Twentieth Century Toy Story


Teddy bears and teeter totters were our toys, growing up in the mid 20th century, we flew kites and climbed trees, played baseball in the street or vacant lots. We spent our days outside all summer long … Life was good to a generation of kids who grew up playing hide and go seek, building tree houses, and taking our weekly allowance of two mercury head dimes and a buffalo nickle to the five and ten cent store.

Just about everyone has a favorite toy they remember from their childhood, be it a backyard tree swing, an old rag doll, or that homemade slingshot that dangled precariously from a hip pocket. For me, it was an old, beat-up toy teddy bear named “Potsy.” I never went anywhere without that silly looking stuffed animal. My Italian Grandmother gave me the bear when I was six years old.

potsy the bear
Potsy the bear.

She also gave the bear its whimsical name “Potsy,” which is an Italian slang word that means “silly.” Old Potsy-the-bear comforted three generations of kids in my family before eventually going to that place where all children’s faithful, tattered teddy bears go. The story of the original “teddy bear” began in 1902, when the first stuffed bear was created. It was named “Teddy” for President Teddy Roosevelt. As the story goes, the president, while on a hunting trip, refused to shoot a defenseless bear cub.

A national newspaper cartoonist depicted a drawing of Roosevelt forgoing the kill. The cartoon drew national attention, prompting a man by the name of Morris Michtom, a toyshop owner in Brooklyn, to create his own version of the plush brown bear. He placed the toy bear in his shop window and called it, “Teddy’s bear.”

By 1906, the “Teddy bear” became a national obsession, prompting worried doll manufacturers to claim that “bearmania” among little girls was destroying the natural instinct for motherhood and thereby threatening the extinction of the species.

One hundred years later the species is still going strong, and so is our love for toy teddy bears. And what ever happened to Morris Michtom, the toy shop owner? Well, he became the founder of Ideal Toy Company and one of his original bears recently sold for $88,000 dollars! In 1917, little girls gave their hearts to a new toy, a durable doll that would live through two world wars, the Depression, the space age and the computer age.

The adorable, and timeless, Raggedy Ann was patented in 1915 and although she can’t hold a painted fingernail to the glamorous and curvaceous Barbie, she’s a whole lot cuddlier. She’s a survivor too, retaining her popularity through every onslaught of new doll including the “Shirley Temple” craze of the 1930s, to the oval faced “Cabbage Patch Kids” of the 1980s. In the 1950s, every young boy wanted a Lionel Model train set.

I remember those childhood days, and the long, rainy winter afternoons, how, on those occasions, my older brother would faithfully spend hours in the basement of our home, just setting and resetting the tracks of his coveted electric train set. The Lionel train set was originally popular in the 1920s, until the close of the decade when the great Depression knocked it off its tracks and it went the way of all prosperity.

A seesaw or Teeter Totter in the garden.

By the 1940’s, burgeoning baby boomers and their dads put the train back on the most wanted toy list. Christmas wish books, such as the Sears and Wards catalogs, encouraged our yearnings with page after page of desirable toys. Back then, toys, like other American products, were made of genuine steel, tin and oak wood. Sturdy Hopalong Cassidy bicycles, roller skates, and Radio Flyer wagons; Roy Rogers’s cap pistols and Red Rider BB rifles were made from heavy metal, iron and natural wood.

When the 1960s rolled around, toys like the world around us, had began to change. Gone were the real materials used in toy-making: steel toy cars, leather baseball gloves, wooden bats and canvas tents had all been replaced by vinyl, aluminum or plastics. Never before in our nation’s history was the leisure time of children so revered at it was in the mid-20th century. And never before has there been such an increase in toy manufacturers.

Toys, which had previously been sold only at Christmas time, had become a popular year round sales boom. America had gone to the moon, the Vietnam War had come along and Kennedy’s Camelot had ended. Toys were beginning to reflect this change. Kids were fascinated by speed, the faster the better. Skate boards, Go-carts, Hot wheels, Big Wheels, and slot car racing had claimed their attention. By the 1980s kids were intrigued with electronic games.

The Mario Brothers opened the gateway to sophisticated computer graphics that mesmerized its viewers in a way television never could. The names, Michelangelo, Rafael, Leonardo, and Donatello are all names of renaissance greats. But to most kids these names represent four, wisecracking sewer reptiles, better know as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. These “Bodacious” reptiles, created by Playmate Company, were the nation’s top sellers for the 1990s, superseded only by Barbie and Nintendo products.

As a devout collector of memorabilia, I find it impossible to pass a collectible shop without stopping to browse. Vintage toys especially intrigue me because they represent a uniquely happy time in life. Like the Christmas morning I awoke to find a Schwinn Bicycle waiting for me under a twinkling tree. Shimmering with bows, tinsel and red ribbons, it sparkles in my memory like a Christmas nova.

Board games from the 1950s are another passion of mine. I’ve a special fondness for Monopoly, Bingo, and Checkers. Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Quija boards; games such as these were important to our household before TV came along and we stopped entertaining ourselves, to be entertained. I suppose, I’m really searching for pieces from my past, sentimental objects such as “Potsy,” my old teddy bear or that vintage train set.

Things that remind me of the days when my weekly allowance consisted of a buffalo nickel and two mercury head dimes; those wonderful years when long summer days stretched on forever and life was without worry or care; a time when our only concern was what Mom was cooking for supper or what we’d be finding under the holiday Christmas tree. Unique and precious memories of the way it was… or perhaps, the way we

President Theodore(Teddy) Roosevelt with his famous Teddys bear in 1902.
President Theodore(Teddy) Roosevelt with his famous Teddy’s bear in 1902.

Cookie Curci is an experienced freelance writer, born and raised in San Jose, California. Cookie writes syndicated columns across the country, and wrote a “Remember When” column for The Willow Glen Resident for 15 years. Her work has been published in 15 Chicken Soup for The Soul books, and in the series of “Mother’s Miracle” books ( Morrow books).

She has a short story in the new book “ELVIS”, Live at the Sahara Tahoe; has been published in San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury news, Woman’s World, Primo magazine, Mature Living, and many websites.

Cookie is currently writing for several Italian American newspapers and magazines, they include LaVoce Las Vegas, Amici Journal, L’italo Americano, Life in Italy and Italiansrus.