His 1996 book, "Kid Stuff: Great Toys From Our Childhood" is the basis of a traveling museum exhibit that originated at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass. Style spoke with Hoffman by phone from his home in Los Angeles.
Style: As curator for the "Kid Stuff" exhibit, you've assembled about 200 vintage artifacts representing 40 classic toys. What does it all mean?
Hoffman: There wasn't one of us who hadn't eaten Play-Doh or colored on the walls or tried to win Monopoly. At the same time, none of us knew that the son of Frank Lloyd Wright invented Lincoln Logs, and that's the reason I sat down as a writer and did the book. That was the educational line behind the exhibition, the true toy story.
I started to assemble products, and all of a sudden when I would see these things, the same things I had as a kid, this rush came over me and my memory was triggered, often by the box as much as anything else.
I can be an armchair psychologist and say toys obviously take us back to a safer, simpler time. As we age, life becomes more complicated, so toys always seem simple and easy. It can be an Etch-A-Sketch or a wad of Silly Putty. When you're a kid, you have no control over anything until you go into your room and build a skyscraper or play with Mr. Potato Head.
What's significant to you about the origins of these toys?
Most of these were invented by accident. Many started as something else, and that paints a bigger picture of creativity and reality, to see something and to see another use or behavior out of it. The guy who invented Tinker Toys sold tombstones. But he's at home one night, and his kids are taking pencils and sticking them into spools of thread and creating structures, and he realizes this is a great idea. Lincoln Logs were the same thing. Frank Lloyd Wright was building the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and his son is watching them use this interlocking beam technique and thinking this would be a great toy for kids. That's the part that fascinates and interests me the most.
How has the business of selling and marketing changed the way toys are created?
A lot of the toys that we construe as classics today were invented by mom-and-pop companies. Slinky, Play-Doh, Colorforms were eventually bought by larger companies. Fifteen or 16 of these toys are now under the umbrella of Hasbro. As these companies were sold, their histories and origins got lost. I don't think the same kinds of classics are made today, because it's a different time in retailing and marketing. In my opinion toys are hot today and gone tomorrow: Pods, Furbys, Tickle Me Elmo Where are they? But Lionel Trains have been around 100 years, Barbie is almost 55. A lot of these toys are thought of as from our generation, but many date back much earlier than that. Erector Sets are from the 1910s and 1920s.
You've said women sometimes swoon at the sight of an EZ-Bake oven on display. Is this about nostalgia or something more?
There's a universality to it all. Whether you're a boomer or a slacker, whether you grew up with Beaver or the Bradys, there wasn't anyone who, when told to go to your room and play, didn't pull out Colorforms or Cooties or Crayolas. The experience was shared no matter what generation it was. Ultimately, for me, that's the key to the whole exhibition. You see three generations walking in. The kids tear through it and play with everything they can get their hands on. They race Hot Wheels and build Legos and throw Nerf balls. The adults take it slower and remember having that toy, and telling nostalgic stories. And the grandparents may have had the Lionel Trains, but more important, they were the generation that purchased these toys for us.
All of these toys were a shared experience. They started as toys, then became big business, and are now icons of popular culture. S
"Kid Stuff: Great Toys from Our Childhood" continues at the Science Museum of Virginia through Labor Day. 2500 W. Broad St., Richmond. 864-1400.
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