Toy exhibit at Heinz History Center showcases many childhood favorites
Barbie and Ken will be meeting with G.I. Joe and the Rock'em Sock'em Robots for a stay in the Strip District.
Toys are more than the things that have littered living rooms for decades, says Emily Ruby from the Senator John Heinz History Center. They “reflect who we are and what we want to be at any point.”
That observation is the serious side of “Toys of the '50s,'60s and '70s,” which opens a three-month stay at the history center March 4 with a display of more than 400 toys from those decades.
But the fun side is toys from three decades — from Chatty Cathy of the '50s to the Digi-Comp computer game of the '70s, with Hula Hoops, Mousetrap and Frisbees in between.
Visitors will wander through three living rooms — where else? — filled with toys, but they also will have a chance to go out to a play area and garage to toss around some Nerf balls or try to keep a Hula Hoop spinning.
But maybe the most fun will be at the end. As they leave the exhibit, visitors will have a chance to play pinball and electronic games provided by the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association and its associated Replay Foundation of Carnegie.
Those games include Donkey Kong, which came out in 1981, but is such a classic it was hard to pass up, says Ruby, the local curator for the display, which was originally put together by the Minnesota Historical Society.
The display has a local flavor, too. A step past the entrance is a Slinky, the walking spring that sprung up in Hollidaysburg, Blair County. The Heinz center added a look at the Wolverine Toy Co., a North Side firm that produced metal toys in an era when plastic was taking over.
But the living rooms are where the action is.
“If you look at this room, you can see the real theme of the whole exhibit,” Ruby says, standing in the '50s living room. “Toys were really gender-oriented then because that was the way things were. Little girls played with kitchen sets because that's what they were growing up to be: homemakers. And boys had job-related toys.”
She says the emergence of plastics allowed more plentiful toys for the Baby Boom generation.
Andy Masich, president and CEO of the history center, believes visitors will be “surprised by what toys reveal about the past and the way we lived and played.
“The toys reflect what was happening socially, culturally and economically as our nation emerged from World War II,” he says.
Those cultural changes show up in several ways, says Adam Scher, senior curator of the Minnesota center where the display was assembled.
For instance, he says, G.I. Joe appeared in 1964 as a soldier action figure, but as he moved into the '70s, he got caught up in the Vietnam War. Military figures became less popular then, so G.I. Joe became a sort of Indiana Jones-like mercenary.
Board games, such as Battleship, grew more popular in the '70s when children were spending more time together as more mothers joined the workforce, he says.
Toys reflect the times in other ways, too, Scher says. For instance, the Alpha-1 Ballistic Missile, a $4.98 hit from 1962, was part of the space race and the Cold War. Rat Fink was a 1964 member of the post-beatnik age. The Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit from 1971 showed the early days of thinking green.
Two of the three living rooms in the display are fairly routine, middle-class sites, but the one from the '60s is a bit different: It's a life-size version of Barbie's Dreamhouse.
That is an appropriate setting, Ruby says, because of the significance of the Barbie character in that era. It was a doll that drew eventual criticism because it set physical standards for little girls. But it also was a doll that took on professional roles and reflected some change in societal thinking.
Barbie also led to Julia, an African-American doll, based on a TV character of the same name — who was a mother and a nurse.
Each living room features — naturally — a TV playing commercials for the toys of that decade.
“The growth of television also expanded the demand for toys, both through TV advertising and an increase of toys based on popular programs, including Howdy Doody dolls, Davy Crockett's coonskin cap and Sesame Street toys,” Masich says.
Not all toys burst on the scene in a blaze of popularity, Scher says. When Twister was introduced in 1966, it was not a hit at all. But when Johnny Carson and Ava Gabor played the game on “The Tonight Show,” college and high-school students liked the physical interaction it provided.
Some toys developed bad reputations, too, Ruby says. Jarts seemed like a fun, backyard game, she says, but the physical threat of the weighted darts drew safety warnings from the government and parents.
Toys have mixed roles, Masich says.
“Toys are designed to be fun, but they also stimulate creativity,” he says. “Children — and grown-ups — learn from play.”
Special ‘Toys' playtimes
Toys Takeover: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays through May 28. The Great Hall becomes the Game Hall with larger-than-life versions of popular games. Free with admission.
21+ After Hours Playtime: 5:30 p.m. Thursdays, March 10-31. Grownups only for drinks, food and games. Admission: $10. Details: 412-454-6373 or email@example.com.
Behind the scenes: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. April 2. Curators will offer a special look at the exhibit. Free with admission.
Vintage Pittsburgh: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. April 9, the fourth annual Vintage Pittsburgh will offer its vendors of classic items, this time focusing on toy-related objects. Admission: $10 and $6.50 for students and those 6 to 17.
The Wonderful Whatness of Toys: Bobby Novotny from the Too Groovy Pop Culture Toy Shop in Munhall will take a look at the coolness of some toys. Admission: $25. Details: 412-454-6450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pinball game night: 7-11 p.m. May 13. Become a pinball wizard for a night. Check web-site for details and admission.
Behind the scenes tours: Noon and 2 p.m. May 15, History center president and CEO Andy Masich leads tours; 6:30 p.m. May 19, curator Emily Ruby will lead a tour. Free with admission.