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Princesses are in vogue with the young girls of today. The 2014 movie Frozen, starring princess sisters Elsa and Ana, was the highest grossing animated film of all time. My granddaughter Katie owns both dolls, Olaf the Snowman, Frozen books, stickers, clothes, puzzles, a Halloween costume, and more.
Recently, a new princess has taken center stage among the preschool crowd: Sofia the First, star of the Disney Junior series of the same name. Again, there are a plethora of toys and clothes out there for the Sofia-loving little girl. Here is Katie on her 4th birthday wearing a totally Sofia outfit—dress that transforms into a ballerina tutu, crown, earrings, amulet, and star wand. Nearby are the purse and gloves.
Back in 1950, Walt Disney released the musical fantasy film Cinderella. Considered one of the best American animated films ever made, it received three Academy Award nominations. How did we girls express our adoration for this stunning rags to riches princess with the angelic voice? Our parents may have bought us a Cinderella record or story book. Perhaps a Cinderella coloring book or lunch box.
Back in my boomer childhood, I don’t recall seeing any Cinderella blouses, crowns, earrings, necklaces, purses, or the like on sale. Maybe a Cinderella Halloween costume.
As I mentioned in Kid-Made Toys: Slingshots and Go-Karts—1950’s-1990’s, we middle class boomer kids had a fair amount of toys but not the wall-to-wall amassment that some kids have today. There weren’t nearly as many toys on store shelves in the 50’s and 60’s, and our parents didn’t buy us every toy that met our fancy, even if we begged. Fat chance getting a Red-Rider B B gun.
Like I asked in that previous post, what did we sadly deprived boomer kids do when we tired of our sparse collection of simple toys? We used our imaginations and made toys ourselves. Boys fashioned slingshots and whistles out of tree branches, airplanes from a used sheet of paper, go-carts, and clubhouses. Some girls created those projects as well.
Now, if you’ve read many of my previous posts, it’s obvious that I was a touch of a tomboy. I played ball, flipped baseball cards, caught grasshoppers, and played in the dirt. But I certainly had my girlie moments as well . . . and my homemade playthings were a testament to that.
I had no glamorous doll like Barbie, Cinderella, or Snow White. So what did I do about it? I made some. I learned the fine art of paper doll design from Betsy McCall. Unless you lived on the newly discovered earthlike planet 500 light-years away, you fellow boomer girls know all about Betsy McCall, the young girl from McCall’s Magazine, who added a new set of attire to her wardrobe once a month when the magazine came out.
On the left is my homemade “Lisa” in her Cinderella-like gown. Next to her is a sweater and pants set, stylish back in the day. On the right is my “Laurie” in her floral gown. Next to her is a vest and plaid pleated skirt set popular in the 60’s.
I can still remember sitting on a chaise lounge under a plum tree in the back yard with colored pencils, paper, and scissors, busily expanding the girls’ wardrobes. One time I was so engrossed in my designs that I hadn’t noticed an unusually repugnant black spider until it was nearly upon me, inducing me to spring up like a Jack-in-a-box, leaving the paper dolls to fend for themselves. After I had regained my senses and jump started my heart, I gave the unseemly creature a heave-ho as far into the tomato garden as I could muster, and continued with my fashion designing. If you want to play outdoors, you must be vigilant in order to avoid ambush from diminutive alien beings.
I spent a substantial amount of time outdoors during my childhood, as did many girls, and we took advantage of the outdoors in our play.
Like most girls of the 50’s and 60’s, whose mothers were full-time homemakers, we played “house.” I’d place my dolls in the back yard at a small table and set up my doll dishes and cups. The baby of my “family” was wrapped in a blanket and lay in a pint-sized wooden cradle next to the table.
For their dinner, I would forage through the field behind my back yard for salad fixings. I’d pick plantain weeds, whose wide leaves made them suitable as lettuce (They actually are edible). The seed pods could be used as (skinny) corn cobs. If you stripped the seeds off the stalk, you could use them as salt or parmesan cheese.
I picked dandelion leaves, which truly are edible though my taste buds rejected them long ago. There were always strongly scented wild mint leaves available in the field behind our house. In one corner of the back yard was a bush that had fruit the size and shape of peas, so those “peas” were added to the salad, too. There I had a fine salad for my children: a nice lettuce, dandelion, pea, and mint salad topped with salt or parmesan cheese.
Do girls “play house” anymore? Oh, to be politically correct, I should ask, “Do kids play house anymore?” They probably play some modified version. Maybe Mommy works and Daddy stays home with the babies.
Today I took a short walk to the nearby cemetery in an attempt to duplicate my baby doll family’s “salad.” No mint or peas, but I was able to prepare a salad of lettuce and dandelions seasoned with salt and parmesan cheese along with corn on the cob on the side.
While roaming the yard and field on a sunny day in the 50’s, I sometimes found a yellow buttercup and put it under my sister’s chin. If her chin was bathed in yellow light, it indicated that she likes butter. In the spring, there are buttercups in the lot next to my present back yard. I wonder if kids still try that trick.
I had very little jewelry in childhood. One that I treasured was a shell bracelet that my dad gave me. These were handmade by natives in New Guinea, where my dad served with the Army Air Force during World War II. I still have it.
So, what did this little girl do for jewelry? I made it. Most boomer girls know how to make a daisy chain. We made necklaces, bracelets, and even crowns out of daisies or some other suitable flowers. This past spring, I wanted to make a floral necklace for this post. The only flowers available for such a project in April were dandelions, and there was a plethora of them in the lot next door.
So I gathered up around 40 thick-stemmed, large-headed dandelions and spent a half hour weaving them together while Lester Holt filled me in on the NBC Nightly News. For those of you who missed out in your youth and are looking to spend some quality time with your children or grandchildren, making a flower chain is quite simple. Read directions here on wikiHow.
After my husband took my photo, I gave the chain to a 7-year-old neighbor. She was quite excited about it until I saw her the next day. Someone had informed her that she’s allergic to dandelions. My bad.
In junior high and high school, I made jewelry out of gum wrappers—belts, necklaces, bracelets. They weren’t exactly chic fashion statements; they were just a fun fad of the 1960’s. Girls made gum wrapper chains the length of their boyfriends. I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I just kept on adding to it until it was 39 feet long! See my varied collection of gum wrappers at my post 1960’s Gum=Gum Wrapper Chains.
Back to the princess theme: My best friend Patty and I did not have any princess dolls, nor kings or queens or castles for that matter, so once again, we created our own. Our characters were made of wild ferns. First, we would search for just the right ferns in my mother’s rock garden or around the woods. Naturally, the king was the largest fern. Next in size was the queen. There were also princes, princesses, knights, noblemen, and peasants. Wizards, dragons, and dungeon prisoners were given special physical characteristics, but I don’t remember the particulars. We made up elaborate stories that lasted for hours. Don’t ask how we got started with that because I have no idea.
The ferns worked best after several hours of handling. They began to wilt and were therefore more supple. They only lasted one day, though. A new day brought new ferns and new story lines. Who needs Cinderella dolls and story books? We could create our own wicked stepmother, fairy godmother, and handsome Prince Charming (green and leafy as they were).
When I was a teenager, a boyfriend taught me the fine art of whistling through grass. It’s a stretch, but I suppose that can be classified as a homemade toy—a homemade reed instrument, if you will. If you position the blade of grass properly between your thumbs, you can make a sound like a duck call or very shrill bird. At any rate, it’s fun when unsuspecting people start surveying the area, curious as to who or what is making that noise. That’s another quality time project. Once you get the hang of it, you can share this unsolicited gift with your children or grandchildren. Here’s how:
There you have it. Most of the kids in my neighborhood came from middle class homes, many blue collar. We just didn’t get every toy on our wish list, especially those of us from large families. Even wishing upon a star didn’t get us the latest pantookas or floofloovers. Heck, I was excited to get the toy from the Crackerjack box, but with two brothers and two sisters, even receiving that little trinket was a one in five shot.
So, we girls created our own toys and jewelry, games and plays, and never felt underprivileged. It was all in a day’s fun. What homemade items did you produce when you were a kid? Sometimes those homemade novelties were the ones that we couldn’t bear to surrender to the burn barrel behind the back yard. Those are the ones that we pried out of Dad’s hands just as they were about to be put outside on garbage pickup day. Those homemade toys may be the ones that we remember best.
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.