Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

September 4, 1971

Imagination. Something that is spooned into every pre-natal child. Something that is reputedly spooned in without rhyme or reason. Something that seems to come from various vats, so that one batch last a child into old age, while others decay before the child begins wearing long pants.

Perhaps the greatest barometer of imagination in children is the cumulative collection of a child’s toys.

The toys of a child’s life indicate both the age he or she grew up in, his or her economic and social standing, and served as either a stimulus to imagination or as an acid that ate the imagination away before it had time to develop.

There are archeological diggings throughout the world that have coughed forth crude prototypes of what we today refer to as a “doll.” Ancient peoples produced the dolls to help people the imaginative world of their children. As such, the doll is probably the longest-running popular toy.

It is important for the fact that it provides a physical excuse for a child to make up a companion. The child’s imagination breathes life into the doll and it becomes the object of love and hatred, warmth and rage, indifference and dedication; it becomes the object by which a child can play at participation in the world of adults that is going on around him, without fearing that the doll will judge his or her ability or inability to function in an adult way.

Dolls have, at time, become status symbols. Like cars among today’s adolescents, one’s status was judged by the quality of the doll. A poor child’s doll might be a few pieces of dirty cloth sewn together with some stuffing inside, legs of different lengths and thicknesses, and a head that was drawn on with a crayon or a piece of charcoal; a middle class child might have had a doll that was homemade but with more attention to detail and made with better material, complete with a set of miniature clothes that mom made; the wealthy had dolls made by professionals who were thought of as artists, and they featured smooth faces, carefully stitched arms and legs, and clothes that were as good as the child’s own.

There is a near legend in Jim Thorpe about Eleanor Barrington’s life-size doll made in the likeness of America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford. A gift from the McGinleys on her mother’s side of the family, the doll stirred gasps of amazement in the throats of the little girls of the 1920s. Coupled with the custom-made Mary Pickford doll were dolls made by Stieff of Germany. Stieff made stuffed animals and dolls that were thought of as prized possessions. No doubt, the more realistic the doll looked, the easier the little kids could get away with talking to it and treating it as a real person, without drawing disapproving side glances from the adults around them.

On the male side of the toy scene, coming up into the 1950s,memory jars loose scenes of a batch of sprites galloping around town as knight errants. It didn’t much matter that the helmets were merely cardboard boxes with holes cut in them and eagle wings crayoned on the sides crammed in between the bold black words Campbell Soup, or that the lances were long, 1”x1” pieces of wood used at the local lumber yard to keep 2”x10” boards from setting atop each other, a banner thumbtacked to the end, made from one of the rags in mom’s scrub bucket, or that the shields were very often “borrowed” garbage can lids that seemed to vanish from neighbors’ refuse containers in the morning, were gone all day, and mysteriously returned with a clang at suppertime complete with little dents.

The imagination that instilled life into the little girl’s dolls put life into a vacant lot where the Crusades were reformed, refought, and remembered.

A pile of dirt in a local lot could become a hill to be taken by a band of desperate knights; the same pile of dirt became a mountain upon which the little girls’ dolls took hikes or took skiing lessons, having little sticks shoe-laced to their muslin feet.

Generally, imaginations that were working like a full-shift steel plan poured out hour after hour of enjoyment and fun, making toys of the most unlikely pieces of junk, embodying crude toys with a dignity and a spirit far beyond their meager makings.

Today there is something of a difference.

Older people constantly complain that the kids today have to be entertained, that they don’t know how to have fun. The refrain of, “When I was their age I always had something to do,” seems to become the battle-cry of a generation.

The refrain is not founded on mere bad disposition of a grown-up who regrets his long-lost childhood, either.

Affluence has brought with it professional toy makers and fun-for-hire concerns. It has become big business to make toys that are more complicated that the Apollo control room at Houston. Toys do almost everything their grown-up counterparts do. There are ovens that bake, guns that shoot, ships that toot, babies that cry, wet, move, kiss, talk, and go BOING! with a great noise when their internal parts are overtaxed. There are cars that run on plastic tracks at impossible speeds, plastic factories where an enterprising young fellow can make his own cars, and dolls that have clothes that measure a mere six inches but that are more expensive than mom’s Easter Sunday finest.

With all the sparkle and zip and goshwowohboy of the modern toys, a kid doesn’t have to use his imagination. Without being able to use up all the imagination that was poured into his head, he soon grows tired of sophisticated toys. They become novelties that have worn thin; they are what they are, and they do not call upon the imagination to make them something else or to instill in them an entirely new personality from one hour to the next. They breed boredom.

When we complain that kids don’t have the energy to find something to do, that they aren’t as occupied as we were as kids, we must look at it realistically—if they did some of the things that we innocently did as kids, they’d be in juvenile court three days out of each week.

Meanwhile, the great corporate enterprise that is America continues to spew forth novelty toys that gleam enticingly and then lose their appeal a half-hour after they are tried out. It seems there is no corporate profit in a pile of dirt or in an old Campbell’s Soup box; everything must bring a profit today—even fun and toys.