For Joyce Losonsky, collecting the toys contained in McDonald's Happy Meals is a passion. But it's also all about having fun -- or "Mc-fun," as she likes to call it.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Happy Meal, and as the celebration culminates later this month with the rollout of a surprise toy, Losonsky continues to build her exhaustive collection of Golden Arches memorabilia. The 58-year-old Columbia woman has collected every McDonald's toy ever released, as well as Happy Meal boxes and displays. Not to mention she wrote 16 books on the topic.
"I just thought it was fun to do with my children," she said of starting the collection. Losonsky has three daughters and a son, and began collecting with them in the early 1970s, even before the national launch of the Happy Meal. "We'd go on Saturdays to yard sales and hunt for [earlier] McDonald's toys," she said. "You could get a new one every time."
Her children grew up, but Losonsky kept collecting. She eventually dedicated an entire room in her house to McDonald's memorabilia -- then ran out of space. "I have them in bins in my basement now," she said. Between her collection and a Pennsylvania friend's, which includes toys from two dozen different fast-food chains, there are about 12,000 toys, plus a few thousand paper collectible items.
All those toys resulted in a lot of confusion -- the reason for Losonsky's writing career.
"I wrote the books to make sense of my collection," she said. "There was nothing out there."
Losonsky started her research at Chicago's McDonald's archives, then relied on her own expertise. Before her first books, Happy Meal Toys Around the World and Happy Meal Toys in the USA, were published in 1995, collectors had no way to classify their pieces. She has since written similar books for beginning and advanced collectors, and books on other topics, like 2000's M&M;'s Around the World.
Losonsky's growing toy collection also forced her past the beginner's realm of weekend yard sales. She was one of 18 original members of the McDonald's Collector's Club, the unofficial authority on buying, selling and trading McDonald's trinkets, formed in 1991.
Ken Chaltraw of Michigan is a member of the Great Lakes chapter, and he said club members exchange toys and sell them to raise money for local Ronald McDonald houses. His wife, Debi, maintains a collection of more than 100,000 toys. "It's a relatively cheap hobby to get into," he said. "You could have a massive collection for under $500." And even though rarer pieces like his Story of Texas books or Star Trek toys have a value of $50 to $100, Chaltraw isn't in it for the money.
"The fun of it is the chase," he said.
Another attraction: the memories Happy Meal toys evoke. "The core group of our club is made up of people who remember going to their first McDonald's," said Linda Gegorski, founder of the Collector's Club and owner of Aunt Linda's Toys, an online dealer of McDonald's memorabilia. "The kids who buy Happy Meals grow up to be the adult customers," she said.
Losonsky is also active in the Collector's Club, attending regional meetings and annual conventions, like one this past April that drew about 500 people. But convention-goers represent just a portion of America's fast-food collectors. "There are thousands of closet collectors of McDonald's," she said. "I have collector friends all around the world."
Part of the appeal of the Happy Meal is it's accessibility, said Nick Hawkins, who works in Toys, Dolls and Collectibles at Skinner auction house in Bolton, Mass., which is involved with the popular PBS series, Antiques Roadshow. "Happy Meals are of such interest partly because they come in the range of TV toys and cult figures," Hawkins said. "It's unlike 19th- century and early 20th-century toys, which only appeal to those with a specific knowledge or interest."
But unlike those earlier, rarer artifacts, a Happy Meal toy collection won't make anybody rich. "I personally don't think there is any money in collecting the toys," Hawkins said.
"It's really a generational thing," suggests McDonald's spokesperson Laura Dihel. "It's something you looked forward to as a kid, and you're now bringing your kids to McDonald's for that same experience."
The Happy Meal got its start in 1977, when Dick Brams, then St. Louis regional advertising manager for McDonald's, challenged his agencies in St. Louis and in Kansas City to create a children's meal concept. A Kansas City firm developed what would become the modern Happy Meal.
Launched nationally in 1979, the meals featured the familiar cardboard-box packaging and a circus motif. Executives thought the decorated boxes would be the big draw -- until the toys inside proved most appealing. McDonald's capitalized on the selling power of the burger-plus-toy package, often adding popular movies and television shows to the mix. The release of the first Star Trek film in 1979 led to the first of these Happy Meal tie-ins, with toys like the Star- fleet board game.
Today the world's leading food service retailer, serving 47 million customers in more than 100 countries, is also the world's leading toy distributor.
Happy Meal toys have always been popular, but the biggest crazes have erupted over campaigns like Finding Nemo and Ty Teenie Beanie Babies, Dihel said. With the Happy Meal's 25th anniversary has come a yearlong marketing campaign, kicked off in April, that includes toys like mini-video games (released in conjunction with ESPN's silver anniversary), a more modern package design and a healthier menu (instead of the blase burger-or-nugget choice, kids can opt for, say, Apple Dippers).
This year McDonald's also introduced its first adult version: the Go Active! Happy Meal. For about $7, health-conscious customers get a large salad, a 16-ounce bottle of water and the "toy": a "Stepometer" and exercise booklet.
Perhaps it's this combination of innovation and nostalgia that has allowed Happy Meals to survive the ages. Sort of like another McDonald's fixture, Ronald McDonald, who turns 40 next year.
Preserving pop culture
All the buzz about the Happy Meal's anniversary has brought Losonsky new attention as an expert. She said her books are becoming more popular, and she is increasingly well-known -- especially at local McDonald's restaurants.
"I'd say most of the restaurants in the Laurel-Columbia area know me by face," she said. While Losonsky is always on the lookout for a new Happy Meal toy, what she really wants is a place to show off that collection stuck in her basement.
"I think there should be a Happy Meal museum in Washington that can display these toys from the beginning," she said.
Until then, Losonsky is enjoying the hobby for what it is: an easy, affordable way to archive pop culture history. "I've had fun doing it all along," she said. "It's fun, reasonable and it's a snapshot of Americana."
The Happy Meal timeline
Some key dates in the Happy Meal's 25-year history:
1977: Concept for kids' meal developed in St. Louis region.
June 1979: Happy Meal is launched nationally. Cost is $1. Cardboard packages feature "circus wagon" motif (as potential collectible). Inside: McDoodler stencil, puzzle book, McWrist wallet, ID bracelet and McDonaldland character erasers.
December 1979: Star Trek becomes first TV-themed Happy Meal. Toys include Starfleet board game and Star Trek communicator, navigation bracelet, decals and space ring.
May-June 1981: Ronald McDonald and friends Grimace, Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, Big Mac, Birdie and Captain Crook toys are first offered.
January 1989: Chicken McNugget Happy Meal is introduced.
December 1989: First McDonald's-Disney film pairing features Little Mermaid toys.
August 1991: Barbie and Hot Wheels toys debut. As of 2003, Barbie has made 15 Happy Meal appearances.
April 1997: Ty Teenie Beanie Babies, most popular Happy Meal toys ever, are introduced.
March 2002: McDonald's super-sizes the Happy Meal; calorie count for the hamburger meal jumps to 750 from 610, with 29 grams of fat instead of 21.
January 2003: Happy Meals account for more than 20 percent of McDonald's purchases, the Wall Street Journal reports.
May 2004: Go Active!, the first Happy Meal for adults, is launched, with a large salad, water, Stepometer and exercise book.
June 2004: Happy Meal turns 25. Health-conscious customers can now choose fruit instead of fries.