Lately, I’ve been thinking about my favorite toys from childhood and how they have shaped my life.
I grew up in the 1950s. My first five years of life were spent with my parents in a small one-bedroom apartment in West Baltimore, on Division Street. The building had been converted from a Catholic convent in the late 1930s. It was a large and cavernous building, the halls dimly lit, with strange twists and turns rather than obvious corners, and a good-sized elevator, operated by the building manager, to transport us from the ground floor to our apartment.
The building is still there, but it stands empty and forlorn, having been sold and “modernized” several times over in the ensuing decades, and sold again at auction this past year.
For a little Black girl in Baltimore, I had quite an array of toys and games and accoutrements. In my first five years, I had a rocking horse, a hobby horse, a horse on wheels. A toy piano, toy guitar, toy xylophone, toy saxophone. Tiddly-Winks and Pickup Sticks. Plastic high heels, waxy lipsticks, and little purses. I even had a small travel case.
I had a chalkboard/easel, the board on one side and the easel with a tray for paints, on which I created both finger paintings and brush paintings that have long since disappeared. And I wrote my first words on that chalkboard. There were plenty of books—story books and coloring books/crayons. My favorites: The Pokey Little Puppy, especially the illustrations; a book with a clock mounted in it that taught me how to tell time; and The Emporer’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, with exquisite color artwork. I had a remote control toy elephant that walked, and I marveled at the mechanics of its motion as it raised its head and trunk and made hesitant noisy-geared steps at my command. There were several Teddy Bears, including a big green and white one from my paternal grandmother and a smaller brown one that I alternated falling asleep with.
I made cookies and cars and funny stick men with Play-Doh. I adored Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head—in those days, your Mom had to give you a real potato to stick the plastic body parts into! There were numerous sets of eyes, noses, and mouths, and hats and purses.
I enjoyed Plastic jacks, Yo-Yos, and Slinky’s (you had to be a big kid to get metal jacks and Slinky’s and wooden Yo-Yos). And there was this one ridiculous toy—invented and produced in Baltimore by the family company that created Romper Room—called a Bob-o-Loop. It was a stick with a barrel attached by a string, and you had to throw out the barrel and catch it onto the stick. For some reason, I got the wooden variety rather than the plastic one, and if you mis-threw the barrel, it could give you a good knot on the forehead!
I got my first roller skates when I was about 4 years old; they clamped onto your shoes (Union No. 5). A tricycle that was so well made that my little brother (6 years younger than me) later rode it until he was able to get his first two-wheeler.
I played with my boy cousins’ toy guns and holsters and even had a set of my own, along with a cowgirl hat. Best of all (and, I assume, as a castoff from those cousins), I had a complete Civil War set, with Union and Rebel soldiers with little canteens and guns, horses and wagons, cannons, and a fort.
It was the era of the tv Westerns—Hop-Along Cassidy and The Lone Ranger; The Rifleman and Maverick. So it should be no surprise that I liked horses—and guns! We all played Cowboys and Indians, and even soldiers.
But we never imagined actually shooting someone! It was make-believe, and we knew it.
I was so proud of my Civil War set, and to this day, I wish I still had it. But in its place I developed a lifelong interest in that dark period of our American history. As I grew older, I read The Red Badge of Courage and other books about the Civil War, including photo collections of this first-ever photograph-documented war.
Being a little girl, I also played with dolls. A Tiny Tears doll with curly hair, along with the playpen, baby bottles and bibs, and diapers. A Shirley Temple doll, and many others. I loved combing their hair and watching their eyes open and shut, and dressing them up in their little outfits.
I also had a child-size leatherette easy chair and a little set of folding chairs and a dining table, plastic dishes and cutlery. I loved pretending to be a grown-up, especially while sitting in my easy chair, watching tv, with my legs politely crossed and one arm raised, elbow resting on the arm and my hand hanging daintily, the way my mother sat. I loved serving pretend food to my dolls at the dining table.
But I felt no particular budding maternal instinct because of them; I did not dream of growing up to be a Mommy with children.
All of my toys taught me aspects and lessons of life and living, from how to manipulate scissors without cutting myself (and not to run with them), to gender roles, cultures, and morals. But the musical toys, artistic toys, and books made the most lasting impression on me. From them, I developed my lifelong passion for music, drawing and painting, crafts (embroidery, sewing), and word craft, both reading and writing.
Certainly, I did not learn all these things in a vacuum! What gave all of my toys value and meaning was the context of it all. My parents gave me choices about what toys I could have from a wide array of items they thought were appropriate for me. They bought me the toys and gave me the space to learn how to play with them, stepping in whenever they needed to, to correct me or scold me, or set limits on their use. They taught me to share and to be responsible for the toys and if I misused them or broke them, they were not automatically replaced.
In short, through toys, my parents, my extended family, my playmates, and others taught me the tools of the real game of life.
So I ask myself and you, the reader: How is it that this little Black girl from Baltimore, who did not grow up well off financially yet never wanted for anything, have such an ordinary and decent life? And how is it that in today’s world, my story sounds like an aberration or a fantasy instead of the norm that I know it to be?