Monday, December 21st, 2009
As I was wandering the toy aisles shopping for my niece, I looked up and saw one of my favorite toys from years past – Shrinky Dinks (“the incredible shrinking plastic.”) In case you haven’t heard of Shrinky Dinks, the base material consists of thin, flexible polystyrene plastic sheets. Before you heat them, the plastic sheets (which are often in cool shapes and designs) can be colored with felt-tip pens, acrylic paint and colored pencils. Once you are done with the design, then you place the Shrinky Dinks piece you created into a home oven or toaster oven for two magic minutes and watch as they shrink to approximately 1/3rd their original size and become nine times thicker. The whole process is a great mini-science experiment – plus you can tap into your creative side as well. (By the way, this is the same process used to “shrink wrap” meats or other grocery items that have protective plastic wraps.)
Then I got thinking of my younger years and all of my favorite toys that never would have been without plastics…first off, the Rubik’s Cube – mainly made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and nylon — is a 3-D mechanical puzzle that I spent many hours trying to solve (I’m still trying). The Cube was invented in 1974. As of January 2009, 350 million cubes have sold worldwide, making it the world’s top-selling puzzle game.
The engineer in me also loved Legos (see the basic red Lego brick above). Originally designed in the 1940s in Europe, Legos also are made of ABS and consist of colorful interlocking plastic bricks and an accompanying array of gears, mini figures and various other parts. Lego bricks can be assembled and connected in many ways, to construct objects such as vehicles, buildings, and even working robots. Anything constructed can then be taken apart again, and the pieces used to make other objects. This toy provides endless hours of fun and imagination.
And who could forget the Wacky WallWalker toy? Molded out of a sticky elastomer and found in conjunction with classic 1980s cereals, the Wacky WallWalker was shaped similar to an octopus. When thrown against a wall it would “walk” its way down, which made it a hugely popular toy.
Moving on to characters, I was always partial to the Smurfs, a group of small blue creatures who lived in a village somewhere in the woods. The Belgian cartoonist Peyo introduced Smurfs to the world in a series of comic strips. But in the U.S. toy Smurfs (made out of vinyl) for kids to play with didn’t become big in the 1980s until an animated series hit the TVs.
Lastly what about the Cabbage Patch Kids? A doll brand originally created in the late 1970s, Cabbage Patch Kids had large, round vinyl heads and soft fabric bodies and were all the rage. I remember that parents camped out a toy stores when they heard a new shipment of Cabbage Patch Kids were arriving. This TIME magazine article discusses the Cabbage Patch riots and hysteria of 1983.
Plastics made these great toys possible. Lite Brite and Barrel of Monkeys are other plastic-based old favorites that come to mind. Ah, the joys of childhood and toy nostalgia. The walk down memory lane brings a smile to my face and makes me thankful for plastics and the role they played in my youth.