Fun with Cardboard Boxes

Kids having fun in a box

Parents have long been baffled by the strange phenomenon of giving their kids nice gifts, only to see them playing with the box the prize came in rather than the toy itself.

Well, I still have enough kid in me that I can remember what was so cool about playing with big cardboard boxes. You could make absolutely anything out of them! Your imagination was the limit. And they didn’t require assembly! Perhaps a bit of cutting here and there was needed to create just the right structures.

What a kid would do with a box depended largely on its size. A box just big enough to sit in would be, of course, sat in. But that was only the beginning. Sitting in a box might mean driving a race car, or flying a jet, or motoring a tank over the hills. Or, it might just be a good place to crash while watching TV.

Bigger boxes would make good forts. Perhaps a door would be cut in in one side so you could crawl in, and maybe a smaller slit carved for firing one’s weapons at the enemy.

Cardboard house

And smaller boxes were also quite desirable to youngsters. G.I. Joe could sit in a miniature box in the same manner that his owner would do so. In fact, I remember my own G.I. Joe using the very box he came in for various wartime exploits.

Bot a box just a bit bigger could be made into Joe’s own fort. What was bonzer about that was that a passing airplane could drop a bomb on the structure and blow the hapless soldier to kingdom come.

Indeed, we kids could be quite sadistic with the plastic warrior. Sometimes the aftermath of such an explosion would involve removing a limb or two for effect as we recreated the horrors of war in our bedrooms. The arms would pop right back on, of course.

Then there were the garage-sized boxes. You would cut windows and a door big enough for a Tonka vehicle to pull inside. Fun stuff.

Playing with boxes is one of those memories we Boomer kids share with all other generations. Medieval children probably had their own version of boxes to have imaginative fun with.

It was fun watching my own kids play with the boxes that their toys came in, and I look forward to watching my grandkids do the same.

Fortunately, some things never change.

Erector Sets

Gilbert erector set

Late in the year 1969, I got a Gilbert erector set. I even know the model that it was, but not from memory. Gilbert, who by then had been purchased by the Gabriel Co., only had a few different sets on the market.

I had a Senior Powerline set. It had a battery-powered motor so you could make amazing creations like rotating ferris wheels, a lift drawbridge, a crane, and many more acts of engineering.

The concept of the erector set sprang into the mind of A.C. Gilbert as he watched a skyscraper being built in 1911. He pictured a simple toy, a collection of miniature girders, beams, wheels, gears, and metal plates, all designed to be held together with small nuts and bolts.

Gilbert had the money to create and produce the toy, and also launched a national advertising campaign in 1913. Interestingly, that decade would also see the introduction of two other construction toys, Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys.

The erector set was a wonderfully heavy gift for a child to unwrap. It was full of real metal parts, and you knew that this toy would last considerably longer than your plastic ones.

And what you built was up to you! The bigger projects took more time and work, so if your time was limited, you might make something small. The included manual contained a massive collection of projects running the gamut form the simple to the complex.

However, one thing I could not do was freelance.

This is what a kid could make!

If I tried to make something up out of my imagination, it would never work. I would end with a collection of metal parts bolted together that looked like a random collection of metal parts bolted together. I guess that proves I don’t have the mind of an architect or engineer. I was certainly never tempted to pursue either career path.

However, when I followed the plans, I was capable of making extraordinary creations. I beamed with pride as I would carry in things like wreckers, windmills, and hoists and show them to my parents. I don’t know if they were really impressed or not, but they sure made me think so.

An erector set taught a kid the importance of committing to a cause. It might take hours to make something really big and elaborate. It wasn’t like playing with your other toys. Commencing to build a motor-powered crane didn’t allow walking away from the project before completion, at least not if your mom insisted on you keeping your room clean and picked up. So you stuck with it until it was finished.

Ah, but the reward! When you’re ten years old, and frustrated because your artistic endeavors look like they were created by a ten-year-old, it filled you with pride to look at your erector set creation that looked just like the plans!

The nature of a toy consisting of lots of little parts meant that some of them would inevitably get lost. And when enough parts vanished, the set itself became a lot less fun to play with. So eventually, it would be discarded.

But the memories live on forever of how satisfying it was to build impressive structures. And so does the idea of making a solid commitment to a cause that requires time and effort to see through to completion.

Electronic Handheld Games

1977 vintage handheld football game

We Boomers had great imaginations. How great? Well, in the mid-to-late 70’s, we would get extremely excited over little red LED’s flashing on a tiny screen. These LED’s, as they lit and darkened to the motions of our thumbs on buttons, would cause cheering, cursing, and occasionally even the tossing of the game that provided all of this “action” (hopefully against a shock-absorbing surface).

Electronic games began with Mattel’s Auto Race in 1974. It was the first handheld game to contain no gears, relays, or any other moving parts. Everything ran with diodes, transistors, integrated circuits, and of course a tiny screen with “cars” represented by tiny red LED’s. And believe you me, any kid whose parents shelled out the big bucks for it was popular, at least while he had fresh batteries.

Football seemed to be a natural fit for handhelds, and accounted for many of their incarnations. The pictured game was Mattel Electronics Football, circa 1977.

But memory tests soon got red hot a little later in the decade. In 1978, Merlin and Simon appeared, both challenging you to repeat patterns of lights by punching the appropriate buttons. And as some of us enter the twilight years, take it from me: you NEED to have your memory challenged on a daily basis! Use it or lose it.

The games quickly got more sophisticated. By 1980, you could get bowling, hockey, baseball, chess (THAT was cool!), and Missile Attack. I was always vaguely disturbed by playing Missile Attack, as the cities full of innocent people that you were striving so hard to protect were ultimately doomed, it was just a matter of when.

In the early 80’s, LCD screens began to appear, and realism took a quantum leap. After all, those tiny LED’s required a lot of help from your imagination to become basketball players, bowling balls, or nuclear ICBM’s.

In 2000, Mattel re-released their original 1977 football game. It was a hit, in large part from younger Boomers trying to recapture the excitement of seeing those little LED’s light up and being transformed them into hulking football players.

Chemistry Sets

60’s Skilcraft chemistry set

Man, the things our parents let us play with in the 60’s and 70’s. I haven’t looked at modern-day chemistry sets, but in a land where you can’t get authentic Kinder Eggs because of the fear that you may be stupid enough to give the hidden toys inside to a child of less than three years of age, I can’t imagine either of the two chemistry sets I once owned being offered for sale today.

More’s the pity, because a chemistry set, circa 1970, made you more mature. Read on for more details.

My first set was a Skilcraft my parents bought me in 1970. I was ten years old. The manual that came with it was divided into two sections: lightweight magic you could perform with chemicals, and more serious experiments that would teach you about chemistry.

Kay chemistry set, possibly 50’s vintage

The magic tricks consisted of stuff like preparing two test tubes of clear liquids (one contained phenolphthalein solution, I can’t recall the other needed chemical) which you could mix together to magically form “grape juice.”

You can see where this is heading. Today’s poor, stupid, coddled youngsters, upon being told that they could make chemical “grape juice,” would obviously gorge themselves on it, necessitating an emergency room visit, as well as lots of legal action.

At least that’s what our modern society would have you believe.

The more serious section of the Skilcraft manual taught you how acids and bases would interact, how you could use red and blue litmus paper to detect them, how you could mix two liquid chemicals to immediately form a solid precipitate, and how it happened at the molecular level, stuff like that.

As much as I ate that stuff up, I’m surprised that I never pursued a career in the field. In fact, I never even took chemistry in high school, despite the urgings of the teacher to do so. Don’t ask me why.

But I seriously loved messing with my chemistry set when I was ten. Eventually, it fell into disrepair and vanished. But when I was TWELVE, I got the most equipped Skilcraft set that they made!

I was in heaven. This incredible set even came with a balance beam, so you could compare the weights of chemicals! Cool stuff indeed.

Just think for a moment about what kids were given: Chemistry sets came with an alcohol lamp, which you filled with the flammable liquid, lit with a match, and used to provide intense heat for experimentation purposes. They also came with glass test tubes, which could shatter upon impact, or even from heating them too fast. They came with lots of chemicals, most of which were relatively harmless, but a few of which (e.g. cobalt chloride) had long, finely worded warnings printed on the back of the bottle warning of dire consequences in the unfortunate event you poured them into your eyes, or ingested them. And carelessly mixing benign ingredients without guidance could create harmful reactions, as well.

Ergo, a ten-year-old with a chemistry set instantly became a mature young man who knew how to safely handle fire (the enclosed manual stepped you through it), potentially dangerous chemicals, breakable glassware, and also knew enough not to venture too far in experimentation.

It’s a pity today’s ten-year-olds aren’t given the opportunity to do the same

Bang Caps

Bang caps

George Carlin said that the problem today’s kids have is that they have to wear a helmet to do anything. When we were kids in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, we engaged in activities that would shock today’s society that is so obsessed with protecting us from ourselves.

For instance, we used to walk into the neighborhood grocery store and buy explosives.

The explosives were in the form of roll caps. The brand I saw everywhere as a child was Bang Caps.

The summer afternoon air was frequently filled with reports and smoke as we dueled with our trusty cap pistols. But after a while, we would crave louder explosions. That meant finding a hammer.

Cap missile

The roll caps would typically come 250 shots to a box. There would be five rolls of fifty each. Now sure, it was fun shooting them one at a time (and tearing off spent shots. Remember the neighborhood being littered with strips of red paper?). But boys being boys, we craved bigger, LOUDER!

So we would take an entire roll of caps, set it on a brick, and have at it with a hammer. The result would be an ear-ringing blast that would rock the neighborhood. It was as least as loud as a firecracker (which had a lot more power in those days than the wimpy glorified ladyfingers that they sell today).

There were all sorts of toys that used the caps besides pistols. I remember a rounded-nosed-missile that was made of gray metal. You slid a cap into its nose and tossed it. The heavily weighted nose would hit the ground first to produce a nice little explosion. And of course, you would cram three caps in the nose to make it louder.

I guess you can still get cap pistols, but nowadays they have to have an orange barrel to keep cops from mistaking them for the real thing and blowing a kid away. What a sad turn our society has taken.

But if you remember JFK, you can recall a time when the neighborhood rang with miniature explosions (and occasional bigger ones). It was fun, it was innocent, and it was a long time ago.

Dime Store Gliders

Basic balsa glider

When we were kids, our options at the local neighborhood grocery or the dime store were manifold. Most of the time, we walked out with candy. But sometimes, we would invest our hard-earned (or begged) coins on magical little flying machines made of balsa wood.

They came in little clear plastic packages with cardboard at the top. The hole in the cardboard allowed them to be hung on a rack, frequently at the top of the candy display, as I recall. The plain ones cost a dime, the fancier rubber-band driven models were 29 cents, as best I can remember.

Since I usually was given two nickels a day, buying a glider meant making a tough decision. I had to forego my morning candy fix and come back later in the afternoon in order to have ten cents to purchase my flying machine.

But as much as I loved the elegant little airplanes, I made the tough call many times, and walked home proudly carrying my plastic-wrapped wooden prize.

My craft of choice was usually the simple ten cent glider, for obvious reasons of affordability. However, sometimes I would manage to cajole mom into springing for a rubber-band powered model at the dime store.

The propeller-driven plane was seriously cool indeed. The fuselage was a simple square stick that held a hook on the rear and a slide-on red plastic propeller holder on the front. It had its own hook, and the special long thin rubber band stretched the entire length of the stick.

Balsa glider with propellor

The plane also had wheels. I guess a more skilled pilot could make it take off or land that way, but not me.

Powering the plane involved patiently turning the propeller backwards. The rubber band would become evenly twisted, then would take on a new shape as the twists would be transformed into large knots. When the entire rubber band was a series of large knots, it was time for the flight to begin.

Letting the plane go on its own on concrete would generally result in it running rapidly along the ground and eventually smashing into something. So I would launch the plane by throwing it skyward, just like it was an unpowered glider.

Eventually, the rubber band would break. That was not the end of the fun, though!

You could open the window on the car and hold the rubber-band-less plane into a thirty MPH breeze and the propeller would spin rapidly, as your imagination filled in the rest of the WWII battle scene taking place outside the Plymouth’s window. At some point, the wings might rip off in the stiff breeze. By then, however, I had gleaned many hours out of a 29 cent investment (that would be thirty cents including tax).

The simple glider featured instructions that allowed you to move the wings forward and back in the slot cut into the fuselage. This would cause the plane to do loops or streak straightly. You could also bend the horizontal stabilizer in order to cause it to turn to the right or to the left.

Eventually, the piece of metal at the front would dislodge, and we would learn how important it was for an airplane to be properly weighted in order to function. I remember it was a real eye-opening experience for me to learn that a plane could actually be too light to fly!

Another lesson that the cheap gliders taught us was that wonderful things came in small, inexpensive packages.

You can still find balsa wood gliders at the toy sections of many stores. The dime stores and the corner groceries are long gone, though. So is the ten-cent price. But you know what? It’s nice living in a rapidly-moving modern world with the added luxury of having memory banks full of wonderful moments from our childhoods.

Baking Powder Submarines

Baking powder submarine, still wrapped in cellophane

In the tradition of coonskin caps, today’s memory is one that was before my time. However, due to popular demand, I present it anyhow.

They were called baking powder submarines, as well as baking soda submarines. However, loading baking soda into one of them would cause it to sink straight to the bottom and await rescue. No, it was baking POWDER that the minuscule watercraft required for propulsion.

Baking powder, you see, is a combination of sodium bicarbonate (a base, chemistry fans) and cream of tartar (an acid). You kids who had a Gilbert chemistry set (which will be my next article) know what happens when you mix an acid and a base. Fizz!

The fizz causes the submarine to rise. As the bubbles beak at the surface, the heavier-than-water sub sinks back down, only to have more bubbles form on the bottom, causing the cool process to repeat.

Freshly arrived from Kellog’s, baking powder subs and a diver!

The first baking powder submarines were introduced in 1954. The nation was buzzing about the first nuclear powered submarine, the timing was immaculate. They cost a quarter, and required a cereal boxtop to be mailed in. Within a couple of weeks, the miniaturized vessel would arrive in the mail, to the relief of the child who had been checking the mail box for thirteen days.

In short order, a sink would be filled with water, mom’s baking powder would be “borrowed,” and the submarine would begin one of hundreds of voyages.

Inevitably, the baking powder would run out and baking SODA would be tried. Within minutes, mom would be notified of the need for more Clabber Girl.

The subs were a huge sensation. The sub’s manufacturer, Hirsch labs, went from a cosmetics maker to a toy maker. They created a smaller version intended to be a giveaway, cut a deal with Kellog’s, and started cranking them out by the millions. Other Hirsch creations would include diving frogmen, magic moon gardens, and more neat toys.

Kellog’s sold several tons of cereal thank to those little submarines. Eventually, models were sold that ran on tablets, actually compressed baking powder. The invention of the diving sub by Hirsch resulted in nice profits for themselves, Kellog’s, and Clabber Girl. It also resulted in cherished memories for the founding members of the Baby Boomer generation.

For a much more detailed account of baking powder submarines, check out this excellent site.

Revell Model Cars

1966 vintage Revell model car

Aargh, I write a column ONCE. But due to fumble-fingeredness, I lost my original copy of today’s column. So here goes try #2:

Boys love two things: building things, and cars. So it was kind of a no-brainer decision by Revell founder Lewis H. Glaser in 1947 to take advantage of the new technology of molded plastic in order to create model car kits.

Revell, located in Venice, California, had enjoyed moderate success in the toy market up until that point. But Glaser’s farsighted decision would make them giants in the model car market until our present day, not to mention selling millions of plastic molded kits for airplanes, military equipment, sailing ships, modern-day ships, and countless other objects requiring the help of a human and airplane glue to achieve completion. But today, we concentrate on the Revell model cars.

Here’s how the scenario would unfold: A kid would convince his mom or dad that he just couldn’t live without his Revell muscle car model. The relenting parent would part with the $2.99 or so to purchase the prize. The kid would unwrap the plastic outer covering on the ride home, and take out each immaculate sheet of plastic parts attached to frames with each part number stamped next to its owner.

When he got home, here’s where modelers would go one of two paths. You either painted the parts with bright Testors enamel and a tiny brush, or you just got started creating your Camaro.

Vintage Revell model car

I was of the latter persuasion. I didn’t have the patience to sit around and let enamel dry. That carries forth to the present day in my type-A personality. No, I needed to start separating parts and creating an automobile.

Of course, life lessons were taught, as was the case with so many of our playthings. For instance, you didn’t separate ALL of the plastic parts at the outset, or you wouldn’t know where some of the smaller, more obscure parts went. And you didn’t glue parts together until you were SURE they went together, because that airplane glue didn’t react nicely to having cemented parts pulled apart. It showed its rage by eating and deteriorating the parts themselves.

You were also neat with your glue, because it would dry clear, but manifest itself by making a child’s fingerprints obvious once dust began collecting on the model.

But we learned the lessons, and had a wonderful time assembling model cars out of some amazingly detailed plastic parts.

Even today, we might get a chance to exercise what we learned as children when our wives bring home furniture that requires assembly, or perhaps a new bike for a grandchild. Slow down and follow the instructions, even though you might think that any moron should be able to transform a flat box full of parts into a computer desk.

Perhaps one day, when i have some free time, I’ll reward myself for the accomplishment with a Revell model 1968 Camaro kit.