Toy exhibit at museum stirs memories
Few things bring back childhood like catching sight of a long-forgotten toy.
Whether it's a Lionel Train set, a Cabbage Patch Kid, or an Easy-Bake Oven, one of the many toys on display at 'Toy Stories,' a new exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, is sure to make you stop and smile.The exhibit begins with a simple glass display case on the museum's first floor, featuring the 'top 10 toys of all time,' including G.I. Joe, Monopoly, Slinky, Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, and Matchbox cars. According to Leslie Bellais, curator of costumes and textiles with the Wisconsin Historical Society and curator of 'Toy Stories,' the top toys were determined by using a combination of several high- profile lists, including VH1's 'Top 100 Toys' and the Toy Hall of Fame.
Interesting historical facts provided about each toy provide a new understanding of the story behind familiar toys. You can learn, for example, that Barbie is from Wisconsin, according to her official biography, and that Mr. Potato Head began not as the plastic figure we know today, but instead as a small 'face kit' for use on real potatoes.
The main exhibit is upstairs and is organized chronologically, by decade, from the 1940s to today.
'We focused on the late 20th century because toys were more important during this era during ever before,' Bellais said. 'It was a time when the kid became the consumer, instead of the parent.'
Each decade is organized by a central theme - ways that toys are manufactured or sold that originated during that time period. This arrangement makes viewers think not just about their own memories but also about how toys have changed over the years and even how the toys we grow up with influence how we develop.
'The exhibit is designed to both invoke a sense of personal nostalgia, and to encourage viewers to look at their favorite toys as part of a larger trend,' Bellais said. 'It reflects fads, fashions and changing social values.'
Children of the 1980s will be drawn to the exhibit's collection from that decade, which includes an Atari 2600 and numerous Care Bears, Cabbage Patch Kids and Rainbow Brite dolls. According to the exhibit, the theme of the 1980s was 'collectibles,' or toys that are sold as a series.
'You can't just have one,' Bellais said. 'You have to have them all.'
Another fact that patrons might find surprising is the longevity of some toys. The board game Candyland, for example, was first sold in 1949. Today, according to the exhibit, it is owned by 60 percent of families who have a 5-year-old child.
Other toys worth checking out are a chemistry set from the 1950s, an original 1961 Barbie, a Chatty Cathy doll, an original Cootie toy, an Ewok Village and other 'Star Wars' toys, and a series of old toy commercials running on an overhead TV set.
'It's such a fun topic,' Bellais said. 'I got to put Lincoln Logs together. I set up Evel Knievel. Going into work meant playing with toys.'
Many of the toys on display were either designed or manufactured in Wisconsin. These are given a special 'Wisconsin Stories' logo. Two local manufacturers of famous toys - the women behind Shrinky Dink, from Brookfield, and board game designers Patch Products, from Beloit, will be giving special presentations at the exhibit. Other toys with a local story include American Girl dolls, Duncan yo-yos and the Dungeons and Dragons game.