Memory Lane: Play Sets

The Marx Ben-Hur play set from 1959

What did you do if you were nine years old, and you’d already been to church or Sunday school today, and your father wasn’t going to take you to the movies–oh, and it’s 1959, or so?

Throughout the 1950s, America’s toy companies met that need with play sets. You got a big box, some kind of background you could set up, and a whole bunch of little plastic figures. If you had the Ben-Hur play set, pictured above, you could set up the arena and re-enact the chariot race from the movie.

There were all kinds of play sets. I had the dinosaur set, the farm, and a Cape Canaveral set with rockets and missiles you could send flying from spring-powered launchers, and a circus set with a tin big top.

The Cape Canaveral set (“You’ll put your eye out!”)

With all of these, you had to use your imagination. So we made up stories and acted them out with the little plastic figures–dinosaurs take over the space program, the farm animals decide to run the farm themselves, and so on. Every day was different.

Not like now, when well-meaning (we are being charitable) adults spoon-feed and control everything that a child might take into his head, completely unaware that such a thing is impossible to perform and letting a lot of really dark stuff get in that ought to be kept out.

We were better off with the play sets.

7 comments on “Memory Lane: Play Sets

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Lee. Today’s toys are but a faint shadow of the imagination stoking ability of the toys we had back in the ’50s and ’60s. The imaginary roads I built with my fleet of Tonka Toys carry imaginary traffic to this day. 🙂

  2. I was a grown up mother in 1959, but my elder son did enjoy things like these, and when his younger brother arrived, he discovered his life work
    using such toys.

  3. His work and passion is just being around mechanical things, and he is a genius at finding what “ails” any engine, any size and getting it “doctored”
    and humming again. As a baby, he could make all kinds of engine noises
    like trucks coming up the road, lawn mowers starting, etc.

  4. My very favorite toys when I was younger were my dollhouse, and my brother’s cowboy town and pirate set (all Fisher Price toys, which were really well made).
    We spent hours and hours playing with those things. I don’t have the dollhouse anymore, but I do have all the people and accessories that came with it, waiting for the day when I might have little girls of my own who can play with them.

    Unfortunately, Fisher Price toys have now become so babyish and cheap looking; it’s pretty disappointing.

    1. “Unfortunately, Fisher Price toys have now become so babyish and cheap looking; it’s pretty disappointing.”

      True of many things these days. I used to want a Mercedes Benz, but these days even they have lost their reputation for quality.

  5. Oh, by the way, I meant to say that I would have absolutely loved a Ben Hur play set. I really enjoyed the abridged version when I was a kid.

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