There was a time, though it may seem long ago, that we who are now adults did not spend our time shopping for toys every December. That was the job of Santa Claus and we were free to savor the magic of the holiday season as we waited in breathless anticipation for his arrival.
Sometimes our parents would take us downtown on a streetcar or bus to Baltimore's then-bustling Howard Street shopping district. We'd wish our way through the toy department, sit on Santa's lap and have lunch at our favorite department store restaurant. Outside on the crowded streets, we'd gaze at the animated Christmas displays in all of the department store windows.
Perhaps it is the memories of those times that keep us searching for that special something to make a child's holiday perfect. Toys come and go, but every year the parents may be found in the aisles of the toy stores looking for the one gift that will be remembered for a lifetime.
BY THE MID-19TH CENTURY there were toy stores in most of America's towns. According to writer Richard O'Brien, New York City alone had 88 stores. In his book, "The Story of American Toys," Mr. O'Brien gives a detailed history of the playthings that have captivated children, and their parents, for many years past.
At the turn of the century, children played with cardboard toy soldiers and military men of metal. They had colorfully decorated wooden ships, horse-drawn wagons and fire trucks, cast-iron mechanical banks and pull toys with bells. Marbles were produced by the millions.
President Roosevelt inspired yet another toy when he spared a bear cub during a hunting trip. By 1906, stuffed "Teddy" bears were a national rage and are still popular to this day. The Raggedy Ann doll was born in 1915, when a man named Johnny Gruelle began telling stories about a handmade rag doll to his sick daughter. When the little girl died, her father compiled the stories into a book and sold it along with the doll.
The country was prosperous in the 1920s, so this was a boom time for toys. Cars, trucks and buses were on the roads and in the playrooms of the nation. Cast iron was also used for cap pistols, soldiers, motorcycles, fire engines and road-building equipment.
Tin wind-ups were another hit. Army trucks, ferry boats, trolley cars, musical performers, street scenes with moving traffic and trains such as the Honeymoon Express were produced by toymakers like Louis Marx.
But with the end of the '20s came the Great Depression and the world of toys changed dramatically.
"Many toys were very, very cheap," Mr. O'Brien says. "They had to be or people couldn't afford to buy them.
One of the biggest sellers was the toy soldier, which cost just a nickel. Cheap toys of good quality were in demand. Small cars and airplanes by Tootsietoy were popular and Wyandotte made wagons, airplanes, cars and trucks that were attractive and sturdy yet inexpensive.
Mickey Mouse first appeared in a movie in 1928 and made his debut as a stuffed doll two years later. He was tremendously popular. A Shirley Temple movie star doll was a big seller throughout the Depression. The doll was revived in the 1960s and became one of the more popular dolls of the time.
During World War II, materials such as lead, tin, steel and rubber no longer could be used for toys. Kids played with cardboard forts, military vehicles, soldiers and model airplane kits made by StromBecker. Paper dolls featuring movie stars and comic strip characters were popular in the '30s and '40s.
From the late 1940s until the '70s, there were play sets by Marx, with their finely detailed plastic figures and tremendous numbers of accessories. Favorites were the Fort Apache, Davy Crockett at the Alamo and Ben Hur Playsets. Battery-operated toys were developed in the '50s; Robert the Robot was the first big-selling American-made, battery-operated plastic toy robot. Assemble-it-yourself plastic models of cars and airplanes were also very popular.
The Barbie phenomenon began in 1959 and continues to this day. Barbie was originally a fashion doll for girls to enjoy dressing like paper dolls. Today she is a woman of the '90s who reflects the changing roles of women.
The '50s came to an end with a worldwide fad -- the Hula-Hoop craze, which lasted for about a year. And with the '60s came Hot Wheels race cars, which may have been the biggest hit of the decade, and Etch A Sketch, one of the longest -- and steadiest -- selling toys in history.
Plastic was the material of choice for toys, providing vivid color and beautiful detail. Mr. Machine, a wind-up mechanical man, had a transparent body and lots of colorful gears. Large battery-operated ships like the Fighting Lady battleship, the Ball Turret Gunner, Big Caesar and Mighty Matilda could launch aircraft and fire depth charges. And children now had remote-control vehicles like the Johnny Express tractor-trailer truck.