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Rinker on Collectibles: Considering Toys as a Measure of Age

by Harry Rinker (10/24/11).

I received an e-mail from Christopher Bensch, vice president of Collections at the National Museum of Play, asking me to share stories I might have about playing with the 12 toy finalists in the 2011 competition for inclusion in the National Toy Hall of Fame. They are the dollhouse, Dungeons & Dragons, Hot Wheels, Jenga, the pogo stick, the puppet, remote control vehicles, Rubik’s Cube, Simon, Star Wars action figures, Transformers and Twister. Two will be chosen.

As a septuagenarian, I no longer am faced with contemplating the question: how do you know when you are old? The question is answered every time I look into the mirror. I am old. There is no escaping it.

When I lecture, I joke that one method of determining that you are old is discovering that the things with which you grew up are now in museum collections. My childhood memorabilia has been part of museum collections for decades. I have revised my thinking. When your childhood things are in a museum’s collection, you are ancient. When your children’s things are included, you are decrepit. Several of the 12 finalists were marketed when my children were teenagers.

I am decrepit.

The National Museum of Play, formerly The Strong Museum, is among my favorite museums. I identify with Margaret Woodbury Strong, its founder. She understood piles, and she created some big ones.

The National Toy Hall of Fame, established as part of A. C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in 1998, was acquired by The Strong Museum in 2002. The members include generic toys such as the ball, cardboard box, kite and stick alongside brand-name toys such as The Game of Life, Mr. Potato Head and View-Master. While Buzz Lightyear and Woody are nowhere to be found, I would not count them out long-term.

The National Toy Hall of Fame deserves applause for the lack of gender bias in the toys featured among its inductees. While toy collecting is heavily male driven, even when doll collecting is included, toy play is more sexually equal. Barbie stands beside G.I. Joe. The Baby Doll, Easy-Bake-Oven, Raggedy Ann and Andy, and the Teddy Bear demonstrate respect for the distaff side of the play equation.

I find myself drawn to objects that “speak decade,” objects closely identified with a specific time period. The decade does not have to be a decade I favor. I remain current in the trade because I work hard to identify objects that speak to the generations that preceded and follow me.

Writers take liberties. As such, I am going to twist Christopher Bensch’s request for play comments into a desire for me to share my thoughts about the 12 2011 finalists.

As I get older, I have increasing difficulty with generic terms. While I realize the possibilities are endless, if I ask an individual to describe and/or draw a ball, a cardboard box, a kite or a stick, I suspect the end result would agree 75 percent of the time. This would not be the case with the dollhouse. Each person sees the house differently—style, layout and construction material. In addition, adults own dollhouses. While it is true that some adults play with toys, there is an implied sense that National Toy Hall of Fame is about childhood toys and this should remain its focus.

If true, this allows a challenge to Dungeons & Dragons on similar grounds. Harry Jr. began playing Dungeons & Dragons when he was in his teens. He turns 45 this year and still plays Dungeons & Dragons. At best, Dungeons & Dragons is on the teenager/young adult cusp of childhood toys. Adventure games are not members of the National Toy Hall of Fame, nor ever should be.

When lecturing about toys, I often refer to the Big Five Baby Boomer Toys—Barbie, G.I. Joe, Hot Wheels, Legos and Matchbox. Barbie, G.I. Joe and Legos are members of the National Toy Hall of Fame. There is no question that Hot Wheels deserves to stand beside them. Matchbox’s absence from the finalist list is troubling. I have no desire to see Matchbox slip in under a generic “die-cast” category. Like Tonka Trucks, already a member, Matchbox is worthy.

Why do I have the feeling that Jenga is a politically correct addition to the list? I would hate to think it has anything to do with throwing a bone to Hasbro in acknowledgment of its dominance in the current toy marketplace. Icon-status, longevity, discovery and innovation are four criteria for admission into the National Toy Hall of Fame. I favor the first two over the latter two. The only way Jenga slips in is under the innovation designation. The selection committee could have chosen better.

As a populist, I question the pogo stick. Although it was around when I was a youth, I never saw the same play devotion among its users as I did for those who owned bicycles, a Hall member. Sofia and Marcelo, my grandchildren, own a pogo stick and bicycle. They ride their bicycles. The pogo stick gathers dust in the corner.

Although the puppet would not be among my final two choices, it did make my final five list. While my puppet play was limited, I witnessed ample puppet play among my contemporaries and subsequent generations to see the merit and value of this toy as a finalist. Sofia and Marcelo have puppets and they play with them.

It is not clear who the target audience is for remote control vehicles—children or males who still want to be children. R/C vehicles are clearly a male toy, a charge that can be leveled against Dungeons & Dragons, Hot Wheels and Transformers. The problem is longevity, not the male focus or the generic nature of the category. My observation is that the play attention factor for R/C vehicles is measured in days or weeks at best. The novelty wears off quickly. I do not see R/C vehicles as long-term toy play memories.

Rubik’s Cube is similar to liver and onions. You either love it or hate it. I hated Rubik’s Cube. Cousin Buck was a genius at solving it, which was another reason I hated it. Toys that frustrate and are not fun have no place in the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Simon arrived on the scene in 1978, far too late for my childhood game playing days. I do not remember buying it for my children. I have seen it played. I think Sofia owns an example, but I have to check. My observation is that it is a “craze” game—a game that is bought, enjoys a brief period of intense play, and is then relegated to a forgotten space in a closet, on a shelf in the basement or bottom of a toy box.

As much as emotion and passion should play a minimum role in the selection process, I am not able to avoid them in respect to Star Wars action figures. The action figure’s replacement of the vehicle as the No. 1 toy in the toy collecting category in the 1990s is the most significant collecting change in the toy collecting category in the 20th century. In one sense, I am delighted the selection committee did not create a generic action figure category, something it could easily have done. Instead, the inclusion of Star Wars action figures represents an understanding that there are subcategories within the general category that deserve special recognition. While toy collectors will never agree on the exact degree to which Star Wars action figures contributed to action figures replacing vehicles as the dominant boy toy, all agree the role was critical. Whether 2011 should be the year when Star Wars action figures enter the National Toy Hall of Fame is debatable. What is not is whether they should be so recognized. Star Wars action figures belong in the Hall.

So do Transformers. But, this is not their year. This may not even be their decade. While an iconic toy for their generation, they still need to stand the test of time. I have no doubt Transformers will. The maxim all things come to those who wait applies.

Twister made my Top 5 list. It was more a heart than mind vote. Like so many other games, it quickly tends to find its way into storage. Yet, it also works its way out generation after generation.

The final decision for the 2012 inductees already has been made. I wrote this column more to get my thoughts in order for next year than any attempt to impact this year’s decision. For several years, I considered submitting my ideas for the finalist list but never did anything about it. Next year I plan to be proactive. Who will lend their support for pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey?

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Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out Harry’s Web site..

You can listen and participate in Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show “Whatcha Got?” on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“Sell, Keep Or Toss? How To Downsize A Home, Settle An Estate, And Appraise Personal Property” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site..

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected queries will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Pond Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2011

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