Just Toying Around

My favorite toys from age 8 to 11 were a cadre of Barbies and my treasured American Girl Doll – Kirsten Larson.  I played most days with my younger sister in our bedrooms or in the canopied fort our dad built for us in the backyard, the dolls traveling along in backpacks.

These dolls were always packing to take trips, or going away on long vacations in Europe, or emigrating to America, learning to ballet dance or take gymnastics.  Sometimes they were just plain old silly –  hiding out in grass huts or calling one another Mrs Leafenbopper and skipping school.  They got terrible hair cuts that never grew back.

Our time playing with dolls stretched on for years because we both discovered sewing around the same time (I was 11, she was 9).  We would beg our mom to take us to Walmart to pick out new fabric and lace.  We sent away for American Girl patterns, we tried to copy Barbie patterns out of books we borrowed from the library.  Our fingers were nicked with dozens of little pinpricks when we stubbornly refused to use thimbles. We learned obscure words like “petticoat” and “muff” and “fascinator” and “stole.”  The reward was a sense of accomplishment and very well-heeled dolls.

But of course, eventually we put them away and “grew up” graduating to hanging out with our friends, biking, and listening to music.  Does everyone have a point where they suddenly realize it’s been a long time since they played with their favorite toy?

While that may be the case for most people, I think Frank Sarcia at the Salem Toy Museum may differ from most.

He recently opened his museum in the Essex Mall across from the Cinema Salem and stands ready to greet one and all with an exuberant smile and boisterous spiel as he beckons them inside to see his collection of toys.  The toys are both his own youthful playthings as well as the carefully collected toys he has been fascinated by since then.  The collection spans from the 1950’s until the 2000’s most of which are toys based off movies and television shows and vice versa.  Imagine plenty of Strawberry Shortcake, McDonalds, and Star Wars figurines.

When you first walk into the large back room you aren’t quite sure where to start.  Sarcia gives you a few minutes to orient yourself to the overwhelming amount then bounds back offering an enthusiastic and seemingly freeform tour.  He’s talking you through an unrehearsed scripts of some of his favorites, leaping back and forth from the different display cases to show you another totally awesome toy he’s collected.

After I left the museum, in light of this month’s theme, I got curious – Where do archaeology and toys intersect?   What can toys tell us about a culture?

It turns out that there are a lot of subtle nuances to studying children through archeology.  First, what they leave behind isn’t always well preserved, and is often fragmented, or frequently hard to distinguish from adult materials.  Childhood the way it’s currently embodied hasn’t been around that long, in fact I learned that around the tenth century at 12 most “children” were really considered adults.  It wasn’t until must later that providing specialized care and education for young people became important, and providing them with toys – rather than adult like projects of gathering foods, sewing, and other chores – became commonplace.

Medieval Doll Toys featured on http://larsdatter.com (click image for more details)

I read that toys are often a reflection of a culture’s values and morals – providing a sort of zeitgeist of an era – in the same way that books or movies do.  If that’s true, a lot of the collection of of Sarcia’s toys in the museum speak to a “politically incorrect” earlier time in the mid twentieth century where people were maybe still attempting to sort out the notions of race, gender, ethnicity, and nationality.  I also noticed they seemed really obsessed with aliens. Hm.

Toys on sale at the Toy Museum today,
Do they say something about American Culture?

And, more personally, what did my childhood toys say about my personality and childhood?  When I was playing with my dolls was I exhibiting an early flair for fashion design?  Unfortunately not.  But maybe those trips my dolls took spoke to my own desire to travel.  Maybe sewing those outfits really exhibited how much I wanted to create something new and be involved in detailed projects, taking an idea into a finished reality.

It turns out, that’s not all that different from blogging.

Beth Melillo

Visit the Salem Toy Museum Tuesday through Sunday 10:30am to 5:30pm.  $6 for Adults

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