The History Center’s multigenerational toy exhibit | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The History Center’s multigenerational toy exhibit

“This is pinball, do you want to see what that is?”

Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, at Heinz History Center
Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, at Heinz History Center

A woman and her young daughter face a retro 1960s “Slick Chick” pinball machine.

“This is pinball, do you want to see what that is?” the mother asks. The child picks up a token and shows it to her mother, hoping to catch a glimpse of the games she enjoyed as a child.

The Heinz History Center facilitates this type of interaction with its exhibit Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, featuring more than 500 of the nation’s most popular playthings.

The 8,000-square-foot exhibit, developed in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society, breaks the space into “toy living rooms” that evoke each generation’s obsessions and icons.

The brightly colored 1960s living room is painted a shocking pink, with zebra-print carpeting and a geometric orange-and-pink upholstered couch, modeling a Barbie Dreamhouse. Also included are space-themed toys, indicative of the space race against the Soviet Union, and the world’s first action figure, 1964’s G.I. Joe.

A Mr. Potato Head display illuminates the spud’s somewhat rotten start. George Lerner developed the toy in 1949 in hopes of keeping children from wasting food. The original kit (one of which is on display) allowed children to stick eyes, noses, ears and other features into real fruits, vegetables and, of course, potatoes. However, the foods tended to rot, so in 1964 Hasbro invented the plastic potato body.

There’s also a salute to a local outfit, The Wolverine Toy Company, which originally produced kitchen implements and other household supplies but went on to produce toys that would be sold in major department stores across the U.S. Namely, it manufactured a line of sturdy, mechanical tin construction-style boys’ toys. Later it produced Sunny Suzy, a line marketed to girls, which included toy irons and ovens.

Then there are those pinball machines, courtesy of the Replay Foundation, a local nonprofit that houses the world’s largest collection of vintage pinball games.

 Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s draws not just a younger crowd, says History Center spokesman Ned Schano, but multi-generational families who can experience the displays with both nostalgia and discovery.

“It’s been exactly what we had hoped for, bringing families together and hearing their stories,” says Schano. “We joked that we should have called it the ‘I Had That’ exhibit.”

Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest
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Ephemeral art made at Chalk Fest

By Pam Smith