When I see today’s children being constantly being entertained by their iPods, Gameboys and video games, I often think of our simpler forms of toys and child entertainment during the 1930’s Great Depression. Of course we had the basics of bicycles, roller skates, football, baseball with bat and glove. We also had Monopoly, jigsaw puzzles and Tinkertoy. Even though a new bicycle could be purchased for $8.00, because of the hard times, used bicycles were often purchased and maybe only one for the whole family. Roller skates were not shoe skates, but the clamp-on type which were tightened by a key. They had the unnerving disadvantage of coming off when least expected. A lot of our entertainment, we devised ourselves.
Except in School, We Had No Organized Sports, Which Meant We had Control
Our sports were not scheduled by grownups, which meant we played baseball or football any time we could find a few like-minded friends.
For Christmas we would receive a few simple toys. I had a jigsaw puzzle of the United States which I loved. I kept it in a Quaker Oatmeal box. Do you remember that jigsaw puzzles invariably had at least one piece missing? For some reason, Oklahoma was missing, so I cut out a replacement of plain cardboard. A 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle was quite a challenge, especially if it was of a wheat field or forest.
I was Really Thrilled When I Discovered the Game of Monopoly at My Friend’s Home
A favorite board game was Monopoly. According to the Wikipedia article “Monopoly,” it was an updated version of “The Landlord’s Game.” In 1933, Charles Darrow began selling a version of the game. In 1935, he sold the game to Parker Brothers who started large scale production. Quoting the article on an interesting historical footnote, “In 1941 the British Secret Service had John Waddington Ltd., the licensed manufacturer of the game outside the U.S., create a special edition for World War II prisoners of war held by the Nazis. Hidden inside these games were maps, compasses, real money, and other objects useful for escaping.”
Tinkertoy Provided Many Happy Hours
A favorite toy was a construction kit called Tinkertoy. It consisted of wooden dowel sticks of varying lengths which were connected using wooden spools about 2″ in diameter. The spools had a hole in the center and a series of radial holes around the circumference. You could build a large variety of figures by looking at diagrams in the instruction book or devise ones of your own. My favorite was an elevator. According to Wikipedia, the Tinkertoy was invented in 1914. A photo of the construction set can be viewed in the article.
You Would be Surprised How Much Fun Honeybees and Bumblebees Can Be
We did not have a lot of toys, so a lot of our entertainment, we devised ourselves. I remembered simple things like picking dandelion blossoms. When the stems were split into strings and placed in water, they would curl up into knots as you watched. When I was very small, I even enjoyed baking mud pies, which seems silly now. On a hot day we would stir a thick mixture of mud and pour it into metal pans and can lids. It was surprising how fast they would bake in the hot sun. At a later age, my mother showed me how to bake oatmeal and peanut butter cookies from scratch, which I really liked. She would use up stale peanut butter that way.
We would trap honeybees and bumble bees inside flower blossoms and put them inside a jar with holes punched in the lid. The exciting part was to keep from getting stung. We would turn them loose after we tired of the game.
A “Lightning Bug” Expedition Was Really Fun
Early evening would bring forth a firefly or “lightning bug” catching operation. Of course the child with the highest number won.
It was always a thrill to find a land terrapin with the yellow and black geometric squares on their shell. While you were close by, they would withdraw into their shell. You would need to retreat a discrete distance to watch them cautiously extend their head and legs and creep away.
When it rained, I loved to pick a tree with very dense foliage and see how long I could stay under the tree without getting wet. This would assume there was no lightning present.
Shooting Starlings in the Middle of Town
We had large maple trees in our front yard. I remember a time when a large flock of starlings decided to roost in them all night. We had no air conditioning and the weather was too hot to shut the windows. The noisy starlings chattered all night and kept us awake. About dusk, the next night, Mother told me to stay away from the windows. My father was out on the porch roof with a shotgun shooting starlings right in the middle of town. There was little danger because he was shooting up in the air with bird shot, and the force of the fine lead shot would be spent before it hit the ground, but it was illegal. No neighbors reported his behavior, possibly because they were glad to be rid of the starlings also. I do believe people were more tolerant understanding and less confrontational in those days.
We Carved Our Own Little Jungle on the Banks of the Ohio River
We lived on the banks of the Ohio River. Areas of the bank near the river had a dense growth of horse weeds which grew about 8′ tall. This was at the time when our military forces were engaged with the Japanese in the dense jungles of the western Pacific. We would pretend we were in the jungle and fashioned a labyrinth of trails through the horse weeds, while warily keeping our eyes peeled for snakes, although we never did see any.
When we tired of the war scenario, we would make bows from willow tree limbs, which were very tough and flexible. Last year’s horse weed crop had very straight stalks which made wonderful arrows. The root made a good arrowhead. Admittedly, this was a very dangerous practice when we shot arrows at each other.
At other times we would play cowboy with our cowboy hats, holsters and cap pistols. When we wanted a little more excitement, we would take a hammer and explode several caps at once, or even a whole roll at one time. That was fun but got expensive pretty fast. I was really excited on the 4th of July when I was first old enough to buy real firecrackers. I had enough money to buy a few packages. I told myself that I would save my money to buy a really awesome supply next year. Much to my chagrin, when next year arrived, the state legislature had outlawed all but the sparkler type of fireworks. I was born a few years too late!
When we discovered how to speak pig latin, it was fun for a day or two as we tried it out on new people. Another diversion was learning how to whistle through your hands by cupping the palms of your hands together, placing your thumbs side by side and blowing down through your thumbs and the hole created at the base of the palms. It took considerable practice.
Playing Marbles was Not Much Fun as I was Not Very Good
Playing marbles was fun but my enjoyment was muted by the fact that I was never very proficient. If we played keepers, my supply didn’t last very long. My neighbor could hit a marble with his shooter and knock it out of the ring, while the shooter marble would just sit and spin in the spot where the other marble had been.
Flying a kite over the river was fun. The prevailing wind direction was from the west, which carried the kite over the river and away from the power lines.
In the winter, we would sled down the riverbank toward the river. The key was to be sure you could stop before reaching the water. Of course, these activities were interspersed with trips to the library.
I imagine most of these activities would be boring to the present generation of kids who seem to be constantly plugged in, turned on or watching, but I remember my childhood fondly and don’t feel that I missed much.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be taken as professional advice. It is written for informational purposes only and is correct to the best of my knowledge, but I cannot guarantee the accuracy. I do not accept any responsibility for the results of actions on your part taken or not taken as a result of reading this article. All actions are taken at your own risk. I am just relating my own opinions and experiences and my opinions could be wrong.
Related Articles by Stewart Lodge:
While Growing Up During the 1930s Great Depression, Life was Quite Austere but Practical
Growing Up During the Great Depression in the 1930’s: Our Frugal Lifestyle
Childhood Memories in the 1930’s: Lone Ranger, Jack Armstrong, Red Ryder, a Victrola and a Player Piano