My grandchildren own enough toys to fill a dump truck. At least that’s the way it seems when I survey their bulging toy boxes, overstuffed shelves, and toys scattered across the floor. And these aren’t the simple staples like we baby boomers had. Over the years, toys have become more plentiful and more complex.
In the 1950’s, most little ones built with wooden blocks. They were our gateway to numbers and letters in the days before day care centers, preschool, and mandatory kindergarten.
Older boys, including my two brothers, enjoyed building with their Erector Sets. It was the most popular construction toy of the era because it contained . . . a motor. The Erector Set was one of only three toys in our house during the 1950’s that ran on electric.
My four-year-old grandson Mikey has a variety of building toys, but his favorites are Magna-Tiles, a set of colorful magnetic building toys in various shapes that also include a wheeled chassis, windows, arches, and a hinged door. The pieces attract on all sides, even when flipped over.
Soon, Mikey will graduate to Legos, which most likely will allow him to build his own metropolis . . . plus a chalet on the moon.
As for games, little boomers played Uncle Wiggily and Cootie while the older ones played board games like Monopoly, Sorry!, and Parcheesi. My brothers and many lucky boys had the ultimate in state of the art technology—an electric football game. For the owner’s memories of playing the game pictured, read here.
Instead of electric football, Mikey plays Wii on his big-screen TV, his favorite right now being Mario Kart. Controlling a simulated steering wheel, he races cartoon character Luigi on a virtual racetrack, attempting to outscore his opponents. I played him several times but didn’t come close to beating him.
Mikey is also enamored with a game on my iPad that Grandpop introduced to him—Temple Run, a game where he has to escape the wrath of a monstrous apelike creature chasing him through a temple. When we visited him in Houston recently, he accosted me as soon as I came down the steps in the morning. “Grandma, can I use your iPad?” Then he would proceed to earn 6-digit scores, his best being more than 500,000 points. ( I’d be remiss if I didn’t clarify that his Mommy only allows him 60 minutes of screen time per day.)
The only other electric toy at our house in the 1950’s and early 1960’s was our Lionel train, the star player of a cherished tradition at Christmastime. My dad built a platform, set up houses, churches, billboards, and the like, and we would sit for hours watching that train, and, in the case of my brothers, making it crash. I discussed our 50’s Lionel and my husband’s American Flyer trains at length in my post Granddaddy of Thomas: My Lionel Train.
So, what did we sadly deprived boomer kids do when we tired of our sparse cache of simple toys? When wishing upon a star didn’t help us secure every gardooka or bizilbig on our wish list? We used our imaginations and made toys ourselves. What red-blooded American boy did not fashion a slingshot or whistle out of a tree branch or an airplane from a used sheet of paper? What boomer girl never fashioned a necklace from daisies or dandelions or created her own paper dolls? Heck, over in the Garden of Eden, Adam probably harassed Eve with his slingshot while she was making a daisy chain.
⬅My husband Frank in 1955 using a coping saw to build . . . something. Notice the hammer hanging from his tool belt.
My brother Billy with his trusty slingshot in 1960➡
Sometimes those homemade toys became the most cherished of all. Sure, even back in the 1950’s, no one could deny the joy of waking up on Christmas morning to a Schwinn Black Phantom. But what could evoke more pride and satisfaction than a homemade go-kart?
Go-Karting got its start in the 1950’s and became the rage through the 1960’s. For kids with little money to spend, half the adventure was scratching and scraping and searching for enough parts just to get the cart to go downhill—powered solely by gravity. No motor, no brakes, and certainly no seat belts. Sure beat riding in the family station wagon.
A boy might get parts for his “soap box derby car” from Grandpa’s old lawnmower, orange crates from the A & P, car parts from Uncle Elmer’s cousin’s friend’s junk yard, wheels from Mrs. Cooper down the street’s baby buggy, or a seat from an old kitchen chair that was out at the curb on garbage day. They’ll do just fine, thank you. (Please excuse the kid vernacular.)
Dave Cano, who lives in Ontario, really caught the Go-Karting bug in the 1950’s: “As a kid, anything with 2 or 4 wheels was the most important thing on my mind……girls, school, sports and music lessons took a second place to toy cars, push mobiles, and anything motorized.”
Here is a push mobile that Dave built around 1955. He was the pusher, and his friend Bill French was the driver. Dave tells me that the body rectangle was made of either wood planks or plywood. The roof was tin, most likely from an old Coca Cola or other soda pop sign. The wheels were probably from old discarded wagons. A long spike was placed through a front wheel and wooden axle with a rope attached to enable steering.
To learn more about Dave’s go-kart infatuation as a child (and his evolution into hot rodding), read his post “Push Mobiles, Go-Karts and 1950’s Survivers.”
You want to jog your memories of go-kart racing? Then dive right into this Little Rascals Soap Box Derby silent short from the 1920’s, which you probably watched on TV one Saturday morning in the 1950’s. Along with the tricycles, baby carriage, and store-bought toy cars are some fine looking go-karts. My favorite is the push mobile with the old-fashioned washboard front.
Although go-karts were not so plentiful in neighborhoods in the 1970’s and beyond, my son Frank enjoyed tinkering with them. In his early teenage years, he built a simple one from a lawnmower and shed siding with back wheels from a seed spreader and front wheels from a barbecue grill. It was topped with carpeting and an old chair seat.
Frank explained, “I originally didn’t have the lawnmower on the bottom, but it wasn’t very sturdy without it, so I added that part later. The lawnmower wheels were always breaking and falling off. They weren’t as strong as the seed spreader wheels. This one had a handle that could be used to steer. It didn’t really have brakes, but you could get it to stop by steering too far to the side and locking up the front wheels.”
One day the go-kart was stolen from our back porch. About a month later, we were driving down a road not far from our house when there it was sitting in the street. Frank quickly got out and retrieved it. One front wheel was missing and the other was broken, but he was glad to have his creation back. We never did find out who took it.
I thought that I had taken a picture of the go-kart in its prime, but I can’t find it. I do have the photo above, though, that I took right before I “laid it to rest” in 2002. The front wheels and seat back are missing in this picture.
When Frank was about 16, he created another vehicle, which may loosely be called a go-kart. After all, it did “go.” I told Frank that it reminded me of a rickshaw, but he said it wasn’t meant to be pulled; it was meant to roll down a hill very fast.
It was made from a wooden cable spool, milk crate, barbecue grill wheels, and wood. He put a broom handle through the center of the spool to hold up the rest of the frame. A footrest was in the front, and the milk crate seat was attached to the back. The rope handles were attached to the wood at the sides.
According to Frank, “It was super heavy and had no steering or brakes. We ran it into the fence and broke some fence slats with it.” I guess I should be thankful that we never needed the paramedics during the “go-spool’s” lifespan.
I don’t see go-karts in my neighborhood today, but I know that they are still being made and run because the Greater Pittsburgh Soap Box Derby takes place every June in nearby McKeesport, PA.
Kids who lived in the pre-technology world had no computers, video games, or electronic gizmos to entertain themselves indoors. TV’s or radios were the only options in the electronics department. So, what did they do when they tired of their simple toys? They would head outdoors and build, using materials on hand. They built slingshots and whistles, tree houses and go-karts, daisy chains and clubhouses. And had a grand old time doing it.
Do you have any fond, humorous, or frightful memories of building go-karts or any other handmade toys/devices? Did you create any “selfie” toys in your childhood?
In my next post, I’ll discuss the childhood fun of building clubhouses, shacks, and other “hideaways.”
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.