February 02, 2006


Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them. By Tim Walsh. Andrews McMeel. $29.95.

     There are no iPods here.  No Xbox 360s or PlayStation Portables.  None of the latest gadgets and gewgaws made it into Tim Walsh’s marvelous exploration of toys almost everyone knows but almost no one knows about.  Walsh takes us into the world of Lionel trains, Silly Putty, the Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Barbie, Hula Hoops, Lite-Brite, GI Joe, Rubik’s Cube and Cabbage Patch Kids.  All are toys that have been around for at last a decade (many for much longer).  All have sold at least 10 million copies.  And all were invented by identifiable people who did not work within existing major toy companies (hence no Hot Wheels here, since Mattel invented them internally).

     Walsh is himself a toy inventor – well, a game inventor.  He created “Blurt!” – which was rejected by every major U.S. toy company and has since sold more than three million copies.  It’s not quite good enough for Timeless Toys, but it’s getting there.  Walsh does things on his own if he doesn’t get outside support.  This book itself is an example: he self-published it in 2004 as The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys, and sold enough copies at $50 apiece so that Andrews McMeel picked it up for much wider distribution – at a lower price.

     So Timeless Toys is, in a sense, a $30 book that’s worth $50.  Actually, that’s true in more than one sense, since the book delivers at least $50 worth of information and entertainment.  Here you get more than the story of the teddy bear being named after Theodore Roosevelt: you learn about the Clifford Berryman cartoon that inspired the plush toy’s creation and the Russian-born immigrants, Morris and Rose Michtom, who made the concept a reality.  You can see the patent drawing underlying the Magic 8 Ball, and learn how Albert Carver and Abe Bookman invented the toy itself.  You can read about master carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, founder of the company that became LEGO, and about his son, Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, who invented the coupling mechanism that made possible the familiar bricks we know today.

     Fascinating trivia abound throughout the book.  More on LEGO: the name is a contraction of the Danish expression “LEg GOdt,” meaning “play well,” and also happens to be Latin for the phrase “I put together.”  How’s that for a happy coincidence?  There are many more “did you know?” moments in Timeless Toys: Lincoln Logs are the creation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John; PEZ came in dispensers that looked like cigarette lighters because it was intended as a mint for smokers; a doctor who was also an Olympic gold medalist in pole vaulting was also the inventor of Erector Sets; Candy Land was created for children with polio by a woman suffering from the disease; and on and on and on.

     This is a work of superb scholarship, boundless optimism (what wonderful things people have thought up!), beautiful design (many photos of the original versions of toys, and many of the people who created them), and endless fascination.  You can read it bit by bit, in any order, but it is so addictive that you will have trouble putting it down – except perhaps to play with some of these classic toys with your own children…or even on your own.  Why should kids have all the fun?

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