THE recent news about Toys “R” Us closing shop in the United States struck a sympathetic cord with many people. Although not yet affected, toy aficionados in other parts of the world take this news as a harbinger of things to come.
This iconic retail chain that has sold toys and games to millions of children in most parts of the world for generations finally threw in the towel after a long protracted battle to maintain customer loyalty in this competitive age of Internet retailing.
Its antiquated brick and mortar styled sales model simply couldn’t keep up with virtual retailers like Amazon. After filing for bankruptcy protection in September last year, Toys “R” Us suffered a brutal holiday shopping season that exacerbated the US$5 billion (RM19.33 billion) debt burden that resulted from a leveraged buyout in 2005.
While many see this recent development as a colossal failure for a company that started out in 1948 as a small store in Washington selling cribs, strollers and other baby items, I prefer to concentrate on the positive effects toys had on countless number of children over so many generations.
I started collecting toys many years ago. Although it never counted as a serious passion, I did however have the good fortune of buying several choice pieces that reminded me of my happy childhood. These delightful playthings were by my side during my growing up years and helped me learn a lot about the fast evolving world around me.
Through toys I discovered my identity, learnt cause and effect, explored relationships and had the opportunity to practice skills that stood me in good stead when I became an adult. Even today, these toys still serve as a reminder, reinforcing lessons learnt from my early formative years.
TOYS FROM THE PAST
Toys, in its many forms and shapes, have been around for a long time. Its origin can be traced back to prehistoric times based on evidence found at archaeological sites all over the world. The oldest known doll toy is thought to be 4,000 years old. Meanwhile, the word itself was first coined in 14th century Europe.
Unlike today, toys in the past were made from every conceivable natural material available from nature such as wood, stone, paper and clay. The terracotta dolls with wigs and movable limbs played by Egyptian children thousands of years ago are so far apart from the interactive digital entertainment that children today are so accustomed to.
As time passed, toys became more widespread with the changing attitudes of parents towards their kids. The greatest milestone achieved was when children began to be seen as people in their own right as opposed to just being extensions of the household. With that came the opportunity to flourish and enjoy their childhood.
This recognition led to the steady rise in the variety and number of toys manufactured during the 18th century. In 1767, John Spilsbury came up with the first jigsaw puzzle to help children learn geography. His puzzles had eight themes: the World, Europe, Asia, Africa, America, England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Spilsbury’s invention laid the ground work for the eventual widespread popularity of toys that had educational purposes in them.
A Journey Through Europe was the first board game produced by John Jefferys in the 1750s. Jefferys’ invention bore much resemblance to our modern day board games. It required players to move along a track with the throw of a teetotum (a polygonal spinning top marked with numbers which indicate the result of each spin) and landing on different spaces would either help the player progress or cause the particular marker to be moved backwards.
This led to a proliferation of such toys in the 19th century with the emphasis placed on puzzles, books, cards and board games. This period coincided with the British Industrial Revolution which led to the growing prosperity among the middle class. Children living in that era had more leisure time on their hands to enjoy better quality toys brought about by the application of state-of-the-art industrial methods then.
GOLDEN AGE FOR TOYS
The turn of the 20th century heralded the golden age of toy development. Wages rose steadily and working-class families could finally afford toys for their children. By this time, industrial techniques of precision engineering and mass production had improved so much that the rising demand for toys could be easily met.
Toy inventors began placing intellectual emphasis on the importance of a wholesome childhood for children. One such visionary was Frank Hornby who was responsible for the invention and production of three popular lines of toys: Meccano, Hornby Model Railways and Dinky Toys.
Like the other parts of the world, Meccano was a very popular model construction system among Malayan children in the past. This system which consisted of re-usable metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears successfully captured the imagination of the young. Interesting working models and mechanical devices became a reality when the different parts were assembled using nuts, grub screws and bolts.
To maintain a lasting interest, Hornby launched the Meccano Guild in 1919 to encourage boys of all ages worldwide to join their local Meccano clubs and in the process become part of a central organisation. As an incentive, members received copies of the Meccano Magazine. This periodical served as a means to keep Guild club members informed of each other’s activities as well as promote the sales of newly-launched Meccano sets.
Like Meccano, Dinky Toys were wildly popular in Malaya during the early to middle of the 20th century. This toy line pioneered the manufacture of die-cast toy transportation vehicles with the production of toy cars, trains and ships and model train sets. Unlike modern day plastic playthings, these die casts were very sturdy and could withstand repeated rough usage. It’s due to these attributes that these toys can be passed down over several generations.
TRIALS AND INNOVATIONS
During the Second World War, some new types of toys were created through accidental innovations. In 1943, Richard James was experimenting with springs as part of his military research when one happened to come loose and fall to the floor. James was so intrigued by the way it flopped around on the floor that he spent the next two years fine-tuning the design to determine the best gauge of steel for coil movement. This resulted in the invention of the Slinky.
Society became ever more affluent and new technology and materials, especially plastic, for toy manufacture became available soon after the Second World War. Countries like Japan and China jumped into the toy production bandwagon. This proliferation eventually led to mass production and economies of scale which, for the first time in history, saw children getting easy access to cheap toys.
Among the more well-known products of the 1950s were the Danish company Lego’s line of colourful interlocking plastic brick construction sets, Rubik’s Cube, Mr. Potato Head, the Barbie doll and Action Man.
In the 1980s, collecting vintage vehicle-themed toys became all the rage among collectors and investors alike. This segment received so much publicity that it surged to become one of the most popular collectibles in the market at that time. Heading the list were metal toys made prior to the onset of the Second World War. In pristine condition and with their packaging still intact, these much sought after painted cast iron, lithographed tin, enamelled steel and die-cast metal playthings skyrocketed in prices.
The value escalation continued as people scoured flea markets and auction houses for the creme de la creme of vintage toys, especially those with imperial pedigrees. One good example of these million dollar special editions was the German-made Marklin trains, presented to Czar Nicholas II during a trip to Paris in 1905.
New collectors signed up in droves each time a certain toy was sold at an astronomical price. These deep pocketed newbies didn’t have the patience to go around and do the footwork. They preferred to simply buy up complete collections, often paying top dollar and setting new records in the process.
By the early 1990s, action figures along with Hot Wheels and Matchbox, the modern version vehicle toys began replacing the older focus on cast iron, plastic, pressed steel and rubber toy collectibles. Collectors clamoured for Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, which were considered the world’s first action figures while at the same time looking out for the company’s licenced foreign versions of the military themed toy like Action Man (UK), Geyperman (Spain), Takara Combat Joe (Japan).
In 1992, demand was so great that the initial issue of G.I. Joe Hall of Fame series, which was based on the action figure’s Real American Hero cartoon series, was completely sold out in its first debut weekend.
Capitalising on this huge following, Hasbro subsequently released the GI Joe Masterpiece Edition, Timeless Edition and 40th Anniversary Lines that were replicas or re-releases of their original 1960s and 1970s figures. To help collectors distinguish between a vintage piece and its remake, the makers had some parts made of metal instead of plastic. These replicas were also stamped with the word China as opposed to Japan or Hong Kong like on the originals.
JOY OF TOYS
Nothing is permanent in the world of collecting. What was in demand before will not necessarily remain popular forever. The primary reason for these changing trends is the target market itself. Experts believe that it generally takes between 25 and 30 years for a generation to become interested in buying back its childhood toys. For example, the hot toys of today are those from the 1980s and 1990s.
With this line of thought in mind, some collectors resorted to buying toys for a 30 year period, putting them in storage and reopening each box on its 30th anniversary in the hope of cashing in on the trend then. Sadly, many ended up frustrated by the growing cost of individual toys, severe lack of variety and growing short shelf life of modern toys.
As for the ordinary collector (like me) whose budget stretches not so far, many of these premium toys remain beyond reach. However, we take heart in the thought that we did once experience the joy of playing with them and will still be able to relive our memories through visits to toy museums.
With the advertising jingle “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys ‘R’ Us kid” deeply embedded in my mind, I hope that this magical emporium chain can stay open as long as it can in my part of the world.