When I was a kid I used to go to my grandma's house every other weekend. My brother and I went on lots of trips to the store with grandma. Sometimes grandpa even tagged along. When we got there grandma would give us a five dollar bill to spend as mad money on whatever we wanted. If grandpa was there he would slip us an additional fiver with a wink and a whisper, "don't tell grandma".
Maybe they were trying to buy our affection. Maybe they were trying to buy five minutes of peace while they shopped, without two pesky kids hanging off the shopping cart and asking with puppy dog eyes "puhleeeeeze" for anything that looked remotely appealing.
Whatever they were trying to do it worked. I could care less as I raced to the toy aisle with Mr. Lincoln clutched in my palm.
The toy aisle of any grocery store can be described as sparse at best. Usually it was not even a full aisle and just one small section of cheap plastic toys and games. But do not be fooled a lot of fun was to be found there if you knew how to make that five dollars stretch.Games and Puzzles
Pick up sticks has got to be one of the oldest games known to mankind. Basically you hold a bunch of sticks in your hand and let 'em drop, fall where they may. Then you use a special stick to try and remove them without disturbing the others. Your turn ends when a stick moves other than the one you are trying to release from the pile. The can had rules for a point system based on color, size, etc. but we never kept score other than who could get the most sticks.Cards
Milton Bradley, Parker Bros. and Whitman among other companies made various card games for children. Some of the games have been around since the 30s or longer. Some of my favorites were...
Old Maid was a game where you collected cards and tried to discard pairs until you where out of cards. Whoever was left with the Old Maid that didn't have a match was the loser.
War! Try to gain all of the cards by trumping your opponent with a tougher character. The spy could kill the general but would get wiped out by anything else.
Go Fish! Another pairing game where you ask your opponent for a specific card if you already are holding one like it. If the other kid doesn't have one he yells go fish and you have to draw.
Crazy Eights and Hearts were two more of the more popular card games. I am not going to describe them as the last three paragraphs were already kinda boring.Puzzles
You could get all sorts of puzzles at the grocery store, here are some cool Universal Monsters ones made by Golden.Toys
Ah the Duncan Yo-Yo! I considered myself a master as I could successfully complete several tricks including walk the dog, baby in the cradle, shoot the moon, and around the world. The Yo-Yo has been around forever but became popular as a toy in the 20s. Around the 70s someone decided to put a ball bearing in it to be able to do more cool tricks like sleeping. If your Yo-Yo wasn't a Duncan it was probably a piece of junk.
Bouncy balls fun for all of five minutes until it bounces into traffic, down the sewer grate, or under the couch or other hard to access place.
Who didn't love silly putty? An amorphous gob of goo that could molded and shaped into just about anything. Add the fact that it would readily pick up ink meant that you could transfer pictures and words from the newspaper to its surface and back onto a sheet of paper. Don't do it to your comic books though as it will ruin them. One downside to picking up things is that it also picked up dirt , lint, and food crumbs. Eventually it would turn into a black hunk of greasy, ink covered, crumby mess.
Punch balloons! You inflated them and then pummeled them with your fist as you clutched the rubber band handle. More durable than a regular balloon and a lot harder to pop they scared the poop right out of you when they did explode with a deafening boom.
I distinctly remember buying this little junky pool table. It had a triangle to rack the balls and two cues with built in springs. Unfortunately until you mastered the delicacy required to successfully propel a ball into the shallow pockets, you would already have lost most of the balls as you flung them far and wide off the table with the spring pulled all the way back.
Magic slates were cool because they had all of your favorite characters and just for the fact that if you didn't like what you drew you could just lift the sheet and start over. The longer they were used they would acquire scratches and dead spots that could not be drawn over.
"It's NERF or nothing!" Made from some kind of spongy foam material the Nerf football was a standard toy for most young boys. It was way cheaper than a real football. Also it was easier to catch then a real pigskin for small hands because of the material and its size. Plus you could throw the thing a mile. Whatever marketing analyst that said you could play with it safely indoors was obviously smoking something. Yeah maybe it wouldn't break the lamp on contact but they didn't calculate in inertia and gravity. The hurtling missile and the tipping, wobbly fall combined with the sudden impact of a hard surface would definitely break all of mom's knick-knacks. Anyways, no pick up game of backyard football would be complete without one.
Hot Wheels, Matchbox, and Ertl cars were insanely popular because they were small enough to be portable, even small enough to fit in a kid's pocket and cool because they were race cars etc. My favorite of all time was the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazard. It was heavy (made of metal unlike the plastic pieces of junk now-a-days) and had good wheels and solid axles. The weight and wheels would carry it a mile to win any distance contest and it was always a sure bet in a straight out speed race down a ramp. Mine got stolen from me in preschool by some chump who showed up the next day with his name written on the bottom ready to race. Didn't he realize I had already scratched my initials in it and would recognize it a mile away even if I hadn't because I played with it every day and had memorized every scratch and nick. The next day determined to get my baby back I smuggled a steak knife in my sock (socks were long enough back then, nearly knee-high). I don't actually know what I was planning on doing but I didn't actually intend to hurt the kid at least not with the knife. I was busy threatening the kid with it when I was spotted by an adult. My mom got a call not many parents would expect back then, "Mrs, Nlogan we can not have our preschoolers bringing knives in their socks to preschool nor trying to rob their playmates".
Incidentally my first Pez dispensers were also obtained at preschool given to me secretly every once in a while by a teacher that thought I was adorable. Pez dispensers are one of the main attractions for any grocery store toy/candy aisle for me. It was the perfect combination of a candy and toy and they were so collectible with hundreds of different characters to choose from. The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Batman and that cool caped skull from Halloween were by far my favorites.
Do you remember the fuzzy pseudo-velvet pictures that you colored with markers? It seems that whenever I went to the store all the good ones were gone leaving nothing but unicorns, puppies, etc. Every now and then I would find one hidden in the back of the pile like a pic of wolves, a tiger or Spider-Man.
Colorforms! You started out with a cardboard background with a thin vinyl layer. This was the scene setting for whatever character you got, for the Hulk obviously it has to be a city street to smash up, "Hulk Smash"!
You would then apply your characters made from vinyl sheets like stickers where ever you wanted and they would stick by static cling. Unlike stickers you could move them again and again on the background. It usually also came with some kind of story setting. Here the Hulk is ready to trash the Leader, Abomination, and the Rhino.
Well I guess I better throw some girl stuff in because technically there would have been some on the toy aisle. I have probably already lost any female readers a while back but before going to some more guy stuff here is some girly stuff for the ladies that hung in there.
Jacks, um bounce the ball then pick up all the jacks before it bounces again, at least I think that is how it is played. Ladies?
The toy aisle always had several different styles of jump ropes to choose from as well as a steady supply of hopscotch pucks and chalk to draw your squares with.
They usually had a few very poor quality dolls or miniature babies to play with as well as some accessories like this feeding set as well as stuff like plates and cups for tea parties.
Okay blow all of that girly stuff away with a thousand bubbles. Truth is that most girls played with everything including most things I would include on a list of boy's toys. But if a guy was playing with anything from the pink aisle that was a surefire playground beating in the making or at least a good teasing by us chauvinistic kids. Bubbles were also found on the toy aisle a plenty.
If it is gross, disgusting, creepy, etc little boys love it and toy makers know it much to the dismay of many a mom. I had a never ending supply of rubber snakes and spiders. Good for a startle scare at first glance. Every other day I kept my mom on her toes with the phrase, "Look what I caught mom, can I keep it?". I would alternate between rubber and real snakes and toads from fields and streams near my house so my mom would always shriek as she turned around with my new prize shoved close to her face whether it was real or not. The rubber ones usually were relegated to Halloween decorations after the initial surprise scare factor had worn off. Also included is a jointed snake that could make cool undulating motions and was good for pretty much nothing else.
Cap guns were pretty cool even if moms worried endlessly about you being shot by someone thing it was a real gun or injured having the caps explode in your pocket from friction and burning your leg. If you were stupid enough to point it at someone with a real gun you deserved to be shot. Some moms wouldn't even allow such a toy saying they only perpetuated violence. Well there are lots of Police Officers and Military Personnel that protect us that are thankful they were allowed to play guns be it army or cops and robbers when they were young. The Fourth of July parade would just not have been the same without cap guns. I myself had a fancy double hostler rig for my twin colt six-shooters to go with my cowboy hat and boots when I was 4. The caps either came in a long roll of paper or a speed load plastic ring. I had many good times playing guns whether it was cap guns or water pistols.
My brother and I would clash endlessly in duel after duel with plastic swords whether we were pirates or knights or ninjas.
All manner of fake weaponry was available from nun chucks to plastic shuriken. At Halloween time a kid could complete his arsenal with battle axes, machetes, etc. Plastic men
The grocery toy aisle had a variety of plastic men available usually in plastic bags. I had tons of army men with tanks and Jeeps, cannons, bunkers, barbed wire rolls, and tank obstacles. I had armies from many different countries like British troops, German infantrymen, Japanese soldiers, etc. each with their own flag. I also had Cowboys and Indians, astronauts, firemen, policemen, farm equipment, etc. Marx and other companies have been pumping these things out pretty much ever since plastics were manufactured for widespread home use. They had a huge boom in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They are still available today sometimes reusing some of the original molds or knock-offs of them.
Tepees, horses and wagons, corals, Indian braves, and cowboys to play wild west with.
Some of the cooler plastic toy figures I had were from the 1982 movie The Sword and Sorcerer. The toys really had nothing to do with the movie but were cool anyways and had removable glow in the dark weapons. There were also dragons and things, there was even a winged lion figure that was a straight rip-off of the animated Rankin and Bass Lord of the Rings portrayal of the Balrog. I couldn't find a picture of it though.
In addition to plastic men you could get farm animals, jungle safari animals, and dinosaurs.
In most bags of dinosaurs you would also receive some odd creatures. One looked like a giant lobster without claws and with a propeller for a tail and the other was like a walking armor plated tank. Neither of them resembled any dinosaur or prehistoric creature I was familiar with. The creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax is rumored to have bought a bag of dinosaurs for his miniatures to fight against and incorporated them into his mythos as the Rust Monster and the Bulette. Play Sets
The Piece de resistance of grocery store toy aisles were the play sets (I tried to include the accent marks in the French piece de resistance so it would be pronounced correctly but I ended up with weird characters). High atop the store shelves were play sets out of reach of even the most tenacious kids. Some of the ones I owned:
Continuing with the dinosaurs was my Marx 1978 Prehistoric Play set.
It had a cool cave/arch and trees and stuff. I did not care in the least that it was mixing dinosaurs from several different periods or that it had extinct prehistoric mammals and cavemen along with the dinosaurs.
Some of my favorites were the Woolly Mammoth and the Smilodon (Saber-toothed Tiger).
The dinosaurs came in various colors of plastics and sizes.
I also had these trees but I can't remember which set they came from. They may have been incorporated from a set my dad had as kid. Marx has been making these things forever and they have everything from storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day to the O.K. Corral, to Moonscapes.
DFC of Dimensions for Children made cool fantasy themed play sets in the early 80s. I had the Forest of Doom.
Most play sets came with a plastic sheet for a play mat and these were no exception. This set also came with a dragon, ogres, demons, knights and wizards, as well as cardboard trees and hedges, and a castle wall.
The DFC sets in my opinion were direct predecessors to the game Crossbows and Catapults from 1983.
Other sets available from DFC:
After a while my grandparents would come around with a full shopping cart and round us up to head to the checkout stand. For some reason they never bought bread at the grocery store but we always went to the Wonderbread Hostess Bakery afterwards. There they bought bread and other baked goods. We would even ask for day old bread and expired stuff to go to the park and feed the ducks with. I would buy treats if I had any money left. Even if I didn't, grandma and grandpa would usually buy some anyways.Treats
Cupcakes in both the standard chocolate, a piece of heaven with chocolate icing on top with that cool swirl that was so very difficult to peel off in one piece and the orange variety.
Twinkies, golden cakes of goodness with sweet creamy filling.
Fruitpies in apple, cherry and lemon, a staple of my childhood diet with the iced flaky crust and the gooey filler inside.
Donettes little baby donuts with a French diminutive ending how cute and delicious in chocolate, powdered, and the famous crumb.
Suzy Q a chocolate cake outside with a whipped cream inside. Ding dongs another of my favorites. A hockey puck of chocolate cake iced with more chocolate with a cream center. I loved putting them in the freezer and eating them cold.
Snoballs are like a cupcake with a marshmallow shell sometimes with a coconut sprinkling on top. They came in various colors to match the seasons or holidays. I remember orange, green, pink, and the original white.
Tigertails were like a Twinkie with a raspberry swirl on them. I loved them but cannot find a picture of them on the interweb.
Chocodilles are basically chocolate dipped Twinkies, mmmm tasty. Ho-Hos are a sheet of cake wrapped in a swirl around a creme filler. They are exactly the same as Swiss rolls by Little Debbie.
Zingers were my all time favorite. They came in lemon, raspberry with coconut and the classic chocolate. They are small cakes with creme filled centers.
Dolly Madison coincidentally also makes Zingers. Maybe not such a coincident after all.
Dolly Madison is owned by the Interstate Bakeries Corporation.
The Continental Baking Company purchased Taggart who makes Wonderbread. They also invented Hostess Cakes.
The McKee Foods Corporation owns Little Debbie and Sunbelt snacks, and is distributed by the Continental Baking Co., which is owned by the Interstate Bakeries Corporation.
So they are all actually owned by the same parent company. Pretty smart if you ask me, owning all of the competition.
Needless to say I am not fat even though I have eaten these snack cakes since I was a kid with abandon. Grandma and Grandpa would scoop us up along with the grocery sacks and we would head home to play with our new toys with chocolate frosted mouths and hands.