Toys then and now, fondly remembered

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For generations, just about every young boy, and quite a few girls, had scooters. A child’s first scooter was often a homemade box-on-roller-skate wheels, and many Christmas mornings are remembered for that first store-bought scooter discovered under the tree.

These days, scooters have electric motor propulsion, and there are many different types of battery-powered vehicles. Do you remember the old metal pedal cars and tractors?

It’s strange to find that trips down memory lane may sometimes bring you full circle. Parents and grandparents like to pass along the modern versions of their favorite toys. It shouldn’t be surprising that almost every popular toy has evolved in the years since its introduction.

Let’s take a look at Christmas time in the Twin Cities over several decades. Names of the stores and the nature of shopping changed from downtown to mall, and lately to online purchasing. Nevertheless, there’s some kind of timeless fascination with certain toys. A look at old newspaper advertisements is a good way to relive our communities’ past.

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Toyland at Peck’s was tops for Christmas shopping for more than a century. Not far behind is a list of Lisbon Street department stores. Woolworth’s, J.J. Newberry, Kresge’s and W.T. Grant … all were well-remembered stores now gone. Sears-Roebuck and J.C. Penney were once next door to Peck’s, but they eventually followed the move to malls. Zayre’s, King’s, Fantastic Fair and Mammoth Mart came and went.

In Auburn, Wilson’s Dollar Store, Pontbriand’s and Snow’s were popular businesses.

Do you remember some of the top-selling toys of the past? The Sit ‘n Spin was a delight for every pre-schooler. And, yes, Playskool still makes and sells them.

Countless sets of Lincoln Logs were sold. And, yes, they are still available, and a Maine company is supplying the wooden pieces.

Lots of little girls were thrilled on Christmas mornings in the 1980s when they opened a Cabbage Patch doll box. Lots of others were disappointed because the Cabbage Patch doll fad caused a shortage and a spike in that toy’s price that many families could not afford.

Dolls have talked since the “Mama” dolls of more than a hundred years ago. A pull-cord put a few short phrases into doll vocabularies. Some may remember a Tom and Jerry puppet duo that quipped, “Were you squeaking to me?” Computers allowed interfacing so that dolls such as Teddy Ruxpin or a Pooh bear could tell whole stories.

Legos started as a basic click-together plastic building block. They have evolved beyond imagination. But a Slinky is still a Slinky, and it’s still enjoying robust sales.

Board games take thousands of different forms, and one of the oldest was introduced by a Maine man whose name is still synonymous with games. Milton Bradley, born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836, originated “The Game of Life,” still sold by the Hasbro company, which acquired the Milton Bradley firm.

Lionel model trains (three rails) and American Flyer (two-rail) were competitors for sales since the first part of the last century. Members of the Great Falls Model Railroad Club in Auburn will attest to the tremendous popularity of model railroading today. They sponsor frequent shows around town and at their Mill Street clubhouse. Their Web site at www.greatfallsrailroadclub.org has more information.

Other kinds of models also captivated young and old through the years. In the 1940s and 1950s, kits for model airplanes and ships were usually based on balsa wood construction, and it could be a painstaking, but enthralling, experience. Today’s models may be simple plastic snap-together kits. Serious enthusiasts often move on to radio-controlled models.

A good place to start looking for models is Craft-Mania, 730 Center St., Auburn. That’s also a good place to revisit another bit of nostalgia. Paint-by-Number projects were a major craze dating from the early 1950s. Though hardly a serious art form, most every household has a treasured paint-by-number creation, and that endeavor often started people on life-long journeys in art.

Toys can be very important introductions to other endeavors, such as music and sports. Junior-size balls, bats, gloves, footballs and football pads, skis and skates were among the vital links toys provided from childhood to adult.

For 60 years, Gee and Bee Sports has been the go-to store for equipment of all kinds. The business was on Court Street, Auburn, where Auburn Hall was expanded to become today’s city building. Gee and Bee is now at 190 Mt. Auburn Avenue.

Carroll’s Music Store Music is also fondly remembered from its original Court Street location in Auburn (also on land now Auburn Hall) to its later address on Canal Street, Lewiston. It was a source of everything musical from a kazoo to a grand piano.

Main Street Music Lessons fills many present-day musical needs at its address at 134 Main St., Auburn. That’s in the Roak Block near Festival Plaza.

There’s also Musician’s Hub at Center Street Shopping Plaza in Auburn. Its emphasis is on guitars and other string instruments. The big stores such as Best Buy and Walmart also offer keyboards and other music products.

No matter how you look at it, there’s a fine line between toys and tools for life.

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