Christmas in the 1940s was such a special time for those of us growing up in Baltimore after the war: homemade cookies in old cake tins; a green plywood platform with a Lionel train running in a circle, choo-chooing and clickity-clacking; and a Christmas tree trimmed with balls, a string of lights and the required tinsel — a sore spot for my older sister. Little Miss Priss was very meticulous about putting tinsel on the tree, one strand at a time an absolute must. My technique was to grab a handful and sling it up there helter-skelter, the Jackson Pollock school of tree trimming. I was obviously ahead of my time. Miss Perfect would then turn heel and run to the kitchen to tell mother. To this day I remind her that she squashed my creative endeavors.
What I really have fond memories of are the toys — some were fun, some were perplexing and others just plain silly. In the perplexing category was the Gilbert Erector Set which had been around for years. Available in many sizes and designated by a number; a 6 1/2 set was given to me in 1947. It had a bunch of gears, steel girders, scads of nuts and bolts, a screw driver and wrench, and an instruction manual that was obviously written by a civil engineer from M.I.T.
The major part of it was a small electric motor that, by attaching many of the gears, could operate a drawbridge, robot and amusement park rides: Ferris wheel, carousel and even a model of the famous parachute jump on Coney Island, all put together using these versatile steel girders. Alas, I’m not mechanically inclined and became frustrated and distraught trying to build these things even though I mulled for hours over the instructions. The only thing I was good at was staring at the motor and watching the gears turn. The set was shunted to the nether realms of our basement and wound up given to an older cousin who could do all kinds of things with it. He later got a scholarship to Johns Hopkins and became a civil engineer. Big deal.
A popular silly toy of the era was the Slinky, a tightly wound coil of steel that when placed at the top of the stairs, can magically descend step by step to the bottom. Unfortunately that was about the only thing it could do, and after performing this feat 142 times for friends and relatives, it was used by my sister as a paper weight.
Another inane “toy” was the View-Master, a small plastic stereoscope in which a wheel shaped card containing small colored slide photos of famous places and people was inserted. The photos were doubled so that when seen through the scope it gave a 3-D effect, a throwback to the old stereopticons from years past. Now you don’t give this to kids; you give it to old people. I mean, how many times can you watch photos of the Grand Canyon, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier and Calvin Coolidge? What is truly upsetting is that this device was given to me two Christmases in a row! Whoop-tee-do. Throwing the tinsel was more fun.
But the fun toy that had everyone hooked in Christmas of 1947 was the yo-yo. I’m not talking about the traditional yo-yo, which had been around since dirt, but the Duncan yo-yo, the one with the sleeping cord. Instead of the knot at the end there is a loop which allows the yo-yo to “sleep,” that is, spin in place so that you can do tricks. “Walking the dog” is the easiest trick and consists of just letting the yo-yo bounce in place on the ground. But the tricks became more difficult like “around the world,” “spin the platter,” and the complex “rocking the cradle.” Once a week outside of Pop Siegal’s confectionary store, where yo-yos were sold, there was a demonstration by Filipino yo-yo professionals. I was mesmerized by the tricks Ramon performed. Afterward a contest was held, and the one who mastered the most tricks was given a diamond yo-yo! Actually it was embedded rhinestones, but still pretty damn impressive.
As I look back on Christmases of the past, I marvel at all those gifts I got, the cookies I so eagerly devoured — except for the ones with raisins — and the smell of pine that permeated the house. And if I could just throw one more handful of tinsel, anywhere, I would be in my glory.
Otts Laupus lives in Elkridge and currently teaches for the Osher Program at Johns Hopkins University; his email is email@example.com.