We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were living through a revolution. The world was changing and changing quickly and children were oblivious to this change apart from how it directly affected us. The biggest way it had an impact on me was through the world of toys. Being from a family of boys, I am sure that I will see this through a male perspective, but I will try and give my impression of the changes in girls’ toys.
Now clearly I am looking at this in a division of toys for boys and girls. In the 1950s and 1960s the world was divided by gender and no apologies were made. Boys wore blue and girls pink and there were specific toys for each, but also some that were gender neutral. When I was very young I have only vague recollections of spinning tops that were pumped up and down on a mechanical screw mechanism that caused the pressed metal top to spin and hum. My memory might be skewed to the early toys my younger brother had, rather than those I had, I can’t be sure, but teething rings, rattles and Farley’s Rusks were part of the baby world and there might have been a handed down teddy bear. I well remember my older brother having a small donkey on wheels. It was just large enough to sit on and had a handle made of red metal. The handle had butterfly screw mounts and it would fold under and become rockers for the donkey to now make it rocking horse. I know that it wouldn’t be allowed nowadays as it was very easy for it to overbalance and the rider to go over face forward. Anyway, my two brothers and I survived, but the frame was nearly the end of my older brother. When we were considerably older, the frame was removed and it made quite a good sledge. It was small, but being metal it allowed breakneck speeds to be achieved on a decent slope. It was on this frame that Andrew slid down the slope in Gipton Wood. It was dark, the snow had frozen into a sheet of ice and my accident-prone older brother rode the last go before we went home. He hurtled down the track much faster that had been possible earlier when the snow was soft. He shot along the ice, took off, left the ground over the first couple of bumps before hitting the biggest one. He sailed majestically into the freezing night air, lit by the one street lamp in the wood and almost held in freeze-frame before he and the metal frame parted company, gravity took hold and he landed hard on his back, his head snapped back and struck the ice with a thud, before continuing on his way. I was on the wooden sledge and even when the wooden runners were waxed it never went very fast. Andrew was clearly stunned and he staggered to his feet and needed to go home. I dragged the two sledges back and he weaved a meandering path home. I don’t think there was any real damage and not much was said to Mum. Never a wise thing to tell your parents too much!
Back to toys! After the baby toys we moved on to boys’ toys. Toy soldiers were the thing and the first ones I can remember were made of metal. I don’t believe they were lead, but they were quite heavy. For Christmas I had got a wooden castle and it was made of plywood and rose on a little hill. It had a drawbridge that worked and I loved it. I could arrange my soldiers, have exciting sieges and battles, and get lost in my own world of imagination. The days of the tin soldiers were soon to be replaced with something modern and that was plastic. Plastic offered endless opportunities. It was soft, malleable, moldable and cheap and opened up a host of possibilities for toy makers.
The main source of my childhood toys was Varleys at Harehills. This was a small shop, but it was filled with a cornucopia of toys: model kits, craft sets, toy cars, stamp sets and dolls. I even seem to remember it stocked bicycles, but unfortunately I never had a brand new bike. Construction sets had originally been wooden blocks when I was little, but Meccano was the first real construction kit I ever saw. Meccano was a series of flat metal pieces, perforated so that screws could fit. The flat pieces were green, I seem to recall, but some other pieces were red. Like Lego today, they came in a kit that allowed you to make something specific: a car, a plane, a crane. There were step by step instructions and the kits had their own spanners and screwdrivers. I think I only had one kit of my own and they were quite difficult, but I loved it.
A friend of my older brother had a little steam engine. It was filled with water and you heated it with cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits which burned in a little tray under the boiler. The boiler got up to pressure and the fly wheel would spin. It was fascinating to watch and probably quite dangerous.
The coming of plastic toys opened up the world of model kits. Airfix was the major one and there were hundreds of models from the simple to the highly complex. My first was a small ship, The Mayflower, and it only had a few pieces. They were tricky to make and the glue was very strong smelling and you found it got everywhere, stuck your fingers together. It melted the plastic and I used to bite the glue off my fingers. I loved the smell and sometimes as you chewed it off and swallowed it would burn your stomach a little. I can’t think it did me any good and was probably a mild form of glue sniffing, but I was unaware. I also loved the smell of the newly laid asphalt on the roads.
The models became more complex as I got older and Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Lancaster bombers adorned my bedroom. I even bought some paints as I got older, but I can’t say that I was ever any good at it. I guess I wasn’t patient enough. Many models had clear plastic stands so that you could arrange the planes as if they were flying, and a number had propellers that should spin, but too much glue tended to put an end to that. Airfix also did boxes of tiny figures and soldiers. They were about half an inch tall and quite cheap. I had a Foreign Legion set, a Bedouin set with camels and arabs, a Crusader Set and English and German sets from the Second World War. They may have been tiny, but you got large numbers and so could have a great time setting up and fighting with small armies.
At school there were seasons that I have mentioned before: marble season, conker season, whip and top season, hop-scotch and these simple games and toys were the craze for a short while, but then there were additional fads and crazes that came in: clackers, hula-hoops, cat’s cradle, pogo sticks, moon hoppers, plastic boomerangs and roller skates. There were bangers that were card folded with a brown paper section that made a bang as you waved them down sharply, twizzle-spinners on string and these two came as free gifts in the comics. Simple things in simple times.
Toys started to become automated and clockwork was the first means. There were metal robots that were wind-up and then these became battery powered. And then later remote-controlled with a wire to a hand-held controller that could make it walk forward and backwards.
Some of the biggest changes could be seen in dolls. The rag dolls gave way to baby dolls and then adult dolls like Barbie. Baby dolls became more sophisticated and had string pulls to make them cry, then baby bottles to feed them and then they required changing and battery power enabled them to cry realistically. Barbies were basic at first, but then dolls had hair that could grow, allowed you to style the hair and had a whole range of fashion accessories and costumes. I remember Blue Peter showing the new dolls for boys, Action Men on the TV, and I wanted one. I got one for passing my eleven plus and I bought a special kit with a fighter pilot’s helmet and breathing mask. I very soon grew out of it.
We were happy with simple things: Lucky Bags, little bagatelle type hand held games with ball bearings, mazes, iron-filing hair and beard games, the letter sliding plastic games, jacks and solitaire. The simple social games like cards, Patience, Beetle Drives, Happy Families, Snap and compendiums of board games, Ludo, Draughts, Chess, Snakes and Ladders began to become more complex. New toys like Spirogragh, Etch a Sketch, Lego and Scalextrix began to take over. The clockwork trains gave way to electric ones and Hornby and Triang made sets and children and adults could construct landscaping and build complex set ups.
Of course, we used to spend most of our time playing outside and cap guns were the joy of little boys as we scalped and murdered our way through imaginary games of cowboys-and-Indians. If you were an Indian then you had either a bow and arrow or a tomahawk. The arrows had a red rubber end and one of the great joys was firing it at a window and getting it to stick. We burnt victims at the stake, had gunfights and played cops and robbers. The weapons became more developed over time. The rolls of caps were replaced by round red plastic cartridges that produced a much better bang. We also had the simple bombs. These metal bombs had a spring mechanism to allow a cap to slip under and when the bomb was thrown and it fell to earth it resulted in a good bang.
Other cheap toys for playing outside included little soldiers with parachutes. You folded the parachute neatly and threw the man high into the air and hopefully the parachute would open and the man fall slowly to earth.
Probably what I got most pleasure from was one of the simplest, and that was toy planes. Originally they were balsa wood, cheap and small. You pressed out the wings and slid them into the pre-cut body. Some you just threw and these gliders could fly long distances. Some were more complex and had a propeller and a rubber band to power it. We would wind the propeller until the rubber band was tight and then let it go. It was great on the Soldiers’ Field to let them fly quite long distances. Sometimes they would loop-the-loop and others they would dive headlong into the ground and occasionally break. In time these were replaced with little plastic, delta-winged planes. There was a notch under the front and you hooked a rubber band, fastened to a plastic stick, to the hook, pulled the plane back, tensioning the rubber band, and when released the plane would shoot off and could do all sorts of loops and fancy flying. It was from such simple starts that many got into making large sized balsa gliders powered by engines.
The best thing was never the toys, it was having children to play with. We had freedom to stay out and just return to eat or when it got dark. Sadly, this freedom is something that few children enjoy nowadays.