Friday, July 19, 2013

Nostalgia and the Reason We Collect Toys

Let me apologize immediately for the pretentious title. I don't plan on writing a scientific article on nostalgia and toys, but I want to put into words something that has been on my mind. I've tried to figure out why I have this fascination for vintage toys, why modern toys fail to bring me the same excitement, and I'm not alone in asking these questions, and for the outsider, it can be very strange that grown men and women still purchase, store, display, and sometimes plays with toys for kids.

Basically it can be boiled down to "Why do we collect toys?", but it's not that simple either. Read on for a rather long article on collecting. Agree, disagree, additional thoughts, personal similar stories? Leave a comment below!

The collector
At some point, early in our lives, we all collect. It could be anything from pens and stamps to dolls and toy cars. It's either initiated by the parents, or through our peers - the other kids. For some of us, we continue to collect.

I've said this before: If I didn't collect toys, I would be collecting something else. I believe a major percentage of toy collectors are first and foremost collectors, and secondly interested in toys. In fact, I believe the people who collect toys, would have ended up collecting something else if they didn't have a passion anchored to their childhood. In short, nostalgia leads to us collecting toys. And with that, I've revealed the rather uneventful truth about why we collect.

I collect vintage toys because I have potent, and delightful memories of playing with these toys as a kid. I may get pristine examples of the toys I had back in the day. It may be me getting boxed and carded examples of toys I wished I had as a kid. And I may get into toy lines that I played with, but never owned myself. I have shown this several times here in this blog.

Re-visiting childhood memories
StarCom was a toy line that sort of lingered on the outside of mainstream. It was no where near as huge as it's contemporaries, like Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and so on. But I had a few figures back as a kid, and the memories of playing with these tiny guys was persistent. So much that I could almost trigger an entire set of emotions to the memory of playing with them. We're talking that rush of memories where you can sense, smell, hear sounds and be in that same place you were when you had such a good time. As an adult toy collector, it mad e sense to get these toys that left such a mark, even though I had few (and had lost them all), and they were fairly simple to get hold of, even carded examples.
Playing around with these toys did trigger the emotions I mentioned. The same can be said about anything from my re-issued Galvatron, to my unassembled Tomahawk. All of these were toys I either had as a kid, or played with along with other kids. They all come delightful memories and emotions. They all make me nostalgic.

I may be taking too much for granted, but for the sake of progression, let us just agree on something: These are high quality toys, and that that's the main reason I loved them as a kid, and why I still find them relevant.

Now, the question remains: What is the deciding factor for my nostalgia? Is it the toys themselves... Or is it the situation in which I played with them? I can't really say.

Nostalgia as the key factor to our collecting habits
Nostalgia is sentimentality for the past, or a specific time period. Basically, it's remembering - and in some way reliving a good period of your life. Actually, it doesn't even have to be your own life. There are many people who are nostalgic for time periods decades before their own birth. For instance the rockabilly culture, where people far too young to have experienced the 50s style themselves accordingly, drive vintage cars, listen to period-specific music, and so on. Of course, with rockabilly, as with many other sub-cultures anchored to a particular time-period, it becomes a blend between true vintage/retro and contemporary/modern. And it's the same with toy collectors. Preciously few toy collectors are exclusive to their preferred vintage toys.

Me and most of my toy collecting friends own a healthy mix of vintage toys and modern toys. Why wouldn't we? It's not like toy companies forgot how to produce quality toys. Whether it's the new collectable Minifigures from Lego, the Masters of the Universe Classics line, or Hasbro's truly epic, updated version of Metroplex (right), there's no denying that the toy companies still can produce gold. And I collect these toys too, because they're great toys.

But do you notice anything about the toys I've mentioned?

That's correct, neither of them can really be considered "new". The Minifigure celebrates 35 years, the Masters of the Universe Classics line is depending entirely on collectors with nostalgia, and the Metroplex, regardless of size and new details, is basically the same dude as he was 27 years ago. In essence, all these are obviously made for the collectors. Sure, kids enjoy the Minifigures, and any 8 year old would be blown away by Metroplex. But make no mistake about it, whether we buy them for our kids, or ourselves, we are the target customers for these toys. Would I have collected these contemporary toys if they didn't have relevance to my nostalgia?

Probably not. But that doesn't take anything away from the toys.

And it makes me wonder. Are there new toys being produced today, without any ties to vintage toys, that can be compared to our 80s toy lines?

Were toys better before?
If I'm correct that the toy companies can't (or won't) produce anything truly new of the quality we expect, then I believe I can point towards two reasons. Firstly: Kid's these days don't really care about toys the way we did. Or more importantly, they have another outlook on toys.

Of course, toys these days aren't necessarily worse than those we grew up with, it's rather that the kids these days have so much more that demands their attention. I'd like to draw parallels to the superhero comics. From the 60s and on to the 90s, comics were made for kids, and were in large part read by kids. That's understandable, there was preciously little else to do. Their parents were nostalgic about other stuff - from their childhood, whether it was western comics, tin soldiers, glossy pictures or 1/6 scaled action figures. Then, from the 90s, something strange happened with the superhero comics. The kids of the 90s and onward had no patience for reading comics, and moved on to being primarily entertained by video games, and secondarily by cartoons. Comic book publishers knew that the main portion of their readers had grown up with the comic, and subsequently started writing more mature story lines. We also saw the rise of the superhero comics exclusively made for adults. It's the same with toys. Kids these days play games and are online. They still play with toys, but - I believe - to a lesser extent than we did. Toy companies also know the value in having merchandise aimed towards the collector. I talked a lot about this in my article on female action figures.

It almost seems that since kids these days doesn't care about toys, the toy companies doesn't care either. Or, they don't care about creating something new, something great.

But surely, there must be great toys made today - toys that has no ties to past glory?
Well... I can think of none. "New" toys today, are either connected to the latest movie or game franchise, or connected to a questionable cartoon. I have a nephew who's at the relevant age, and the toys he has enjoyed the most has been Lego and Transformers. He has had stints where he has collected toys with heavy advertising, where the toys themselves are of no relevance. The "Pokemon" style toy lines, they come and go relatively quickly, and definitely has the "flavor of the month" feel to them. The kids are being tube fed commercials, and end up bullying each other over who has most. Toys like these (example, right) are utter and complete shit. They usually come with awful anime-styled cartoons. Luckily, my nephew - and hopefully his peers return to what I consider better toys.

I can see what I wrote. All my toy lines came with cartoons of very varied quality. Some were decent - nothing more, nothing less (Transformers), some were hilariously awful (G.I. Joe), and some were simply great (She-Ra). Any and all of them were better than what I've seen of Beyblade, Bakugan and the likes. The fact is that the individual parts of the 80s multi-franchises could all stand on their own. The G.I. Joe comic book didn't need toys or a cartoon to support it, it was already fantastic. The Transformers toys surely didn't need to be accompanied by a cartoon to be amazing toys, and so on. I also know that many of my toy lines made an effort to get kids (or their parents) to buy more toys. But it was more subtle, more dignified. It was for example images on the back of Masters of the Universe figures' cards, picturing "Other figures in the toy line". The poster above, from late 2000s toy line Bakugan could just as well have said "Buy Them All".

The children of the 80s are biased - but less than you think
Were toys really that good back in the day? I think so. I think toys were significantly better in the 80s and early 90s, than they are today. Keep in mind, I may romanticize this, as I'm from that specific period in time. Today, I can't help but look at vintage toys through nostalgia-tinted glasses, and instantly connect the toys to good memories - and maybe even exaggerated memories. For instance when I got the Phantom X-19 as a kid, the box was literally as big as I was. No wonder it left a lasting impression.  Of course, when I got hold of a second boxed Phantom, as an adult, I can of course see that the box is far from as big as a child. But it sure felt that way back then. We adult collectors can never have those kinds of experiences with toys today for many reasons. First and foremost, we're bigger, older, and will view everything in light of our experience. So yes, toys back then were better. But we're also harder to impress now, than we were as kids.
Could something like this have been made today?
I was blown away by the new Metroplex, but when I thought about it, no more than the first time I played with the original Metroplex, back in the late 80s. I was stunned by how gorgeous Hot Toy's Black Widow was, but didn't I have similar experiences with Cheetara of the Thundercats? I love the ingenuity of independent toy line Weaponeers of Monkaa. But it's nothing compared to how I - even as a kid - marveled over the ingenuity of the construction of the G.I. Joe RAH figures.

But it's not that simple either, because the toy companies during the late 70s and through out the 80s were in a very special position. A position that created the toy collectors. Plastic had become the main material for making toys, production techniques reached a certain quality, and the price for plastic had yet to sky-rocket to the level we see today. Video games were far from as dominant as they are today, and internet was a decade away, so kids played with toys when they wanted to have fun. There's probably relevant social-economic and international relations aspects as well. This meant optimal conditions for making awesome toys that many kids would own.

So, we may be biased, us toy collectors. We absolutely connect vintage and retro toys to our pleasant memories, and there is no doubt that modernizing of the old toys is only done because of our nostalgia.
But the 80s will be remembered as the time for plastic toys, and the reason we saw the birth of the modern toy collector. Now, there has always been people who collected toys, whether it was porcelain dolls or tiny metal cars. But the detailed action figure, the giant play sets, the colorful and action filled toy lines that came accompanied with cartoons and comics. The plastic toys that really made an impression. Those are unique, as are the children of the 80s. Will our children collect their toys as adults? I doubt it.They will more likely be nostalgic towards their video games.
If you look to San Diego this week, for this years Comic Con, you will see how prolific the business is. All this because of a decade of awesome plastic toys? I can't say, but I'm glad I was invited to the main show - as a child in the 80s - to experience it first hand, and I'm glad to be around now, for the after party.


GIJigsaw said...

Jon – I’ve been wanting to respond to this for a while. I often ask myself, why am I still collecting toys in my 40s.

I was 6 when Star Wars and it’s Kenner lineup was released, 11 when GI Joe – ARAH was released. These were fantastic toys, and I spent many hours playing with them. A year or so later, I gave up on buying toys, though I still loved them, and eyed them at the store.

I think you hit the nail on the head – it was a convergence of forces that make the 80s toys so beloved. Quality, story, sheer numbers, and technology. Though the 12 inch GI Joe is loved by many, the size of the Kenner Star Wars line really allowed kids to “buy them all!” As for GI Joe, I had read that the strategy of the first few waves was to allow families to get the entire series for under $100. It worked.

I do like the new as much as the vintage, mostly because they didn’t have those toys when the movies came out (Predator, Alien), but also like the creativity of new stories (Gears of War, Walking Dead).

I love the craftsmanship of toys. They are works of art in my opinion. The sculpting and detailing are phenomenal. I still enjoy the simplicity of the Star Wars Kenner line.

Like you, “I collect vintage toys because I have potent, and delightful memories of playing with these toys as a kid.” My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but my parents somehow managed to get me some of the toys I loved, because they saw my brother and I playing with them all the time.

I even specifically remembering when and how I received most of them. Those memories carry over to the new Gentle Giant Jumbo Kenner figures. The ones I loved as a kid (Death Squad Commander, Jawa) were the first ones I purchased. Interestingly, I never like Death Star Droid or Walrusman and to this day, I still haven’t purchased those GG equivalents. I remember going to Child World on a Friday night when my dad bought me the Kenner TaunTaun and Hoth Han. It is the reason I preordered the GG Hoth Han so quickly.

Around the time I was moving away from toys, I already had an Atari 2600. It didn’t overwhelm me but I can see how today, video games and the internet capture the attention of kids faster these days. They are also a great babysitter by parents, unfortunately. There are two years olds that can navigate an iPad better than me.

I still think the quality is here today, the same as back then. I do think some of today’s toys are very original – but the larger figures (6 inch Gears of War) and cost of plastic puts a price tag on toys where parents couldn’t buy them all.

I am also “glad I was invited to the main show - as a child in the 80s - to experience it first hand, and I'm glad to be around now, for the after party.”

Thanks for the great post.

Anonymous said...


I wrote a similar article for CNN Philippines. I agree with you, toys conjure childhood memories...

You might want to check it out:

Great article, by the way.