Times have changed: Christmas then, now

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toys by Christmas tree

For the last couple of months, the mail lady has delivered dozens of catalogs to our mailbox. Most go more or less directly into the recycle bin, but a Montgomery-Ward Christmas catalog that came one day caught my eye.

I’m still a kid at heart and, remembering how my sister and I devoured the Sears Christmas catalog when we were kids, I leafed through the toy section.

Then and now

Wow! What a change from those long ago days. I found 37 pages filled with almost 200 different toys for girls and boys from babies to teens.

Just for comparison, I dug out a Winter 1930-1931 (not too many years before I was born) M-W catalog in my collection. It featured just 27 pages of toys, including two of bicycles, but nearly 350 toys were crammed into those pages.

Of course in most cases the images were smaller in the older catalog, and the descriptions were much shorter due to most of the older toys being a lot less complicated than today’s. It’s not really relevant to compare prices between then and now, but it’s a lot of fun.

Prices of toys

According to one inflation index I found online, $1 in 1930 is equivalent to $14.01 today, while something that costs $1 today would have been marked 7 cents back then. Excluding the bicycles ($18.95 to $37.95), which aren’t even offered in the 2015 catalog. (I think bicycles are no longer considered toys for kids but are for adults. After all, what responsible parent today would dare let their kids out of sight to roam the countryside on their bikes like we did.)

The most expensive toy in 1930 was a big standard gauge train set (57 inches long) that cost $17.98 (the $4.75 transformer was extra).

For those on a budget, a 23-inch train set with key-wind engine, tender and two cars could be had for 98 cents. The cheapest toy I found was a small rubber cat that whistled when squeezed and cost 21 cents. In contrast, the most expensive toy in 2015 is a battery-powered, ride on Mercedes-Benz car at $399.95, while the cheapest is a 16-inch plastic Magic Wand, (batteries not included) that is marked down from $15.95 to $9.95.

There were ride on cars in 1930 of course, but they ranged in price from $5.98 to $15.98, and were all powered by the rider’s own little legs churning away at pedals.

How it’s made

Besides prices, however, there are many striking differences between the toys offered then and now. Today virtually every toy is made of plastic. I saw one miniature cooking set that featured stainless steel pots and pans and a battery-powered motorcycle with a steel frame, while a few of the others undoubtedly have some metal parts. In 1930, toys were made of cast iron, steel and wood, while some toy dishes were actually china or glass.

There were several pages of picture and ABC books for the wee ones, along with tons of adventure and educational books for older kids. Not today; one page offered a half dozen books for toddlers that required either two AAA batteries so the book could read to the child, or an internet connection.

Same with a handful of books for older kids, either batteries or internet absolutely no chance for a child to read and have their imaginations fired as they try to visualize the scenes that unfold on the pages. That was always my favorite part of Christmas, getting a new book and losing myself in it.

Today it’s all about outside stimulation. Well, to continue my rant about the lack of intellectual and inventive stimulation in today’s toys, where everything is forced onto a child’s consciousness by a flickering screen or a recorded voice.

More toys

In 1930, there were two pages of toys to delight any boy who liked to make and experiment with things. My favorites, of course, are the seven different Gilbert Erector sets ranging in size from the 98 cent No. 1 to the big $13.67 No. 7 1/2 that builds nearly everything and has auto chassis and assembled motor.

There were actual operating toy steam engines, some heated by electricity but some burning alcohol for fuel. There were tool chests with real tools — not those flimsy plastic things they sell nowadays — including a working scroll saw, and a real wood lathe that cost $16.50 with tools. There were chemistry sets and a set for experimenting with electricity.

None of that stuff today due to the fear of lawsuits.

Girls toys

1930s doll adFor the girls, there were dozens of dolls, as well as doll clothes, miniature dishes and cooking ware, kitchen stoves, tables and chairs. There were doll houses and furniture, along with toy irons and ironing boards, a wash tub with a scrub board and hand wringer, and a little carpet sweeper, dust mop and broom. To be fair, some of this stuff is also in the new catalog, although there’s no scrub board.

No batteries required. In 1930, there were two pages of games of all kinds, and not a single one required batteries. You could order toy saxophones, violins, pianos, drums, a trumpet or a banjo back then, while in 2015, the guitar, keyboard and digital drum set all require batteries.

In 1930, one could ­– gasp — actually order toy guns that simulated the real thing. A double barreled shotgun fired wooden bullets, while there were cork shooting pop guns and spring activated BB guns (“You’ll shoot yer eye out, kid”).

There is a pair of pistol-like laser guns that shoot harmless infrared beams in the 2015 catalog, as well as a plastic tube that shoots 1 1/2-inch soft foam balls into a plastic bear’s mouth (both need batteries), but these are the only toys of that type.

You know, I’ve seen 36- and even 48-packs of AA and AAA batteries in stores and wondered who would ever need that many. Now I know. Not only are today’s toys expensive but the parents battery budget must be out of this world.

Something else I noticed, little boys were shown riding scooters, tricycles and bicycles, and every one was bare headed and had on a necktie. In 2015, there are no neckties on the kids, but each has on his or her safety helmet, even toddlers in their little foot powered ride-ons.

Times change, don’t they?

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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