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Childhood Memories, 1950s: Our Favorite Toys

Dolls with K & J

Displaying our dolls and stuffed animals

Working-class suburban children had more toys than kids from any previous era, although we had nothing to compare what life was like for children who grew up during other times or places. We didn’t know how lucky we were! Economic prosperity followed World War II, and parents had some expendable income and prices were relatively low. Parents expected us to share our swing set, wading pool and sandbox with our neighborhood friends. While we had many toys, they did not waste away in a mountain of plastic. We played with each toy, and parents were generally careful about buying too much. Toys fell to pieces from wear. Kids had time to play, as we didn’t have many chores, and mom was home to take care of the house, for most of us. In our family, our parents impressed on us to take care of our things, and if we didn’t, that demonstrated we would not be not entitled to any more. Santa delivered many of our toys on Christmas morning. My mother told me that when I was three, I exclaimed that I heard Santa’s sleigh bells, which kept me believing in the jolly old elf for years.

Backyard Swing Set

The 1950s brought in the era of reasonably priced, if not terribly safe or functional, swing sets. Some sets offered options, such as  rings, gliders, ladders or a slide, which would get burning hot in the summer. Fathers plunked the sets down in the middle of the yard on the hard earth without sand or wood chips. When swinging more than slowly back and forth, the entire set would fly up in the air. My dad added boards to the bottom to stabilize the set. Nevertheless, the swings became a place to hang out, if nothing else, passing the odd moments between other activities. Milling around the swings, we would start a game of tag, freeze tag or hide ‘n seek, hop scotch or jump rope. On summer nights, we’d find glass jars and collect lightning bugs.

Horns 1955

Skating

Suburban sidewalks and patios provided the perfect platforms for the metal roller skates with the leather straps. A key locked the skates to our shoes, and off we’d go around the neighborhood. In the winter, we signed up for ice skating lessons at the local rink, earning different color buttons as we moved up through the various skill levels. There was always a program at the end of the season to show off our talents, and the best part was wearing a fancy costume. We skated on creeks and ponds and at the tennis courts, which the township fire trucks would hose down to create smooth surface.

Trikes, Bikes and Scooters

David 4th of July Bike

TricycleKids under six would ride tricycles. Made of heavy steel, the trikes usually had a little platform in the back where a friend could go for a ride as we peddled.

Most, but not all, children in our neighborhood owned a two-wheeler. The popular Schwinn was equipped with foot brakes and large tires. A durable bike, it was difficult to peddle on steep hills. Some rode their bikes to school. Later, we graduated to the English bikes with gears and hand breaks. Because of the ease of peddling, we ventured further out of our neighborhood to explore local towns. Our municipality required bike licences, and we would ride up to the township building to go though the testing, which usually consisted of riding in a circle and straight line.

Dolls

christmas Baby dolls

1952 Christmas: dolls, bikes, clothes

Baby Dolls: Our cuddly baby dolls, made of vinyl soft plastic became our first favorite doll. Some had rooted hair that we could brush and some could be fed with a bottle and wet a diaper. Our layettes included blankets, pajamas, booties, and assorted outfits. We had cribs and baby carriages for taking our babies out for a ride in the neighborhood. Every night we would put the dolls to bed in their little cribs. I played with my Shirley Temple baby doll so much, she eventually disintegrated.

Christmas doll cribs

1954: Cribs, scooters, blackboard, lunch box

Walker Dolls: As we grew older, we graduated to a walker doll, usually about 14 inches tall, their legs and head would move together. These dolls were porcelain with mohair wigs and eyes would open and shut. Some of these dolls came in bride outfits. My friend, Joan, had the Ideal Toni doll, associated with the Toni cosmetic company, and came with her own permanent wave kit. I believe my doll was an American Character Sweet Sue. Joan and I had many of the same outfits for our dolls. We usually kept their clothes in small suitcases so that we could carry doll and outfits over to our friends’ houses. My the time my parents purchased a walker doll for my younger sister, the popular Shirley Temple, they were mostly made of plastic with rooted hair.

Madame Alexander and Ginny Dolls: These were the eight-inch little girl dolls, and we collected dozens of outfits for them and had at least two dolls. The accessories were endless: slips, shoes, socks, handbags, hats and headbands. The clothes were detailed and well-made. Our moms helped us create beds out of cigar boxes, using clothes pins as legs. Mom made little blankets, sheets and pillows. We could also buy furniture, including patio and bedroom sets. In the picture below is the cardboard suitcase that Ginny carried back then.  The price was still marked on the box: $1, for a nightgown, slippers, robe and towel.

High Heal Fashion Dolls: In the late 1950s, the 8-inch high heel, or grown-up doll, became popular. This doll was the precursor to Barbie. The dolls were proportional but designed to wear high heels. We could buy a variety of outfits and accessories including nylon hose, simulated pearl necklaces and earrings, and fancy undergarments. The Revlon Fashion doll was the most common, but one manufacture created a doll after a local Philadelphia television celebrity, Sally Starr, hostess for Popeye Theatre, which ran from 1955 into the early seventies. Like Sally, the doll was dressed in a cow girl outfit with hat, boots, gun and holster.

Doll Houses

Doll house; puppets

Doll House and Puppet Show

We had two metal doll houses, which came with moulded plastic furniture for every room. The miniature pieces, brightly colored, represented detailing of wood, bed linens and upholstery. In the photograph above, a colonial house, made by Marx toys, resembled our two-story home. My sister and I spent hours rearranging the furniture, trying to decide the aesthetic placement of all the little pieces. We would make up stories using the plastic characters that came with the set.

Sleds

Most kids had the American Flyer sled, made of wood with metal sliders. Our neighborhood had a great hill for sledding so at the first snowfall, we’d be out on the hill before the cars and snow plow removed the snow. Later, we used the aluminum twirling sleds, the circular disks that would twirl down the hill.

Sledding

Boy Toys

Boys had several different toys than their sisters. Boys would run around the neighborhood playing cowboys, donning hats, holsters and fringed shirts; in several blog posts I write about how television, especially the Westerns, influenced play back then. Erector Sets, a collection of metal pieces, including wheels and gears and an electric motor, could be put together with nuts and bolts to build any number of mechanical contraptions. Interestingly, girls did play with Lincoln Logs. Why were girls given Lincoln Logs and not Erector Sets? Maybe tool use was considered too masculine for girls. Boys also had model train sets, usually set up around Christmas and placed around the tree. Some boys had train layouts in their basements. During the holidays, my father would set up his train set from the 1920s for his daughters. I liked the train but was more interested in arranging the houses to make a holiday scene.

Lincoln Logs

Lincoln Logs and Dog

All the Others . . .

We had more playthings in our toy chests: tinker toys, hula hoops, paddle balls, balsam wood gliders, slinky, view master, jump ropes, paper dolls, crayons and chalk. We spent many hours playing games with our friends:  Old Maid, Canasta, Clue, Checkers and Chinese Checkers, to name a few.

We had a wonderful time with the variety of toys available to us and developed friendships that formed around the games and toys. If you have written a blog post about toys in the 1950s, please include a link in the comments.

1950s Retrospective on Children’s Fashions: Petticoats and Mary Janes

To Write or Not to Write about Fashion?

Two years ago I started writing this post but then stopped, thinking that perhaps no one would be interested in reading about children’s clothes sixty years ago. So I just left this post sitting in the draft box. It wasn’t until I started to read Flora Thompson’s memoir of her life during the 1880s in a small hamlet in Oxfordshire that I began to think again about vintage clothing. In my previous post, I described Lark Rise to Candleford, which the BBC broadcast as a series. An excerpt from Flora’s book tells us about what children wore back then:

. . . but it was difficult to keep decently covered, and that was a pity because they did dearly love what they called ‘anything a bit dressy’. This taste was not encouraged by the garments made by the girls in school from material given by the Rectory people—roomy chemises and wide-legged drawers made of unbleached calico, beautifully sewn, but without an inch of trimming; harsh, but strong flannel petticoats and worsted stockings that would almost stand up with no legs in them—although these were gratefully received and had their merits, for they wore for years and the calico improved with washing. Chapter 1

Inspired by Flora’s descriptions, I returned to compiling pictures and content for this post.

Fashionably Dressed, Yet Unaware 

By looking at the way children dressed, we can discover a few clues about life in the 1950s. When I was a little girl, growing up in a working-class suburb of Philadelphia, I remember my mother dressing my sister and I in matching outfits. I couldn’t find any history about this custom, but I remembered that in the movie, The Sound of Music, Maria dressed the children in matching play clothes. Dressing children alike may be a way of cementing family kinship. My mother fostered a close relationship between my sister and I, and dressing us alike may have been part of that plan. I never minded dressing the same as my sister, but I didn’t know there was an option.

Mom selected all of our clothes, and we wore whatever she purchased for us. With play clothes, we had some degree of flexibility in picking out what we wore for the day, but for school or dress up, Mom was fully in charge. I don’t remember rebelling against her choices because clothes were not that important to me.

In our school and neighborhood, children were clean and neatly dressed. Because we came from a fairly homogenous community, there seemed to be little emphasis on clothing as fashion statements. No one dressed better than anyone else, as I recall, and we didn’t talk about clothes. I can remember on only one exception. In third grade, a girl joined our classroom in the middle of the year, and I noticed she looked disheveled. At first, I thought perhaps that just moving in created a lapse in hair and clothing care, but her appearance never improved. That one example stood out because uniformity in neatness prevailed.

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Three Basic Outfits. We wore three basic outfits, always starting with white cotton underwear, including an undershirt, with short sleeves for winter and sleeveless for summer.

Play Clothes: A Hodge-Podge but Sometimes Matching. Pants, peddle pushers (pants that ended between the knee and the ankle so material would not get caught in bicycle parts), shorts, shirt or blouse, light canvas sneakers and socks. In the summer, we would wear rompers, tied with a bow at each shoulder or one-piece zippered short and shirt set. A “skort,” a very short pleated skirt with attached matching bloomers underneath was another option when the weather was warm. This was the age before the t-shirt, which we never wore. In winter, corduroy pants lined in flannel would keep us warm while sledding. As older children, we transitioned from long coats to the more practical “car coat”, which came to just below the waist, square-cut in shape and usually with an attached hood.

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School Clothes: Keeping Order with Flouncy Attire. Dress or skirt, slip, socks and sturdy shoes (white and black saddlebacks) or shoes with straps or laces or Mary Janes, which was a slip-on dress shoe made of black patent leather, usually with a strap that buckled on the side. Girls’ clothes mimicked women’s fashion trends at the time: full circle skirt and a cinched waist. Full skirts were always worn with a petticoat or slip. Hemlines remained above the knee, at varying lengths.

Almost every public school in the U.S. required that girls wear dresses or skirts. I didn’t like wearing dresses because keeping modest while on the playground was a continual nuisance. Every girl knew the one rule of wearing a dress: keep it down. Also, there was a rule that your petticoat should not hang below the dress, requiring some effort yanking on straps to make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes I would slip slacks on under my dress, which was strictly against school rules and almost immediately the teacher would ask me to remove them. Girls could change into shorts or pants for gym class.

First day of school

School Girls J and K

Pastels and Plaid

Dress Clothes: Petticoats and Mary Janes. Church, visiting or special occasions meant a complete outfit including a fancy dress, petticoat, Mary Janes, socks, coat, hat, and sometimes purse and gloves. Crinoline petticoats made the dresses flair out. In the winter, wool coats and matching leggings, usually with side zippers, would keep us warm. Coat collars were sometimes trimmed in velvet. Sunday School always required a fancy dress. Our family was not religious, but my parents must have felt that we have some religious training and dress the part. Easter brought out the best finery, including an Easter bonnet, trimmed with ribbons and silk flowers. When we were older, we wore suits for Easter.

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Hair Styles

Mom fixed our hair every morning, usually in a pony tail or left down, supported by four colored barrettes. Most nights, Mom would roll our hair in soft curlers before we went to bed. She didn’t like hair too much longer than shoulder length. For some reason, I hated having my hair cut, which resulted in a confrontation with Mom. I still have that vision of Mom coming toward me with the scissors, and no amount of tears would prevent the inevitable chopping off of a couple of inches. I always wanted long braids, but Mom disliked braids.

Girls had all ranges of haircuts from short bobs to long hair down the back. However, we didn’t seem to care about each other’s style. In the early 60s, we stepped into another time where hair styles became more important.  My sister went for her first hairdresser appointment when she was in 5th grade and had her hair cut in the famous “page-boy fluff”.

Parenting Styles have Changed

When I became a parent, I read many texts on parenting techniques, and most of the advice suggested to allow children to select their own clothes, both to purchase and to wear. That was surprising to me given that my own childhood experiences that put Mom in charge. I would agree that it is probably is best to allow children to make their own choices. Perhaps, however, allowing those choices might direct the child’s concern about outward appearance, which may not be the place that we want children to focus most of their attention.  

Daily Post: New Sensation

Lone Ranger on Television: Reflections on My Childhood

Over a year ago I wrote a blog post, Lone Ranger and Tonto: A Nostalgic View and Modern Critique, in which I relate my childhood experiences of growing up watching westerns on television, and in particular, The Lone Ranger, and how those programs influenced the way children of my era interpreted that violence. In that post, I also wrote how as an adult, my perceptions of the program changed, understanding the issues of Manifest Destiny and the complexities of the relationship between Tonto and the Lone Ranger. This post is a reflection on my experiences on how that show might have influenced the way we played as children.

To us kids, the Lone Ranger and Tonto were heroes, unselfishly searching out the “bad guys” and bringing them to justice during the Old West. It would be only natural that we would want to emulate these two heroes. For girls, it may have been less about guns and more about that there could be someone out there who could look after people who were under the thumb of the bad guy and make things right. The Long Ranger knew how to make a plan and carry it out with the help of his trusted friend, Tonto.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, although girls wore toy guns in holsters, usually as part of a costume, we never aimed our guns at each other or played mock shoot-outs.  For the boys, it was different.

On the Rock with Guns

Photo: Circa 1954

Boys played the games of bad guys versus the good guys, and this play usually involved some degree of aggression, usually in the form of rough housing. If I complained to my mom that the boys were playing too rough, she would say, “Well, it’s time to come in then.” It wasn’t a girl’s place to get involved in fights and tussles. At some level, I thought that boys seemed less civilized than my girl friends because of their aggressive play and coarse language, which sometimes morphed into cursing.  Sometimes they could be outright bullies. If they were playing shoot ‘m up with each other, and if we wandered into the action, we’d be shot!

Occasionally, a story in The  Lone Ranger would include a woman. I remember secretly hoping that maybe the Lone Ranger or Tonto might find a girlfriend, and always somewhat disappointed, when they would ride off into the sunset again without a storyline that included a woman. Even at age 8, I realized something was amiss.

loneranger-guns

Got the guns, but where’s the girl friend?

The stories of the Lone Ranger became implanted in our consciousness, and Tonto and the Lone Ranger survive as mythic folk heroes for a generation of television viewers.  Children could not grasp the idea that the Ranger was a vigilante who had no authority to enforce the law and who used guns to impose his will. Instead what we seem to remember is that the masked man and his partner played respectful characters who courageously stepped into dangerous situations with the unselfish goal to stand with those who faced injustice.  As a young child, I guess I might have thought that any man who was that mannerly and courageous would wind up with a girlfriend . . . eventually.

Lone Ranger and Tonto: A Nostalgic View and Modern Critique

Growing Up with the Wild West while Living in the Philly Suburbs

Vintage-TV

“Return to the thrilling days of yesteryear”

Everything we knew about the West we learned from Hollywood’s recreation of the American frontier on television, and we thoroughly absorbed the historical misinformation of the people and culture of that time. By the late 1950s, over thirty westerns, such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun will Travel, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot and Maverick, blazed across the screen. The melodies of the theme songs still replay in my memories. Years later, we learned that what we thought was real about the West was, in fact, myth. As children, we certainly didn’t recognize stereotyping, and we were pretty much oblivious to standardized characters and plot predictability. In looking back, I still reflect with a certain amount of nostalgia just because the television western was a part of my childhood experience.

The Lone Ranger  became one of our favorite programs. The TV series began in 1949, and new episodes continued through 1957. I remember watching the introductory episode in reruns many times, which unfolded the story of Tonto finding the injured Texas lawman and his transformation into the Lone Ranger. I was not alone in this infatuation, as almost every child in America knew who Kemosobe was. The Lone Ranger and Tonto stood as heroic figures in the lawless frontier. Later I would learn that Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto, resented that he had to speak in a scripted pigeon. As a child, I thought of Tonto as an equal partner with the Lone Ranger, which is surprising given that the Lone Ranger possessed all the hero accoutrements: mask, silver bullets, white hat and horse. To me Tonto acted as a trustworthy and resourceful partner with the Lone Ranger.

Cowboys 2

Hands Up!

Westerns influenced our childhood games and apparel. The boys in our neighborhood played with toy cap guns. Several regularly wore their cap pistols in holsters and donned cowboy hats. I didn’t like cap guns because my fingers usually got pinched when the hammer mechanism sprung closed to make the “pop” sound. While the boys aimed their guns at each other in mock battles, for us girls, the guns were merely a fashion accessory, part of our cowgirl outfits. I’ve seen many pictures of our friends and relatives from that era, and not many escaped without being photographed in cowboy-girl attire. Our Sally Star dolls even came with holsters and guns, but we never played “shoot outs” with them.

How did I interpret the gun violence on television as a child? Well, I don’t remember either relatives or teachers offering any analysis of the programs or discussions of Western history or violence. Adults purchased the cowboy attire and the toy guns, so I think we assumed these had some legitimacy. At least on the Lone Ranger show, most of the villains never seemed worse for wear for being shot; Hollywood sanitized the effects of gun wounds with an arm in a sling as the typical portrayal of an injury. I think even as a child I realized that TV westerns were pretend–just like our plastic guns.

PICT0001

Gun is just part of the outfit.

Retrospective: Forty Years Later

The Good

Revisiting some of the episodes offered insight into a comparison of what I remembered from my childhood and the real program content. Now the benefit of scholarly historical analysis uncovers the stereotypical Hollywood interpretation of the Old West and portrayal of Native Americans. In his essay, “I hated Tonto then and I hate him now,” Sherman Alexie writes his views from a Native American perspective about his complicated relationship with Indians in the media.

Upon viewing some of the episodes, what immediately struck me was the Lone Ranger’s diction and demeanor. Clayton Moore, the actor who played the Lone Ranger, practiced duplicating the radio voice of the Lone Ranger; his enunciation was impeccable but sometimes comical. “How-dy” came off as a pronouncement rather than a greeting. However, it seemed easy to forgive that overly formal manner as contrasted with so much the gruff and coarse discourse we get today on television; the Lone Ranger was refreshingly polite and well mannered. The program had several other redeeming qualities.  This conversation in the first episode revealed an essential tenant of Long Ranger stories: he never shoots to kill but rather only to disarm his opponent, as painlessly as possible.

Tonto: Here gun to kill bad men.
LR: I’m not going to do any killing.
Tonto: You not defend yourself?
LR: I’ll shoot if I have to, but I’ll shoot to wound, not to kill. If a man must die, it is up to the law to decide that not the person behind the six-shooter.
Tonto: That right, Kemosabe.

The Lone Ranger decides to use only silver bullets as a reminder that life is precious. Along those lines, the Lone Ranger usually comes up with a thoughtful plan for dealing with the outlaws. He cautions against rash actions and his plans include deliberately reducing violence.

During the series, few story characters trusted the Lone Ranger, because he wore a mask, or Tonto, just because he was an Indian. The Lone Ranger said, “You’ll have to trust me.” That trust contrasted with some of those characters who held respectable positions but who were not always trustworthy, whether doctors, judges or sheriffs. I’m not sure this is the result of watching the program, but I usually don’t ascribe trust to those in power just because of their position or status.

lone-ranger-and-tonto

The Bad

The Lone Ranger stories could be characterized as light entertainment that often relied on clichés, such as manifest destiny, the 19th century belief widely held by Americans that the United States, destined to expand across the continent, would bring democracy and rule of law to the world.  Manifest destiny rationalized violence, justifiable because of always being on the “right” side; the gun then became a primary symbol of moral violence. Unfortunately, the Lone Ranger was just another vigilante. Shooting to maim was legitimated because neither the legal process nor morality could prevent the violence. The superhero guaranteed and assured the audience that the outlaw will meet his deserved demise. Rather than the legal process, however, violence became the solution to the criminal problem.

And the Ugly

While representations of violence in the media offer many complexities not easily understood, my theory is that children take on the beliefs of their parents, who are the mediating factors and why it is difficult to arrive at an overreaching theory on how the media influences each child.  I wrote about this issue in this post. It seems that generations of  young people have accepted the mandate to solve conflicts through defensive gun violence and ignore the concept of the rule of law and reason in their justification of  violence. If parents promote vengeance philosophy or celebrate power through weapons, the impact of the media reinforces these views. Although I don’t recall my parents offering any commentary about the westerns, they held firm beliefs against fighting and aggression, which I believe was the greatest influence on my thinking about gun violence. Most of what I watched on television years ago held little sway over my views today. Right there is one of my main arguments against possession of guns: how is justice served if the shooter is the jury, judge and executioner? I guess that’s where the Lone Ranger and I would agree.

Followup:

https://psalmboxkey.com/2013/09/13/lone-ranger-on-television-reflections-on-my-childhood/

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