Column, Looking Back

Looking Back: Children’s Christmas gifts from the 1950s

By Mary Ellen Shaw

It’s fun to take a look back at Christmas in the ’50s when we lived in simpler times.

I don’t think the world was as materialistic back then. Christmas lists that were compiled by me and my friends didn’t have many items on them and those that made the list didn’t cost a lot of money. Of course, digital devices didn’t exist back then and games were not electronic for the most part. When those became popular the items became more costly.

In Rutland if you wanted to ask Santa personally for the items on your list, the place to do that was at the Economy Store on Merchants Row. Santa was ready and waiting for you during the month of December. There were not a lot of local stores with elevators. But the one at the Economy had an elevator operator who took you to the top floor to see Santa. That experience was a thrill in itself. After telling him what you wanted for Christmas you were given a candy cane.

A popular board game that children had on their list was “Candy Land. “The board looks like a colored race track and when you removed the top card from the deck it told you where to place your marker. The goal was to reach the Candy Castle first. This popular game from my childhood became modern with a VCR version in the 80s and a DVD format around 2005.

Other items that might have been on the wish list were Play-doh or a Slinky. These would have kept a kid busy for a good part of the day. Play-doh is described as a “modeling compound” used for arts and crafts projects. It came in bright yellow containers with tops that matched the color inside. The smell of the product is distinctive enough to produce its own memory. It smelled like wheat-based dough along with a vanilla and cherry scent.

In case you have never seen one a Slinky. it is a coiled spring, a very simple toy! Children can make it walk, bounce or even go down a set of stairs. It was discovered by an engineer who was working on a project involving coils. As the engineer worked one coil fell from his desk and bounced. What it did after it landed amused him so much that he decided to bring it home for his son to play with. The boy put it at the top of the stairs and down it went…one stair after another, all on its own. Thus, the Slinky was born!

And what little girl didn’t have a doll on her Santa list? Most of them didn’t do anything special back in the day. They were pretty basic. Enjoyment came from dressing them, combing their hair and playing “mother” to them. One of mine had long blonde hair that must have been acceptable to me in the dead of winter but I thought she would be cooler in the summer with short hair. So I cut off most of it. The scissors that children were allowed to use probably played a role in the look of a haircut “gone bad”! I loved the doll anyway which goes to show that children are not judgmental when it comes to appearance.

I asked my husband, Peter, what he liked to find under his family’s Christmas tree. Model airplanes were always a welcome present and a train set was probably his favorite. Peter’s fascination with trains probably came from spending a lot of time at the train station in Plainfield, New Jersey as he went there with his mother when she dropped off and picked up his dad who worked in New York City. The train set was permanently placed in their basement and was enjoyed by him and his friends year round.

For me, getting a record player was probably one of my most fun gifts. The turntable held one vinyl record at a time. There was an arm with a needle at the end. You placed the needle on the record and the music began. By the end of Christmas Day my parents had heard “Old McDonald Had a Farm” about 100 more times than they cared to. Kids love repetition and that gift allowed for plenty of that!

As they say, “You can never go back.” Maybe not in time but you can go back in your memories and that’s a fun thing to do.

Merry Christmas and keep your “wish list” simple…just like in the 50s!

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