The Big Wheel Trike

You might say I was born at the perfect time. Those born in 1959 avoided the most dreaded of fates: being drafted and sent to Vietnam. On June 30, 1973, the draft was officially ended. I was about to turn fourteen. On March 29, 1975, even registration stopped.

And being teenagers in the 70’s, we were shielded from many scourges that appeared later, notably inexpensive recreational drugs. While my religious upbringing kept me out of trouble anyway, our generation as a whole never got hooked on things like crack, meth, or other cheap addictions, at least as teenagers.

But those of us who remember JFK were sadly cheated out of one delight: the Big Wheel trike.

This column marks a milestone for I Remember JFK. It is being written in response to its being requested by site visitors. And that’s a good thing. It means we HAVE visitors ;-).

The Big Wheel was developed by Marx Toys and introduced at the 1969 New York Toy Fair. In 1972, a company called Carolina Enterprises introduced the Hot Cycle, a successful Big Wheel clone. By the late seventies, the two companies had merged to become known as Empire Industries. By then, practically every household in America with ten-year-olds also had a Big Wheel (or two) sitting in the garage.

While the Big Wheel was introduced when I was ten years old myself, they didn’t make it to northwest Arkansas where I was living at the time until the early 70’s. By then, I was simply too gangly to fit on one. Besides, trikes were for KIDS!

But I used to watch jealously as younger ones would tear down the street, pull that brake, and do incredible spinouts. Try THAT on a regular tricycle!

The Big Wheel was a major hit for many reasons. First of all, it looked stinking cool to a kid! Second, it was composed mainly of inexpensive plastic, so it was cheaper than a regular trike. And it was also safe, its low profile making them impossible to tip over in even the most wicked spinouts.

Despite the sales of untold millions of Big Wheels in the 70’s and 80’s, Empire Industries went belly-up. Big Wheel sales had plummeted for some reason. But they have been revived, and Boomers can buy one for a grandchild at the local discount store.

Just don’t be surprised if you again find yourself jealously watching a younger one doing bonzer spinouts.

Structo Cars and Trucks

Tonkas were the undisputed king of rough, tough outdoor play in the 1960’s dirt. But there was another brand, nearly as popular, that Boomer kids played with by the millions: Structo.

I remember my mom making an offhand remark once about how Structo toys were of high quality. In researching this article, I learned that it may well have been that she had personal childhood recollections of Structo toys. They had been around that long.

Indeed, Tonka was the newcomer. Structo had been delighting kids with high-quality, built-to-last toys since before the US entered the Great War.

They managed to change with the times, so that by the Summer of Love, they could be found in nearly as many toyboxes as their better-selling cousins.

Structo began in 1915 with the production of its structural “model building sets.” These were basically erector sets. They cranked them out until 1918, when they sold their designs to a British company called Meccano. The sets eventually found their way back to the US, this time with a more familiar brand name of A.C. Gilbert.

In the meantime, Structo had changed directions, beginning to market miniaturized versions of motorized conveyances. They recognized early on the magical fascination that kids had with them in 1918, and even more so ninety years later.

Structo survived the Great Depression, and also weathered the scarcity of metal during WWII. They managed to keep innovating and turning a profit the whole time. By the time the war was over and the economy was waking back up, they were ready to begin selling in earnest to the parents of kids who now had a few bucks in their pockets, as well as fond remembrances of Structo toys from their own youths.

Thus, the older members of the Boomer generation can probably recall durable metal cars and trucks from the 50’s with lots of movings parts. Many a Structo vehicle had a hood that would open to reveal an engine, something that mere Tonkas couldn’t do.

As the 50’s turned into the 60’s, Structo toys continued to compete with Tonka. They also sold very well. A backyard dig site would typically be populated by Tonkas, Structos, and perhaps a few Nylints and Buddy-L’s. The sturdy vehicles would be passed down from generation to generation, and many still survive today, even quite a few from the 20’s.

Structo continued to do well throughout the 60’s and into the 70’s. In 1974, they were acquired by Ertl, who still exists and is indeed a kingpin among miniature vehicle manufacturers. The Racing Champions line is an Ertl subsidiary. I have actually purchased Racing Champions cars as investments for my own kids.

But sadly, you can’t walk into the Western Auto store any more and buy Structo trucks. The brand is long gone, except for the memories of Boomer kids, as well as those of their surviving parents.


Television was definitely the way to reach a kid circa 1966. Pre-adolescents of the 60’s weren’t so much into radio yet, most of us didn’t read newspapers (except for the comics, of course), and our magazines were comic books. While novelty companies certainly took advantage of the latter to turn us onto things like X-Ray Specs, the bottom line was simple: if you want to sell to millions of kids, advertise on TV and have the item available for sale in the kid’s home town.

That’s why Sixfinger was such a hit. It was advertised profusely on TV, and it was available at places like Woolworth’s, TG&Y, Kress, and many other dime stores and discount houses.

Sixfinger appealed to the same crowd that coveted the 007 Attache Case. And it was much more affordable, so parents could be more easily cajoled into getting you one just to shut up the “warting” (as my dear mom called my ceaseless begging).

The premise behind Sixfinger was simple enough: it looked like an extra digit. And I know what else it looked like, but get your mind out of the gutter! 😉 That extraneous appendage was a hidden source of all sorts of derring-do: a cap-powered bomb launcher, a noisy alert signal, a bullet, a message capsule, another bomb that spread little plastic projectiles (that would inevitably get lost), and, in case all else failed, a ball point pen. That way you could write a desperate note desiring rescue. Oh, I almost forgot, it could also click a Morse code message (after all, all seven-year olds were well schooled in Morse code ;-).

It was pretty neat, and promptly banned from school. So a kid could gain a tremendous measure of coolness by sneaking that extra finger past the teacher. Of course, launching your noisy alert during class might not be the discrete action to take under such circumstances.

The fake fingers were full of all sorts of politically incorrect things that would never be allowed to be sold on the shelves today, so they are collector’s items. But mint-condition Sixfingers still turn up on eBay in their original sealed plastic wrappers for two-figure prices. So if you would like to relive a bit of your past for less than the price of a fine dinner, keep your eyes open. They’re out there.

Rockem Sockem Robots

Original Rockem Sockem Robots

If you were a kid in the 60’s, and wanted frequent visits from your buddies, all it took was for you to own one of these babies.

Rockem Sockem Robots were advertised on commercials that thoroughly entranced their intended young audience. The robots would mercilessly hammer each other until one of them popped the spring-loaded head of the other and it would fly straight up about an inch.

You knocked his block off!

Many toys were a bit of a letdown after their spectacular commercials. Not this one. It was a real rip to play with. You could spend an hour sparring with your pal. That was an eternity in kid-attention-time.

This well-designed plastic toy seemed to last forever. It was made for hard play, and it delivered!

It was such a kid magnet that even the dweebiest kid was guaranteed visitors if he was the fortunate owner of one of these.

They still make Rockem Sockem Robots, as should be the case with the greatest toys. You can order them from several online stores, ask Google.

But they no longer have a hold on a young generation like they once did. Those classic commercials made it a must-have. Many a harried parent gave in to relentless begging from tots who just couldn’t get that image of the popping robot’s head out of their minds.

Playing Monopoly

An early Monopoly set

There are memories that transcend generations. Today’s I Remember JFK reminiscence is one such. Odds our our parents enjoyed the game of Monopoly before we Boomer kids ever came along. But we certainly enjoyed it ourselves, as have our children and grandchildren.

There are probably few households in America that don’t have a Monopoly set stashed in a closet somewhere. According to Hasbro, the current owner of the game, more that 750 million people have played Monopoly since it was patented in 1935. That makes it the most popular commercially sold board game in history.

Certainly, there are few Boomers out there who didn’t have a well-worn game, probably handed down, that would be set up for play while you and your friends would debate about who would be the banker, who would handle the real estate deeds, and, most importantly, who got to use the race car.

Monopoly was devised by an unemployed heater salesman by the name of Charles Darrow in 1932. The Great depression was raging, and Darrow was looking for a way to make a buck.

In 1904, Elizabeth Magie patented a game that proved to be mildly successful called The Landlord’s Game. It was actually a bit of a protest on her part to devise the game, as she was opposed to landlords getting wealthy at the expense of their repressed tenants.

Darrow had played The Landlord’s Game, a favorite of intellectuals, but saw a need for a less stern version of the same game for the general masses. So in 1932, he created Monopoly.

Originally consisting of a round, hand-decorated oilcloth board with hand-carved houses and hotels and powered with dime store play money, Monopoly became a fast seller in Philadelphia department stores. Darrow struggled to keep up with the demand, and began farming out some of the printing work.

By 1934, he approached Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley with the idea of them purchasing the game. They both pooh-poohed it, Parker Brothers citing 52 fundamental errors. They felt that the game was too complex for the average masses.​_

1961 Monopoly board

Perhaps they should have played The Landlord’s Game before meeting with Darrow.

Undaunted, Darrow began producing more compact versions of the game, and Philadelphia stores snatched them up. Seeing this, Parker Brothers reconsidered and purchased not only Monopoly, but also any lookalikes like The Landlord’s Game. And Darrow, of course, went from rags to riches.

The set I played with was 1950’s vintage. I remember the board being yellow. I soon learned that the strategy is buy, buy, buy. He who gets three properties of the same color has the power. But as the game winds down, deals can be made to spread the wealth around and keep the action going. According to Hasbro, who now own Parker Brothers, one game went on for 70 days!

So here’s to a big part of the memories of many generations: a friendly game of Monopoly.

Playing Doctor

1960’s dr. kit

All right, get your mind out of the gutter. I’m not talking about THAT kind of playing doctor!

A while back, I wrote about how actually visiting a doctor was a mixed bag for a kid.On the one hand, there was the ever-present fear of getting a shot. On the other, there were all of those mega-cool instruments to look at. You would only look, though. You wouldn’t dare touch.

But toymakers remembered how fascinated they were with doctor tools when they were kids. So since time immemorial, they have made miniature versions of doctors tools for kids to play with, whether out of stone, bronze, or modern-day plastic.

And I’ll bet most of you Boomers out there can remember playing with a doctor kit that looked just like the one in the illustration.

1950’s dr. kit

The doctor kit I had in the mid 1960’s had a white “bag” (actually a snap-to-close plastic case shaped like a bag) with a little red cross on it. The depicted kit was much fancier than mine, I didn’t have a microscope. But I did have one of those little hooguses that doctors use to look inside your ear. And I had a set of pince-nez plastic glasses just like in the image. And, coolest of all, I had a stethoscope with rubber tubing just like the one illustrated that really did let you listen to your heartbeat.

With my handy-dandy doctor kit, one of my main duties was treating battlefield casualties during our frequent battles fought while playing army. Sometimes those blasted Germans would gun down the good guys, but a quick fixup from a Medic with a plastic doctor kit would instantly heal the most crippling injury.

Another frequent patient was Frisky, our pet poodle. He would patiently allow me to perform examinations and operations as he quietly napped. That dog just never seemed to appreciate the medical miracles I blessed him with on a regular basis.

Nowadays, doctor kits are still quite popular. The Peerless kits we played with all those years ago are gone, but there are many toy manufacturers out there selling a variety of different doctor kits.

Does your grandkid have one? If not, you know what you need to do next, Boomers!


In 1956, Noah McVicker and his nephew Joseph invented a substance for cleaning wallpaper. The substance did a fairly good job, but the two soon recognized its potential as a child’s toy.

Play-Doh was originally off-white, and came in 1 1/2 lb. boxes. Soon, the McVicker’s company, Rainbow Crafts, started selling blue, red, and yellow Play-Doh. These varieties came in gallon paint cans. These large containers were intended for sale to schools.

Department stores took an interest, so they soon started selling smaller containers. Sales were brisk, and a patent was applied for. It took nine years before it was granted, though, governmental red tape being what it is.

The gooey stuff was a huge hit. Rainbow Crafts sold millions of little containers of Play-Doh before selling out to General Mills in 1965. The McVickers were content, retired millionaires.

Play-Doh continued to be turned out by the millions of pounds. Accessories were added like the press that would create long strands in the shapes of stars, tubes, strings like spaghetti, triangles, etc. I never had that press, but I did spend endless hours making stuff.

The scent of brand new Play-Doh was heavenly. We probably would have played with it if it was unscented, but that aroma made it especially compelling. It was also non-toxic, which meant that, like crayons, it would frequently end up in young kids’ digestive systems.

Play-Doh accessories

Play-Doh would theoretically last forever, but in reality, you had to buy new cans every few months. It would quickly get loaded up with dirt, hair, and anything else that might be lying on your floor or table. Additionally, the different colors would eventually combine into a strange purple shade. What started off as distinct red, yellow, blue, and green all ended up the same purple. Weird.

My favorite creation was the snake. You’d take a wad of Play-Doh, stopping to give it a sniff, of course, and simply roll it on a flat surface until it was snake-shaped. You could then add different colored eyes and a forked tongue. Voila!

The great thing about Play-Doh was that what you did with it was limited only by your imagination. You opened up the containers and you made things! Many a creative imagination was trained at an early age by Play-Doh. True, not many of us are sculptors today, but who’s to say that we’re not better writers, designers, programmers, bricklayers, or whatever because Play-Doh stretched our creative muscles?

The company history is a convoluted one, consisting of mergers, buyouts, and the like. But now Play-Doh is in the hands of Hasbro.

I have great memories of Play-Doh from my childhood, and even better ones of playing with it with my small children a few years back. God willing, I’ll be on the floor someday with grandkids, making snakes and savoring that heavenly aroma.

Mr. Potato Head

Mr. Potato Head and Picnic Pals, 1960’s

As the previous article on Legos mentioned, it’s special indeed when a toy that we Boomers enjoyed as children survives the economic upheavals and the buying/selling/absorptions of the companies that originally produced them. Such is the case with the subject of today’s I Remember JFK memory: Mr. Potato Head.

Mr. Potato Head first appeared in 1949. An inventor named George Lerner enjoyed playing with fruits and vegetables as a child. He would attach other fruits and vegetables to, say, a potato so that he would end up with a creation that had a carrot nose and grape eyes, which he would then present to his younger sisters. They would delight in playing with the “dolls” until they would literally deteriorate. As an adult, he recalled with fondness how much fun it was, and decided to create something a bit more durable.

Mr. Potato Head, 1952

In 1949, he designed arms, legs, and facial features to be stuck into fruits and vegetables. The idea was a bit distasteful to Americans who still had wartime rationing fresh in their minds, as well as earlier memories of nearly starving in the Great Depression.

Lerner tried unsuccessfully to market his toy for a couple of years. Finally, in 1952, he showed it to a pair of brothers who had been specializing in the textile industry, but who had developed a small business on the side that was selling toys and school supplies. It was unlike anything they, or the world, had ever seen, They bought the rights for $5,000. That would turn out to be one world-changing investment.

On May 1 of that year, Mr. Potato Head appeared in stores for the first time. For 98 cents, you got a box full of accessories to turn a spud into a lovable little guy. The toy was a huge hit, but perhaps it had to do more with what happened the day before.

On April 30, 1952, Mr. Potato Head became the first toy ever advertised on the young medium known as television. That first year, over a million kits were sold. Many thousands of a package of 50 additional stick-on accessories were obtained via mail from an included order form. The toy was such a hit that the Hassenfeld brothers decided to concentrate their time and efforts into the manufacturing and marketing of toys. Thus, Hasbro went from a textile company to the more familiar one we grew up with, and which continues to thrive today.

Mr. Potato Head Railroad set, 1968

Mrs. Potato Head was added in 1953, Brother Spud and Sister Yam shortly afterwards.

It wasn’t until 1964 that a plastic potato was added to the kit. That put an end to raiding the potato sack for a toy at playtime. Well, it discouraged it, anyway. I remember many fun rainy afternoons over at my best friend’s house in the mid 60’s turning genuine tubers into strange little guys with three eyes, an ear coming out of the forehead, etc.

During the 60’s, other critters were added to the menagerie. These included Frankie Frank, Oscar the Orange, Pete the Pepper, and Mr. Mustard Head. Successful for a while, they eventually disappeared. But Mr. Potato Head and his family have soldiered on, more popular today with kids than ever.

Of course, the times have forced changes in Mr. Potato Head. But the changes have been reasonable, logical, as opposed to politically correct.

The parts became swallow-proof (aka bigger) in 1975, and the toy effectively became aimed at a younger audience. I have great memories of playing with Mr. Potato Head at the age of eight or nine, but now the toy was being marketed to the kindergarten age. In 1986, the venerable gentleman surrendered his pipe to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop as part of the Great American Smoke-Out. I suppose that was a worthy cause, but that pipe was my favorite accessory.

Nowadays, Mr. Potato Head is one of the most recognizable toys ever made. He’s been in the movies (Toy Story), the comics (several Far Sides featured him), and in the world of advertising. That’s right, Mr. Potato Head, who was the first toy advertised on the boob tube, NOW advertises for others!

He also put Hasbro on the map, and Hasbro is one of the few surviving toy companies from our childhoods. Just think, if not for a chance encounter between the Hassenfeld brothers and one George Lerner, we might have missed out on GI Joe, Play-Doh, Easy Bake ovens, and who knows what else. So here’s a tip of the stick-on plastic derby to Mr. Potato Head: a real shaper of history.

Major Matt Mason

Major Matt Mason

The space race was one of the most exciting thigs we Boomers remember from our youth. Charismatic President Kennedy said we were going to land a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s decade! And we thought we could do it!

We kids were as excited as our parents. We loved hearing the beeps whenever Mission Control would communicate with the astronauts. We loved spacewalks, liftoffs, splashdowns, all aspects of the space program.

Mattel took the hint, and in 1967, in time for Christmas, introduced Major Matt Mason.

Originally, the toy was intended to showcase actual vehicles that NASA was designing. Soon, though, more fanciful modes of transportation were offered.

The toy was a huge hit, and its popularity matched that of the space program itself. That would prove to be fateful.

Mason himself was a little guy, smaller than GI Joe, But that was okay. GI Joe didn’t have a Space Station. Joe’s ultimate accessory was the Space Capsule. While it was mighty impressive, it just came up a bit short when compared to the Station.

It was a two-level structure that could be boarded by means of ladders on the sides. It had panels that would close to keep out the harsh solar radiation. you could mount the crawler on it so it would function as a winch. It was just the stinkin’ coolest toy an eight-year-old boy could get his hands on.

Major Matt Mason accessories

That is, IF you could get your hands on one. Sadly, I never owned MMM. But I had a buddy who had nearly every accessory, including fellow astronauts Sergeant Storm, Doug Davis, and Jeff Long.

That crawler was something else. Battery powered, it would make its way over practically any obstacle. However, I suspect that Major Mason had some pretty bad lower back pain late in life. That thing didn’t look like a very comfortable ride.

The love for the space program climaxed on July 20, 1969, when we proved JFK to be a prophet. America went absolutely giddy over men actually walking on the moon, except, of course, for those who say it was all fake.

But the next landing wasn’t so exciting. The next, even less. NASA’s budget soon began to be slashed as Americans demanded more tax money be spent on problems on this planet.

As we got bored with space missions, Major Matt Mason’s sales plummeted. 1970 was the last year you could buy Major Matt Mason and his gadgets.

Today, of course, they can all be found on eBay, but at prices considerably higher than in our childhood. MMM is one of the most collectible toys.

But it’s just not the same when your bedroom turned into a miniature moon base.

Krazy Ikes

We had lots of toys in the 60’s. Our generation was a goldmine to the likes of Mattel, Hasbro, and the rest of the mega-manufacturers of plastic gewgaws.

Krazy Ikes were a bit more obscure than Tinkertoys, but were along the same vein. They were boxes of plastic parts that could be connected to make your own creations, creatures, in this case. By my time, the parts were made of plastic, but in doing a little research on the toy, I discovered that they were first made by a company called Knapp Electric out of wood, way back in 1930!

They had the coolest funky animal heads, looking more like space aliens than critters. They just had something about them that demanded that a seven-year-old kid pick them up and start making things!

There are lots of Krazy Ike sets available today on eBay and such, but the inexpensive plastic has grown brittle over the years, so be careful if you get a set and succumb to the mysterious draw to start building! That force is still effective forty years later.