them and blew the planes up!"

There is something about seeing that first bike under the tree that takes the breath away. A Princeton neighbor remembers the thrill of her first bike, made even more meaningful because it was a long time coming.

"I had wanted a bike so much, and waited for two years," she explains. "The first year, my parents talked to me and said they weren't able to afford it. I was terribly disappointed. But then, the next year, it was under the tree. And I will never forget that wonderful red bike!"

A Lambertville resident, who grew up during World War II, recalls his first two-wheeler. "I was 10 years old in Columbus, Ohio – it was red, with big fat balloon tires, and Dad held the seat until I got my balance."

He has warm Christmas memories, and like many boys, he loved his trains. "When I was eight and my brother 12, we got a Lionel train set for Christmas – engine, coal tender, cattle car, searchlight car and barrel car, and red caboose, plus tracks and switches. It was a big set – the engine had a 'chugger' switch so you could turn it on and it would chug!

"Each Christmas thereafter, we got additional tracks. We were also given a passenger train set – engine plus three coaches. We had a finished attic in our house, and we set it all up there.

Wooden Castles

"When I was 10," he continues, "I got roller skates and a scooter. The roller skates were needed, as birthday parties of friends were skating parties at local rinks. We also had Lincoln Logs, erector sets, and Buck Rogers Model Space crafts – pop guns, ray guns, and sling shots. I had a collection of brightly colored metal cars and trucks, even a trailer home, and one of my favorite toys was a wooden copy of a ferry boat that floated in the bath. It held four to six of the metal cars."

In addition, he reports that he was the fortunate recipient of special handcrafted toys. "My father had a basement workshop, and made us wooden castles with towers and drawbridges, etc., and with our weekly allowances, we bought metal soldiers, tanks, horses, guns, etc. to man the castle. The cannons had a lever and pellets to insert – you pulled the lever and it shot the pellets.

"In his shop, my father glued colored calendar pictures onto thin plywood and with a jigsaw cut us out jigsaw puzzles. We often did them after Sunday dinner, when we made popcorn and listened to 'The Shadow', Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and 'One Man's Family' on the radio – no TV yet!"

Another now grown-up boy remembers his trains and his favorite erector set. "I was 12, and I made a Ferris Wheel. There was a motor that came with it, and the Ferris Wheel went around. I loved it!

"I loved my Tinker Toy set too. It was big, but not as big as my friend Teddy's. He always had toys and trains bigger than mine. He had trains that coupled and uncoupled. Mine didn't uncouple, but I worked and worked with the wire on my small train set, and finally figured out a way for them to uncouple. I also made a platform out of boards with a hole in the middle for a tree, and throughout the Christmas season, the trains ran around the tree. Maybe the fact that I had to improvise and create mechanical things helped lead me to my career as a civil engineer."

Transportation, whether trains, planes, cars, trucks, boats, bikes, wagons, and even doll carriages, has had a very strong attraction over the years. And an early interest in a toy vehicle often leads to a continuing fascination as time goes on.

A Wayne, N.J. resident, who loved building model cars, now spends any free time he has working on his collection of real classic cars.

The afore-mentioned Hal "loved his tricycle, then bicycle, and his wagon – I have a picture of him pulling the wagon with a cute little girl in it – a precursor to his yellow convertible and other classic cars," says his wife.

Silver Dumpster

A Princeton neighbor's favorite toy was a green and silver dump truck. "It was the kind you can climb into and pedal around," he remembers. "Santa brought it on my fourth Christmas, and I was thrilled. Its silver dumpster on the back tipped when you pulled the lever, and whatever it was filled with – stones, pine cones, or dirt – would tumble out.

"On the front was a blue and yellow license plate that had my initials. I remember a day or two after Christmas, I pedaled the new truck over to a grassy spot near our neighbor's back porch. It was mid-morning, and seemed especially peaceful and still. I sat and parked there and began to sing 'Silent Night'. When she heard me singing, our neighbor, Mrs. Yocum, came out and said, 'Good morning, Charlie. It's so nice to hear you singing.'

"'Oh, that's not me,' I replied. 'That's my radio!'

"Reflecting on this experience that took place more than 60 years ago, it's as real to me as though it happened yesterday."

Charlie's son, Rob loved the enduring Matchbox toys, and there were never enough, recalls his father.

"He would study them in the store display for weeks before Christmas and choose his favorites. There were double-decker buses, red trucks, and sleek blue sedans. Some had trunks that lifted, and some had doors and hoods that opened.

"After the gifts were opened on Christmas morning, then came the ritual of building a garage with the wooden blocks around. It was a marvelous garage, with parking spaces for each of the trucks and cars. The wooden block doors could be swung open to allow the vehicles to enter and exit. The garage even had a ramp and roof-top parking.

All Smiles

"When we were in graduate school in Scotland," he continues, "there was not much money for toys at Christmas. When we walked into the little village where we lived, Rob spied a small silver race car in the window of a toy shop. He fell in love with it and checked it out whenever we were in town. One morning, shortly before Christmas, it wasn't there, and he was crestfallen. Santa must have known, for that very car mysteriously appeared under our tree Christmas morning. When Rob discovered it, he was all smiles, and in his delight, he exclaimed: 'A silver race car! Just what I always wanted!'"

What cars, trains, and planes mean to boys, dolls often are to girls. Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kids, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Strawberry Shortcake (back again), Madame Alexander, Sparkle Plenty, Little Lulu, Madeline, bride dolls, the new Bratz Funk dolls with attitude – they encompass generations and cultural changes.

Nearly every female, no matter her age, seems to have a favorite – sometimes even with bittersweet recollections. A former New York City resident, who grew up during the Depression, recalls "Joanna."

"She was a lovely doll – very special. Then my two brothers broke her. I had other dolls, but never one like Joanna."

Her disappointment was assuaged the next Christmas, however, when she received her first watch. "I had wanted one very much, and I wore it to show all my friends and even my teacher, who admired it."

My neighbor remembers receiving a baby doll when she was five, and she can recall her down to the last detail. "She had a molded head with a beautifully painted face and painted curly, brown hair. Her eyes opened and closed, and she had real eye lashes. Her body was soft and stuffed, but her hands and feet were molded and painted and looked real. She had a long pink dotted Swiss dress with a bonnet to match. Beneath the dress was a wondrous petticoat that made her dress fluff and flow. She was very loved.

"I still have my doll, packed in a large shoe box in the basement. Every once in a while, I peek into the box and look at my precious doll! As I do, memories return of my joy at finding her under the tree on Christmas morning."

Doll memories seem to be especially important. For example, there is the Shirley Temple doll and her steamer trunk. A New York City friend remembers this well-loved toy.

"I was five when I got my Shirley Temple steamer trunk. When the trunk was opened, she fit on one side, and her clothes hung on the other side. Beneath the clothes was a drawer for her shoes and her comb and brush because she had lovely black hair with ringlet curls. At the top of the trunk was a handle, and I could take her with me wherever I went. This was in the days of travel by ship, so I felt very au courant with my steamer trunk.

Love of Travel

"I played with her endlessly, and the play proved to be geography lessons. I needed new places to go with Shirley, and my mother and grandmother willingly supplied them, with stories about their life in different places. I loved this beautiful doll, and this is the one I remember of all the toys I had – and there were many, as I was an only child and an only grandchild! Is it possible that my love of travel started with Shirley Temple?

"The only other thing from my playthings I remember so vividly were my Wonder Woman comic books. They were read to me so many times that I learned to read with them. When we had to read Dick, Jane, and Spot in first grade, it was agony. They had no magic bracelets or terrific boots – and they never went anywhere!"

"I still have most of my 'Nancy Ann' Storybook dolls in a glass case," reports another friend. "I had lots of baby dolls, as well as a doll carriage, bed, high chair, and doll house. I also loved all the cooking toys – refrigerator, stove, oven, baking sets, etc. And I loved tea sets. My friends and I would dress up our dolls, and we'd sip tea and eat Oreo cookies."

A Princeton friend, originally from Ohio, remembers a special Christmas when she and her sister were seven and eight, and their mother made outfits for their dolls.

"Mine had a green velvet coat and puffy hat and my sister's had a velvet cape and bonnet. Sewing was hard for my mother, and that was a wonderful surprise for us."

She also remembers a surprise for her own little girl many years later. "There was a book about a little girl living on an island, who had a wooden doll, and my husband made one just like it for her. She loved it, and then later, shared it with her own daughter, Meghan."


Handmade dolls are certainly special, and those children lucky enough to receive one or more never forget them.

"My grandfather was very handy with woodworking," recalls another friend. "He made a cradle for my dolls. It was all handcarved and beautiful. I loved it. Still sitting in it today is the doll that came with it.

"He also made a dollhouse that was a replica of the house we lived in, and a little wood hutch with little drawers that I filled with silverware and plastic dishes for my dolls."

The American Girl series of dolls has been very popular over the past years, and nieces Kristen and Katie, when they were nine and 10, were big fans. Each doll, from a different era of American history, has a wardrobe, accessories, and books about them.

The American Girl concept has blossomed, and there are now American Girl Tea Parties in fancy department stores. You and your doll attend the party together!

Over the years, many little girls have enjoyed cutting out paper dolls – and still do today. "Dressing up" the little cut-outs in their new paper finery can encompass hours of fun.

"My sister and I played with paper dolls for a long time," says a Princeton friend. "We had a lot of different outfits for them, and it was one of our favorite things to do."

Toy Tradition

This friend initiated a new toy tradition a few years ago, when she began decorating Christmas packages with tiny toys. Little ornaments, miniature wooden reindeer, Santas or snowmen, sparkling angels, and silver bells make her gifts even more appealing.

"I just felt it was an added decoration for the gifts," she says, "and now it has become a true holiday tradition."

Stuffed animals are among the most popular toys, and many grown-ups have been known to keep their favorite in a safe place in the closet, attic – or – right out in the open. Ever since the teddy bear was named for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, these soft bears have been a big-time toy.

"Stuffed animals were favorites in our house," says a neighbor. "Bears, dogs and cats, dinosaurs, raccoons, monkeys and rabbits were everywhere. There were also soft, stuffed puppets that came to life when you put your hand inside. Each Christmas, new characters were added to the menagerie. They sat sentinel under the tree until it was taken down. Then they joined the profusion of other well-loved animals on our son's bed."

Another popular animal toy was "My Little Pony." Girls, especially, were enthralled with these pastel ponies, and loved to brush their long tails and manes. Meghan, now grown up at 21, remembers "Cotton Candy."

"She was one of my favorite toys when I was little, and she was pink. I was just a toddler, so I don't really recall getting her, but I've had her for as long as I can remember. I still have her; she's packed away in the basement with my other old toys. She didn't wear out – I just eventually outgrew My Little Ponies."

The memory lingers, however.

The story of a particular teddy bear falls into the category of "Most Meaningful Toys Ever." "My daughter had a small teddy bear made of alpaca that she just loved," remembers a Princeton neighbor. "It went everywhere with her, and then one day, she lost it. I told her I wasn't able to get her another, and she was crushed. Then time passed, and on Christmas morning, when he was peeking out of the Christmas stocking, she was simply thrilled. It was the best Christmas – if you could have seen her face!"

Teddy's Story

The story of Teddy does not end there. He is now safely packed away – a little the worse for wear –in the now grown-up little girl's basement. As her own daughter, who also played with Teddy, explains: "He's worn out; all of his fur is gone except for little patches behind his ears (It's been 'loved off', as Mom says). He's been patched and repatched to keep his stuffing from coming out. Finally, we bundled him up in a pair of doll pajamas to keep his stuffing in."

While boys like teddy bears too, overall, they are attracted to more action-packed toys, says a mother of three males.

"My boys especially enjoyed the large box of unpainted wooden building blocks. The part they liked most was watching their father carefully build a high and elaborate tower, looking at it in joyful suspense for about 15 seconds, then knocking it down with their little knees and elbows. This gave them the greatest possible satisfaction! They would do this for as long as the consenting adult could cope. Girls do not do this!"

One now grown-up girl does remember receiving a lot of boy-type toys, however. As she explains, "My father really wanted a boy, but he had three daughters. So, I, as the oldest, received 'boy' gifts at Christmas – Lincoln Logs, baseball glove, race car set, and microscope. I was a girl, but I loved them all!"

On the other hand, she also fondly remembers her miniature kitchen. "It had a sink you could actually fill with water, a stove, refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, and small plastic food, which you could put in the refrigerator."

Another young girl especially enjoyed her kitchen which she received when she was four. As her mother recalls: "She had opened all her other presents, and then saw a note saying there was a surprise for her in the dining room. When she went in, there was the kitchen all set up. She was really surprised. She just looked at it with a big smile, and said 'The Kitchen!' She played with it all the time, and we would make up menus, and she pretended to make food, using the pretend stove, oven, food, and refrigerator.

Pretty Cute

"Another gift she and her brother Brian loved was a pretend store. It was the same type – big and plastic, but the checkout register had a scanner, and it made the same noise as at the real store. There were even credit cards they could use, and when you ran them through the register, it said 'Credit approved'. It was pretty cute."

As anyone with a dog or cat in the family knows, pet products are a big business. It is reported that 54% of dog owners and 41% of cat owners purchase holiday gifts for their four-legged friends. Pets are the focus of a big variety of toys, supplies, and more unusual products.

For example: the BowLingual Dog Translator. This state-of-the-art tool claims to translate Rover's bark, which is transmitted by a microphone unit that clips to a collar. "A hand-held unit analyzes the voice print based on breed and sex, then displays information to indicate the possible meaning. It is programmed with over 5,000 voice prints from 80 breeds."

Bubble Buddy, the original bubble-blowing dog toy, sends streams of Sizzlin' Bacon-scented bubbles into the air to entertain everyone, including the pooch. Other scents are available.

Cats like bubbles, too, and Bubble Kitty offers catnip-infused bubbles for feisty felines. Bubble-jumping and pouncing is a great form of exercise during the long winter months!

What better gift to give your lovable canine than that of fresh breath? Dogs love the tantalizing mint flavor of Tastems Mint, which are 2.5-inch diameter pressureless tennis balls that withstand the sharpest teeth and most playful pups.

Magic Cat Hat

Perfect for the curious cat, Magic Cat Hat is a big, colorful plush hat that turns upside down to reveal four enticing cat toys – bells, catnip, balls, and plush toys, which easily retract back by pulling a tangle-free cord.

"Thing in a Bag" is specially designed to bring out kitty's natural stalking instinct. The bag's exterior looks like an ordinary brown lunch bag, but inside are crinkly-sounding materials and a randomly activated motor that makes the "thing" come alive.

Imaginative toys, puzzling toys, baby toys, funny toys, friendly toys, learning toys, high tech toys, magic toys – there's a toy for every taste and talent, including that most "Marvelous Toy", captured in a catchy 1960s song, recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary.

"My father homeward came one night
And gave to me a toy.
A wonder to behold it was
With many colors bright;
And the moment I laid eyes on it,
It became my heart's delight!

"It went 'Zip' when it moved.
And 'Pop' when it stopped.
And 'Whirrr' when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was
And I guess I never will.

"The years have gone by too quickly it seems,
I have my own little boy.
And yesterday I gave to him
My marvelous little toy.
His eyes nearly popped
Right out of his head.
And he gave a squeal of glee!
Neither one of us knows just what it is
But he loves it just like me!"

May all your toy-filled dreams come true!

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