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Missouri History Museum exhibit offers glimpse into yesteryear's toy chest

An exhibit opening Saturday at the Missouri History Museum offers a peek into the toy chests of baby boomers:

* There are Slinkies and Mr. Potato Heads.

* Roy Rogers figurines and first-edition Barbie dolls.

* Lionel train sets and Betsy McCall paper dolls.

Some toys, like the Slinky, are still sold. But today's Slinkies are made of plastic. Part of an exhibit opening Oct. 29, 2016, at the Missouri HIstory Museum.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
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Some toys, like the Slinky, are still sold. But today's Slinkies are made of plastic.

These are the toys that entertained children before the Information Age — when games were played on colorful boards with dice, not touch screens. And Trolls were glass-eyed with wild hair and didn’t lurk on social media.

The exhibit’s official title is “Toys of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,’’ and it’s loaded with nostalgia. It was put together by the Minnesota History Center.

“They said they should have named this exhibit, ‘I had one of those.’ Or, ‘I remember that.’ Because that’s the constant line when people walk through,’’ said Sharon Smith, a curator at the Missouri History Museum. “You don’t even have to prompt it. It just happens. We are truly remembering our childhood.’’

The toys reflect America’s changing pop culture after World War II.

“It was the postwar boom. People had money,’’ Smith said. “Everybody was in a much better mood than they were in the ‘40s. And TV comes along.’’

Television provided a means for selling toys to mass audiences and also inspired new playthings, like Gumby dolls and a talking Casper the Friendly Ghost.

“TV programs and game shows became board games. TV characters became stuffed toys, and come alive in stores,’’ Smith said. “You have this character everyone falls in love with. They want one. They want to be able to hold it and play with it.’’

Technology was evolving — and society’s frontiers were changing.

During the '50s, westerns dominated popular culture and kids toys. Part of exhibit opening Oct. 29, 2016 at Missouri History Museum.
Credit Missouri History Museum
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During the '50s, westerns dominated popular culture and kids toys.

”In the ‘50s it was Hop-Along Cassidy, cowboy and Indian stories and John Wayne in the movies,'' Smith said. "And that’s the frontier then — the West. Then you go into the ‘60s, and the frontier becomes the Space Race, and we were going to the moon. And so there are rocket ships. By the ‘70s, we’re in a galaxy far, far away. And 'Star Wars' has happened.''

The toys are displayed in living room settings that capture the décor of the decades.

She thinks boomers will enjoy sharing their personal experiences with their children and grandchildren. While many of the toys are in cases, there are also play zones where visitors can try out hula hoops, throw Nerf balls and race Slinkies down a wooden staircase.

“I think there’s an opportunity for storytelling, reminiscing and maybe a few tears,” Smith said.

"Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s"

What: The exhibit is free and runs through Jan. 22, 2017. 

Where: Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, Forest Park.

More information: For a list of special events, visit the exhibit website.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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