Chesterton Tribune


Toys and Dolls: Westchester Museum celebrates 'A Boomer Christmas'

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It may not seem like Christmastime in Duneland without the ground covered in crisp, fluffy snow, but look no further than the Westchester Township History Museum to put you in the holiday spirit.

“A Boomer Christmas: Toys and Gifts of the 50s and 1960s” harkens back to the golden age of Christmas mornings when kiddies young and old woke early from their dreams of sugarplums and found Chatty Cathy dolls, Slinkies, G.I. Joes, building blocks, rocking horses, ant farms, Easy-Bake Ovens or Matchbox cars underneath the Christmas Tree.

The era was also filled with wonderful music, movies, TV programs, and recipes that remain part of our traditions today, said exhibit curator Serena Sutliff. For example, she will tell you the first peppermint candy cane was introduced in 1955, about the same time as Swiss Miss Cocoa, Campbell’s Green Bean Casserole and Chex Mix.

Christmas in Westchester

When it came to popularity, Santa Claus was at the top of the list in Chesterton throughout the Baby Boom era. An archived photo from 1958 in the exhibit shows a panoramic view of the corner of Broadway and Calumet Road where excited children and their parents loop around Thomas Park to see Santa Claus on a frosty December morning.

Another photo displayed shows Santa welcoming children to a Christmas party at the Porter NIKE base in 1960, and another shows one of his impersonators hard at work in the U.S. steelyard.

However, St. Nick must have busy readying his reindeer at the North Pole as he is nowhere to be seen in a Christmas school picture taken at Hageman Elementary School in 1952 where dozens of girls and boys gather around the Christmas tree.

An era about children

But for many Dunelanders, Christmas also meant “Hardrock, Cocoa, and Joe” would be seen on WGN-TV along with other stop-animation shorts “Suzy Snowflake” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

They predated the more familiar TV specials “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” which premiered in the mid 1960s and have been shown annually ever since.

“It was an era about children because many of the Christmas specials were made for them,” Sutliff said.

An authentic “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree was found by museum historian Eva Hopkins and is prominently displayed.

Sutliff said the “Charlie Brown” special is also suspected to play a role in the decline of the aluminum Christmas trees since the round-headed juvenile preferred a scrawny, natural tree. Aluminum Christmas trees were first manufactured in the mid 1950s. They did not use traditional Christmas lights since they could cause an electrical short circuit, Sutliff said, and instead a rotating color light wheel sat under the tree changing its appearance with each turn.

Exhibit visitors can see what an aluminum Christmas tree looks like as resident Wendy Marciniak loaned hers to the collection.

Other contributions include Marty Marciniak’s baseball glove, Nancy Hokanson’s Columbia record player, Martha Taylor-Murphy’s Christmas Banner, Roger LaHayne’s “Buddo, the Happi-Time Horse” (a rocking horse made of fiberboard and wood which was exclusively sold by Sears Roebuck and Company in the late 1940s), and former museum curator Jane Walsh-Brown’s children’s book collection and tricycle.

On loan from Bill Pope is his toy Cadillac ambulance modeled off the ones manufactured by the Miller-Meteor Company, which built hearses and ambulances on the Cadillac chassis.

Barbie’s World

Sutliff said of the items contributed over the fall, she was surprised by the number of dolls that made their way in (largely outnumbering the G.I. Joe figurines).

The Boomer era saw the birth of Barbie introduced by Mattel in 1959. Sutliff explained that before the iconic blonde made her debut, dolls prevalently resembled infants. Adult-figured dolls were becoming popular in Germany at the time which prompted Mattel to take a gamble. In the first year, more than 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold.

Barbie landed a boyfriend two years later by the name of Ken. Her best bud Midge arrived a years later followed by her kid sister Skipper and cousin Francie. Her family grew with twin siblings Todd and Tutti who have almost faded out of memory. An African-American doll in the Barbie line named Christie debuted in 1968.

Following Barbie, the second most popular doll of the Boomer era came with a string in her back. Although not having the fashion sense of Barbie, this one was more loquacious. Chatty Cathy dolls originally spoke eleven different sayings when her pulled string would operate a simple phonograph record in the doll’s abdomen.

Both dolls were loaned to the exhibit by Wendy Marciniak.

For those who can remember further, other dolls exhibited come from the Ideal Toy Company, the most prolific producer of dolls in the Boomer years.

The Secret Life of Mr. Potato Head

While many toys have seen little to no changes over the years, the popular Mr. Potato Head is surely an exception.

Developed by Hasbro in 1952, the first Potato head spud was not the plastic bodied toy we are familiar with today. Instead, children would get a kit and stick eyes, nose, feet, ears and glasses with pushpins on a real potato, giving the vegetable a funny face.

The kits did sell many units but the concept of using real vegetables was becoming a real issue as parents complained their potatoes were being “squandered” and neglected potato head figures would rot and cause unpleasant odors.

It wasn’t until 1964 when Hasbro made a few modifications and produced the all plastic shell.

Sutliff also notes a milestone claimed by Mr. Potato Head – it was the first toy to ever be advertised on television.

Christmas TV trivia

Little known facts abound in every corner of the exhibit, compliments of Sutliff.

The most interactive trivia section is a game to test your pop culture knowledge by identifying the names of characters from Christmas movies and TV specials from the Lemmon Drop Kid and Mr. Magoo.

Younger museumgoers have “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and coloring pages to keep them entertained, or can gaze over a complete Christmas village inside one of the display cabinets while their parents and grandparents can take in the nostalgic displays.

Although Christmas will be here and gone, “A Boomer Christmas” runs until Feb. 3. Next up is an exhibit on the police departments of Westchester Township.

The exhibit is free to the public during the museum’s operating hours. Groups wanting tours can call the museum at 219-983-9715.



Posted 12/20/2012