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WRITTEN BY RICHARD SEVEN
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER
MEMORIES ARE MOSTLY WHAT REMAINS
OF OUR DOLLS AND TRUCKS, MODELS AND BLOCKS
Sometimes, though, a toy makes an imprint and hangs on. It gets passed through the generations, coveted again by collectors, or winds up in repositories like the cavernous locked storage room within Seattle's Museum of History & Industry.
There, beyond wooden ship models, hydroplane fins, an original Kidd Valley sign, porcelain ornaments, old radios, a water-ski prototype with a glued-on sneaker, you come upon long, tall, deep shelves of old toys and diversions. Mainly, the playthings are metal and heavy and maddeningly inert by today's standards.
Confined to the dim light of a back room, the eclectic gathering seems to represent the classic definition of forgotten toys, but they have outlasted most of their peers. Some have real Seattle connections. There is an 1895 replica of a fuel wagon driven by Seattle's Henry Heckman and a sled made by Henry Goetz at Second and Union for his children in 1890. There is a small white, two-story dollhouse that Margaret Gangler played with in the walk-in closet of her Phinney Ridge bedroom in the late '20s.
At one end of the row, mummified in plastic, dolls from as far away as Africa and as far back as the 1800s rest in open wood drawers. Antique dollhouses, doll clothes, cribs, carriages, cooking toys like mixing bowls sit nearby. There are plenty of toys for boys, too, like iron model trains, an oversized mail-plane model, fighter jets, a ferry boat, a fire truck from the 1920s. There are games of learning, games for competition, games to kill time. Traps was made in Seattle and billed itself as "a most fascinating home game." Meccano has the words "A Hobby For The Bright" on its box.
Each toy and game is tagged and indexed to the donor's name, but there is little else to go on. An expert can date each by its style and materials and give historical overview, but not why that particular toy survived and was passed through a family chain and eventually into a collection instead of a garbage can. The expert can't give you the true context, which is a sense of why each mattered to a child.
MOHAI's toys were hauled out of the back room and put on display for the holidays and through Jan. 13. Old toys are hot again, from the antiques of children's sewing machines and steamships to the Barbies and GI Joes that kept baby-boomers company. The market is driven by rarity, of course, but the toys are valued because they were played with and sparked wide-eyed curiosity, escapism and intimacy.
PERHAPS THE MOST expansive toy in the MOHAI collection is actually a grown-up labor of love. It is a sprawling replica of The Cole Brothers Circus, commissioned for $5,000 in 1935 by Harold Rumbaugh, an Everett entrepreneur who used to own a department store. He retired just after World War II to pursue a dream of owning a circus.
McDonald, who grew up in Sedro-Woolley and did summer office work with a circus in the '30s, was a longtime member and past president of the Circus Fans Association. By the time he acquired Rumbaugh's circus, he had amassed a huge collection of circus photos, books and memorabilia. He even owned a full-sized calliope.
He set up the quarter-inch-to-foot scale model of the circus, complete with horses, elephants, tigers, cages, wagons, ringmaster and big top, in the basement of his home as soon as he got it. He built additional wagons, erected bleachers out of Popsicle sticks and installed some circus cards as posters. It sat there for more than a decade. School classes would come over and view it, but he frustrated the children by not allowing them to touch anything.
When McDonald and his wife, Doris, moved into a Seattle apartment and began wintering in Arizona, he had to give up the model circus to make sure it was safe. He chose MOHAI to preserve his slice of history, and helped the museum set it up. These days, it usually takes up about eight boxes in the museum's back room, but the staff set it up for this year's holiday exhibit.
While McDonald, who died in 1996, was an adult when he got the circus, he cherished it because of the indelible wonder it etched into his childhood.
"I remember when we had to sell his calliope when we moved from our home into the apartment," says Doris, who grew up in Great Falls, Mont. "I was a big circus fan, too. So was my Dad. The circus was about the only event that came to small towns. We'd watch them erect it and, if I could stay up, watch them tear it down. You sort of get sawdust in your blood."
The pair showed up at Mary's Seattle home on Christmas 1938, when she gave the two tall German bisque dolls to her daughters. Frances, 9, got Elizabeth, the taller of the two dolls, while Peggy, 7, got Harriett. Over the years, Elizabeth and Harriett participated in their share of tea parties, but they were always played with carefully. Eventually, Harriett went to a cousin and Peggy got Elizabeth.
"I had never seen those dolls before that Christmas when I was in second grade," says Peggy Corley. "I'm not sure where my mother kept them before then. They were presents, but we always knew that they were more than that. We were custodians. We had lots of dolls, but these were so big and life-like. People would think they were real kids at first." Harriett is now in a closet in Oregon, wrapped in plastic and in need of a checkup, but Elizabeth still lives with Peggy in Seattle and does not look her age of nearly 100 years old, outside of a few scratches and a stubbed toe. She stands about 3 feet tall and sits up straight. She is blond with brown eyes, rosy cheeks and articulated joints and thick ankles.
Peggy has photographs of Elizabeth posing with various girls in the extended family over the years, and has one of the doll at Mary's 90th birthday. For the birthday party, each friend was asked to write Mary a note rather than give a present. One friend from Walla Walla recounted the night Elizabeth and Harriett escaped the fire.
Peggy's grown daughter never played with dolls much, so Elizabeth may one day go to a niece named Elizabeth on the East Coast. The doll has too much family value for Corley to donate it to MOHAI, where she volunteers, but her family has given board games and something called "Space Boy" that none of them can quite remember and the museum staff had a hard time finding.
"I was a little angered at my father for giving away his train set," Peggy says. "Now, I would have played with that. But when he wound up with two girls, he gave it away!"
WHEN MOHAI held an antique-toy-appraisal fair last Christmas, people unearthed old objects from basements and attics so experts could tell them whether they had gold or coal. Eric Mamroth lugged his scuffed old Keystone dump truck from the early 1900s. It's a homely industrial truck with a body of mottled black paint and hard-rubber wheels of chipped red paint. The steering still works, but the hydraulic lift is shot.
Because it was sturdy metal with hard tires and had a big, open bed, Mamroth, as a toddler, would sit in the back of it, wrap his feet around the front fenders and reach his little boy hands through each window to steer while his big brother pushed.
The truck used to belong to his dad, Ellis, who was born in 1917, the son of Jewish immigrants trying to assimilate into American life in Brooklyn. Ellis survived the Depression and World War II and kept the truck through it all so he could give it to his boys. While they played with it, Dad would putter around the house, garage or yard of their postwar dream house in the suburbs.
"I see all that when I look at that truck," says Mamroth, a 48-year-old City of Seattle employee. "That truck captures the simplicity of an era, a generation that is almost gone, and my life at the time. I was estranged from my Dad for awhile, but we worked it out. When he passed away about four years ago, my Mom began downsizing and I told her, 'I want that truck.'
"I haven't elevated it to family-heirloom status yet. I mean, I have a potted plant in it, but I'm really glad I have it. It's Americana that I intend to make last."
Most toys, outside some of the classics like Tinker Toys, closely followed the fads and changed with the times. Girl toys eventually branched from homemaker duties. Trains were replaced by cars, which were replaced by planes, which were replaced by rocket ships. Television tie-ins were always powerful, and mass production enabled kids to get more stuff with each passing Christmas.
Keith Schneider has owned and operated Gasoline Alley Antiques, a Seattle-based collectible toy store and Internet site, for more than 20 years. He's attuned to the changes. "When I first opened I don't think I had anything in my store post-1940s. I was real heavy into the '20s and '30s," he says. "By the mid-'80s, I surrendered and sold what people wanted."
The biggest share of the market involves baby boomers searching for childhood toys. Schneider's store is packed with figurines, action figures and '60s television-inspired games like Mr. Novak, Man From Uncle, The Flintstones, James Bond, Johnny Quest, as well as classics like Sherlock Holmes, Spiderman, a Yogi Bear children's set.
"Collectors are this genetically insane group of people," Schneider says, "but I also get people who come in with their 8-year-old and say, look, Johnny, that's valuable. I say, no it's not. Buy it, rip it open and play with it. I tell them the reason you have memories of your toys is because you played with them."
WHEN TRISHA Nerney recalls the moment at age 4 she saw a TV commercial advertising Barbie in 1959, her eyes take on the same glassy, faraway look she said she had when the teenage fashion model's image swirled clockwise around the family's black-and-white screen.
It was a Sunday night and she pestered her father to buy her one that very moment. He was heading down to the store anyway, and she wound up with not only a Barbie but also various outfits. Over the years, she got more Barbies and more outfits. She confided in her dolls and sorted out social encounters from school with their help.
Nerney dropped Barbie when she discovered the Beatles, and it wasn't until she ran across Barbie trading cards in 1989 that an inner voice told her she needed to collect the vintage dolls from the '50s and '60s.
Nerney estimates she has more than 10,000 items of Barbie paraphernalia today, from the dolls themselves to Barbie cars and record players, hairdryer and books. But she is still hunting for a compact about the size of a pencil eraser that is rare and the perfect size to be snorted by vacuum cleaners.
To some, Barbie is a bimbo, but Nerney considers her an ideal.
"I guess, as a little girl, I thought Barbie was the ultimate role model," says Nerney, a self-employed make-up artist. "I know it's not politically correct these days, but I still think she's a great role model. She stayed with the same man. She has held various careers. She's fit and looks good and is squeaky clean. What more do you want?
"She just brings me joy. She's an anchor back to more innocent times. I didn't have any brothers or sisters, so I took her everywhere and talked to her. She was always so comforting."
I AM TOO BUSY to play games and am more inclined to get rid of things than collect them, but the image of this one baseball game I obsessively played with as a kid in the '60s never completely left my mind. My parents tossed it when I moved away, but recently, I'd made a few attempts to acquire another one.
It wasn't until the encyclopedic Schneider came up with the name Ethan Allen's All-Star Baseball, made by Cadaco that I was able to launch a serious search. I found two games on eBay. One went for more than $102. I got the other for $25.
The game comes with individual rings that fit onto spinners, one for the home team and one for visitors. Each ring comes with slices reflecting an actual player's actual performance. Babe Ruth, for instance, had a wide homer space, while some puny second baseman had a small homer margin. Edgar Martinez would get a huge double area. The bases were small holes that you could fit pegs into to mark runners' progress. A manual scoreboard allows players to keep track of scores and outs.
I learned it debuted in 1941 and sold for 53 years. It was designed and improved over the years by Allen, a big-league outfielder for 13 years in the '20s and '30s, a Yale baseball coach (which had President Bush's grandfather at first base), and author of several baseball books. He got players to sign releases so he could use their names at no fee. Players did so because he was a peer and because they wanted to be part of a game. Each year, a new batch of player rings would be released.
Dan Sabato, director of marketing for Cadaco, said the game died in 1994 as labor strife harmed Major League Baseball's image, but Allen's game still enjoys a loyal following. There has been talk of resurrecting the game and some fans have offered their own updates of it but the days of Major League Baseball or its players giving away rights or even settling for minimal fees seem to be long gone.
I called Allen's son, Toby, who told me his Dad fiddled with the mechanics of the game and updated statistics until shortly before he died in 1993. His dad also left behind stories of how he collected approval from various renowned players to use their names in the game. Babe Ruth was the toughest sell.
When I was a kid, I wound up with perhaps 1,000 different player rings and had amassed notebooks of player statistics and standings. I have no idea why I did this, how I got it all or exactly when it became irrelevant. I do recall, inexplicably, that I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom, spinning away another game one summer day in the '60s when I first heard a hamburger commercial broadcast on the radio. Of all the memories that have drifted out of my head over the years, why did that one, trivial moment stick so clearly? I'm certain that, somehow, it is because of that funky old baseball game.
When the game arrived via Federal Express last month, I was prepared for disappointment. But it was all as I had left it, as if it had just been in the back of a closet. It took me 30 seconds to recall the strategy rules that allow hit-and-runs, steals and sacrifices. Then I sat down and played a game with my 7-year-old daughter. The lineup consisted of players from the '80s, like Tom Seaver and Rod Carew. She enjoyed the spinner and kept asking, "Where's Ichiro?"
Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.
|Cover Story||Plant Life||On Fitness||Northwest Living||Taste||Now & Then|