It’s a little piece of childhood saved in a box.
They are to be found in out-of-the-way places — tucked away in the corner of a cobweb-ridden attic, high on a shelf in a musty basement, nearly forgotten in a box brimming full of lawn ornaments, hedge clippers and garden gloves in a garage.
These pieces of childhood, once discovered, are brought new again into the light of day. They can occupy the imagination of a grown man for hours on end. They are cleaned, polished, repaired and prized for the simpler time they represent.
This is a story of boys and their toys. But it’s really so much more.
It must have been Roseanne Barr who said it so well: “Men are boys until you bury them.”
And how many times have we each heard: “The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.”
But this isn’t just about any boys and toys. These are toys that memories are made of — a more simple time, so fondly remembered.
When men were boys and played with these toys, they didn’t have the worry of a monthly mortgage, car loans or paying off their student loans just in time to send their kids to college.
Sometimes a toy is much more than a toy.
Sometimes a toy is an echo of childhood that fills the heart with happiness.
“These are memories,” says Tom Wilson of Clear Lake.
As a collector for more than 25 years and owner of Collectors Wonderland in downtown Clear Lake, Wilson understands well the draw of childhood toys to a man in his 30s, 40s or beyond.
“Generally speaking, when you’re a kid that’s the happiest time of your life,” he says. “That’s what people like about it, because it brings back happy times. That’s what it’s all about.”
Growing up in Mason City, Wilson recalls well falling in love with the speed of tiny cars racing around a little orange track made of plastic. And most Baby Boomers know immediately what he’s talking about — Hot Wheels.
“Personally, I was into Hot Wheels,” Wilson says. “I was a city kid, so I had Hot Wheels and Matchbox Cars, whereas the farm kids all had toy farm tractors.”
Hot Wheels, with their lightweight, flexible tracks, transformed the toy industry. They were simple to snap together and less fussy to operate than older racetracks that required wires, hand controls and a narrow gauge to keep the cars on the track.
And they were just plain fun to run.
But whether it’s Hot Wheels or a toy train made of steel, Wilson says the real appeal for any grown-up boy is finding a toy from his own era.
“People are always trying to buy back whatever they had as a kid — always,” he says. “They’re always buying what they had as kids, and that’s what they collect.”
He sees it all the time, grown men searching out memories of their youth in the form of the toys they knew as children.
“The older guys — the ones who grew up in the 1930s and ’40s — they played with the cast iron toys, toy trains, and that type of stuff,” he explains. “When you get into the 1950s, it was more of the Ertl type toys, Tonka trucks, and the space toys were really big in the 1950s and ’60s.”
While a lucky few managed to stash away their toys long enough to rediscover them as adults, more often than not it’s a process of searching out the remnants of your childhood after you’re old enough to appreciate that simpler time.
The stories are often the same. Boys eventually grow into young men, go off to college, and the toys of their youth are forgotten at home. Sometimes the parents downsize and simply toss the toys or sell them at garage sales. Other times, the toys are stored away for years — imagine a box of baseball cards shoved clear to the back underneath a bed or a Tonka truck sitting idle in the rafters of a garage.
During the busy decade of their 20s, when young men finish college, get married, and start to settle down, they may rarely have time to think about their childhood toys. Actually, they’re busy putting that part of their life behind them. But give them a few years, and most of them will start to rekindle a few of those boyhood memories.
“Generally speaking, most people start buying their childhood back after about 30 years,” Wilson says. “By the time they’re in their 40s, their own kids are a little older, and then they start looking.”
For toy collectors, the best find is always a toy still in its original box.
“The box on any vintage toy at least doubles the value,” Wilson says. “The box is worth more than the toy.”
The exception to that rule would be those things that everyone bought and never played with because they assumed it was going to be collectible. A lot of the Star Wars collectibles can fall into this category.
“So much of that stuff just sat in the box,” Wilson notes. “It all got hoarded, and it’s not that collectible. But the older space toys, the ones that got played with, there’s a premium on that when you find them in good condition.”
Board games are toys that, in many cases, have stood the test of time for multiple generations. They are also a rare blend of being both affordable and collectible.
“Everybody had them, and the early 1950s and ’60s board games are very collectible because everybody can remember playing with them,” Wilson says.
Even just the game board itself is in demand as aging Baby Boomers seek to reclaim a bit of their youth.
“People will hang the game boards on the wall, and they’re very affordable,” Wilson says. “People are in to not spending a lot of money in this day and age.”
When it comes to recapturing the toys of youth, it’s a phenomenon less common in women, who are more focused on collecting glassware, kitchen items or things of a practical nature, according to Wilson.
But for men, it’s a completely different story.
“It’s definitely more men,” he says. “I don’t know the percentage, but it’s definitely more men… And if they don’t have something, men pay any price for it, even at an auction. That’s when they really pay the price on stuff.”
Women, he says, are more likely to collect something that they can use, whether as a piece of décor or for a practical use, whereas men are looking for that happy memory. Sometimes, it’s not even what they had, but what they always wanted.
“I kind of always wanted a train and never got one, like a Lionel train,” Wilson says, a slight wistfulness in his voice.
For many men, the toy they didn’t get as a child is the first toy they buy for their own son when that day comes. But in Wilson’s case, his only child is a daughter (now 24 years old), and she was more into the American Girl Dolls, as well as the ever-popular Barbies.
While every child and every generation is different, the fondness of childhood memories remains constant.
“I hear all kinds of stories,” Wilson says.
Sometimes, toys even take people back to remembering their grandparents and the toy stories they shared from their own childhood.
“People want to keep things because they do have sentimental value, but they don’t always have room,” he says. “They might keep just one or two things and then sell the rest off.”
If there was a “golden age of toys,” Wilson says, it was probably the 1930s through the 1950s.
For the most part, toys in that era were made of sturdy metal and powered only by the imagination of the child who held it — something that a lot of folks long for again.
“Those toys were probably the best,” Wilson says. “They were the most durable; they were cast iron and tin, wind-up, and no plastic. Once you started getting into the 1950s, they started getting into plastic and it doesn’t hold up as well then.”
But even toy collecting changes with the times. The evidence shows in the growing popularity of collecting Fisher Price toys that were seemingly every place in the 1970s, which matches the fact that children born in the 1970s are now entering their 40s and remembering just how sweet those childhood years were.
So whether it’s a Fisher Price telephone, a Tonka truck, a bright orange Hot Wheels track or even a Lionel train, the memory is just as precious.
Childhood — the one time of life that goes so fast, and means so much — “that’s what it’s all about,” Wilson concludes.
Sometimes you really can hold a memory in your hands.