TIMELESS TOYS, An Interview with author TIM WALSH

Tim Walsh is the most patient man I've ever met. It's been almost a year since we first started corresponding about his work and with the FOG! site still under construction, I wanted to spread the word of his book, the lavishly photographed tome, TIMELESS TOYS: CLASSIC TOYS AND THE PLAYMAKERS WHO CREATED THEM, winner of the Gold award in the Pop Culture category in Foreword magazine’s Book of the Year Awards and an “IPPY” award for the Best Pop Culture/Lesisure book at the 2005 Independent Publisher Book Awards. The self-published version of this same book also was awarded the Grand Prize in the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards.

When FOG! returns, expect a return visit in an expanded interview with Mr. Walsh.

What was the genesis of your book, TIMELESS TOYS?

Two games I created, TriBond and Blurt were initially rejected by Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Mattel, etc. and what I heard time and again from these major toy companies was, “We invent everything ourselves. We have our own R&D staff and we don’t look at ideas from outside inventors.” Of course I later learned that they were just trying to dissuade me, but it got me wondering and then it got me researching. It turns out that all our classic toys, games, doll, and play sets were invented, not by major toy companies, but by everyday people hunched over their kitchen tables or at a work bench in their basements. The more stories I collected, the more I thought, “Wow, this is a book,” especially after I discovered how hard it was to find these inventors! In our country, if you create music which sells a million copies, you're on the cover of Rolling Stone. If you write a book that sells that amount you're on the New York Times best-seller list. But if you create a game or toy that sells 100 million or 150 million copies and you're – "Who?" William Gruber, Merle Robbins, Eleanor Abbott - these people have touched countless lives through their creations (View-Master, Uno, and Candy Land respectively), yet very few know who they are.

What criteria did you use to select what toys to profile in the book?

First, the toy had to have sold at least ten million copies.

That’s a big number in any industry.

Second, the toy had to have been on the market for at least ten years.

The toy industry is a fashion business riddled with one-hit wonders. The longevity of the products selected sets them apart.

Third, the toy had to have been invented outside of the major toy companies. This being a celebration of entrepreneurs, great toys like Easy-Bake Oven (Kenner, now Hasbro) and Hot Wheels (Mattel) were excluded for being “inside” jobs.

Fourth, the toy had to have been invented by an identifiable person or persons. Ancient playthings like tops, marbles, chess and checkers were excluded for being too generic.

Five, the toy had to have significance to me or my friends. If your favorite toy was excluded, I encourage you to write your own book. It’s a very liberating experience! What power you wield!

How do you think toys have changed over the years?

Certainly they are more high-tech, but they are also much safer. It’s a wonder some of us survived our childhoods! We had Lawn Darts, Clackers, and a Wood Burning Kit that had no automatic shut-off. On any given day when I was 8, I could have been impaled, blinded and burned to death in the same weekend!

Do you think classic toys are more educational? How so?

Not necessarily. Open-ended toys like Play-Doh and Etch-A-Sketch allowed a child to bring his or her own imagination to the play when they first came out, but there are examples of newer toys like K’nex and Magna Doodle that do the same thing. Also, modern marvels like the LeapPad can teach kids like never before.

Do you think that children and/or the toys created today lack the imagination that they once had?

Some of today's toys provide little flexibility in terms of play-pattern. With many high-tech toys the story line and play pattern have already been established for the child and there is often little room for open-ended play. Lego blocks can become whatever a child can dream up, but that new robotic dog will always only be a robotic dog. So in terms of fostering imagination and discovery, I would opt toward the classics.

Another factor is economic. Remember getting one toy for Christmas? Kids are so spoiled today that some imagination is lost because of the array of play and the fashion accessories that toys have become. Kids will play with anything, so if few or no toys are around, then that empty box becomes a castle or a cave. That stick becomes rocket ship or a baseball bat. I think the earlier generations (especially those kids growing up in the Depression) had to be more creative in their play.

You co-created the board game TRIBOND and later, created BLURT! What goes into creating a board game?

A lot of playing! TriBond and Blurt were refined over hours of play-testing with people who were honest enough with us to tell us when things needed to change. Once TriBond was “playable,” we needed to DO SOMETHING with it. Having the idea is the easy part, it’s taking that idea to fruition that’s truly difficult. In the thank you pages of Timeless Toys I wrote, ‘After working on this book for two and a half years, I will forever be unable to browse a bookstore without thinking of the authors, and with admiration, the long and lonely hours they must have spent with their fingers resting on a keyboard. I am amazed how much searching, interviewing, designing, collecting, costing, hauling, hunting, photographing, sleuthing and phoning there was in “writing a book.” I do now.’

Similarly, there was a ton of research, costing, fund-raising, rule writing, proof-reading, accounting, etc. in “creating” TriBond and Blurt.

What do you think makes a toy timeless?

Many factors make a plaything great and some great playthings break these rules, but overall they have these things in common:

They’re fun! This seems so simple but games that promote a cause or a toy that breaks after three afternoons or a play set that is poorly designed will quickly cease to be fun and will never be timeless.

They’re original! The theme of a “new game” can’t be spelling words with tiles or buying real estate to make monopolies or drawing pictures to get your team to guess words. These ideas are already games.

They have that “WOW” factor! Dick Knerr, the founder of Wham-O once said, “If a toy has magic, when people see it they say, ‘Oooh! What is that?’ A toy with that special ingredient makes an adult say … ‘My gosh – look at that! It appeals to the kid in everybody.”

I think that the most over-looked ingredient that contributes to making a toy timeless is the timing of its introduction. A Frisbee may not be that amazing today, but when it first came out people thought it was flying along an invisible wire! Monopoly would not be a hit if it was introduced today. It’s complicated and takes a long time to play, but it rose to popularity during the Depression when people had plenty of time on their hands and embraced the fantasy of having all that wealth.

Lastly, timeless toys are "better" because they come with memories already included! When a toy survives more than 15-20 years you begin to see a second generation of play. The kids who played with Cabbage Patch Kids in the early 80s are now having kids of their own. Recalling their own youth, parents often buy for their children a toy, game or doll that they loved growing up. This of course continues through generations as the plaything continues to endure. There's a reason why Candy Land is 'A Child's First Game.' It came out in 1949, so the five-year-old that loved the game in 1949 is now a 60 year old grandparent, Guess what game they are going to buy for their kids' kids? Candy Land has been enjoyed by three, maybe four generations of children.

What was the most unique origin story that you encountered while researching your book?

Play-Doh was the most unique to me because it began as commercial wall-paper cleaner. When coal was our nation’s primary heating fuel, homes had a soot problem. Non-washable surfaces like wallpaper presented a particularly troublesome problem. Spring-cleaning time found homemakers kneading a dough mixture of flour, water, salt and borax and rolling it up and down their papered walls to pull off the coal soot. Soon companies began offering premixed wallpaper cleaner and one of them was Kutol Products. Well, when oil furnaces and vinyl wall-paper both came out in the early 1950s, Kutol found itself in dire straits as its core product was fast becoming obsolete. When the owner’s sister read a newspaper article about decorating for Christmas and how wall paper cleaner could be used to make Christmas tree ornaments, she suggested turning the cleaning compound into a modeling compound. This alone would make the story a unique one, but the amazing success of Play-Doh puts it over the top. Hasbro still sells 95 million cans of the stuff per year!

What are your five favorite toys of all time and why?

I grew up in a very athletic family so it's no surprise that my favorite toys were "outsiders."

1) Big Wheel. I loved doing donuts in my parents' driveway. I rode it until it fell apart. I remember filling a cracked back wheel with the dry dirt from under our tire swing so that when I rode it down the sidewalk the dirt sprayed out in a cloud of dust, which looked (to me anyway) like smoke from a squealing tire.

2) Super Ball. I loved bouncing my Super Ball in the street in front of our house (when traffic was much less than it is now!) and negotiating the Super Ball’s nasty second bounce.

3) Wiffle Ball. Our strike zone was always a lawn chair set up against the side of our house. The clank of the ball hitting the chair and the clack of the bat remain vivid memories of summers past.

4) Frisbee. My aunt and uncle lived behind us and their huge backyard was a favorite for Frisbee throwing and catching.

5) Flexible Flyer sleds. Snow days in New Jersey meant sledding and since this is the one toy on my list that my father also enjoyed, it makes for a great shared experience for my family. My sister and I conquered many a hill on our trusty (and rusty) runner sleds. They don’t make them like this anymore… literally. Inexpensive plastic toboggans, snow disks and even rolled-up vinyl mats first ate away at the runner sled’s market share in the 1960s. Later, inflatable snow tubes and the soaring popularity of snowboards marked the grounding of Flexible Flyer. Production stopped in 1999.

What are you currently working on?

I am happy to say that Timeless Toys was picked up by a big publisher: Andrews McMeel. It will be in their Fall 2005 line, so that frees me up for more writing. Next up, I will finish a screenplay I‘ve been working on. It is about the last barnstorming baseball team in American history. After that, there are a few toy ideas that I have which are just certain to become timeless – if I ever find the time.

Be sure to check out Tim's site at theplaymakers.com and check out his book (an ideal gift for the holiday season), in stores now or available right HERE at Amazon.