Exploring the two reasons behind the Toy Big Bang…
As I remember it – hazily, since this was more than 20 years ago – my toddler son and I needed one last “zot” to finish our project. The result was a swooping, colorful structure that might, in the forge of my son’s imagination, serve as anything from a rollercoaster to a warship to a dinosaur from Lost Atlantis.
But wait: What, you might ask, the hell is a zot? If you don’t know, I can only stand back and envy the sheltered, unadventurous life you’ve lived. A zot was a close relative of a “toober.” These soft and pliable foam pieces made up the toy called, rather literal-mindedly, Toobers & Zots.
I used to think of them as the Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat of the toy world: the long, lean toober and the smaller, flatter, circular zot. Toobers were measured in feet, while zots came in several sizes, but most ranged from a half-dollar diameter down to that of a pencil eraser. Easy to miss, in other words.
And sure enough, as we finished the rollercoaster-warship-dinosaur, the zot that we needed eluded us. We were surrounded on the floor with seemingly thousands of zots… but not the necessary, the indispensable, the Platonic zot that would complete our dream. I had seen it moments ago, and then it was gone.
There’s a poignant end to this story, which I’ll get to in a moment. But first a historical note: Roughly around the time of my son’s toddlerhood, America experienced the Toy Big Bang, a singularity in the history of consumerism and consumption in our beloved, bloated country. The cosmic expansion wasn’t merely a vast increase in toys on sale to badgered parents. More perniciously, it also involved an unprecedented exfoliation of parts within the toys themselves.
Toobers & Zots, which had come on the market only months before we confronted the case of the missing zot, was an excellent example. It was sold as a single toy, but in fact consisted of dozens and dozens of individual pieces.
And the collateral damage of the Big Bang touched practically every toy line. For instance: Toys tied to the Star Wars franchise in the late ‘70s, which clogged the bedrooms of my two nephews, were usually single pieces of injection-molded plastic, like a big bulky Millennium Falcon or an (actually pretty cool) Death Star. But by the 1990s, when my son fell victim to Star Wars, the Death Star and Millennium Falcon came with scores of movable, extractable, easily losable parts, each no bigger than a toddler’s toenail.
The most notable contribution to the expansion came, of course, from Legos. For years Legos had been a collection of relatively identical building blocks that could be assembled this way or that, according to each kid’s fancy. Without warning in the 1990s, the company shifted its product lines to elaborate renderings of detailed fantasy scenes: a princess’s castle, an Indian encampment, a Gold Rush town, Cape Canaveral, and many more. Each scene was peopled by a dozen or more figures. These were called minifigures, appropriately enough, because each was an inch high. Each minifigure, in turn, required multiple accouterments even mini-er than the figure – crowns, feathered headdresses, pickaxes, fuel lines, ammo belts. And the physical environment in which the minifigures disported with their miniaccoutrements required many more detachable parts as well (trees, shrubs, weathered stone, wooden shacks with tiny swinging doors distressed with age). The verisimilitude was dazzling. So was the detailing, if a parent could see it. Lots of the new Lego parts featured details so small as to be barely visible to the naked adult eye.
The trend toward toy disaggregation has only accelerated since then. Even traditional-styled toys, such as the American Girl line of large dolls – appearing, at first glance, so humble and friendly and innocent – come with microscopic, sharp-edged add-ons that are certain either to disappear or worse, reappear unexpectedly, within a week of purchase. Just try keeping track of the pair of earrings miniaturized to fit the pierced lobes of your American Girl, the finger rings, too, and the little bracelet you assemble yourself.
Today’s parents must learn the lesson that my wife and I learned 20 years ago, and that my mother and father never needed to learn 30 years before that. A house can become a minefield.
No parent of a young child can walk shoeless to the bathroom or across the floor of the den without facing danger: If the splinter-sized saber of a pirate of the Caribbean doesn’t dig deep into your heel, the tiny plastic stiletto slipper from Cinderella’s miniature shoe closet will puncture your instep. And if you step on the old prospector’s mule cart … you don’t want to think about it. Little items bring big pain. And most likely the children, observing carefully, will learn a colorful new word.
From what I can tell, there were at least two ideas behind the Toy Big Bang – one high-minded, the other commercial.
The first was the notion of constant entertainment. The range of playthings had to be so vast as to eliminate the possibility of a child growing bored. Thus the kid could be left alone to play with one little thing after another without bothering the distracted parent (or, more recently, the nannies and daycare workers staring at their phones). Boredom, by this way of thinking, was to be avoided at all costs – the cost of a house with endless clutter and scarred insteps. This ignores the timeless fact that boredom is an indispensable goad to human creativity; it has been the source of most of civilization’s greatest advances. The Romans didn’t conquer the known world because they were busy with the ancient equivalent of toobers. They divided Gaul into three parts because they got bored.
Second, an open-ended toy with a hundred pieces can always use another hundred pieces. There will never be a shortage of add-ons for mom and dad to buy. It’s like crafty moviemakers dreaming up sequels to popular movies, so that Cars leads inevitably to Cars 5. That Death Star could use another corps of Imperial Guards. Suddenly the old prospector needs a wife and kids and a group of sinister banditos threatening his stash of gold. Once glimpsed on a pop-up ad or during a stroll down the Toys R Us aisle, these new additions will be irresistible. And on Christmas Day the clutter quotient will grow at the speed of light.
Forgive me one grumpy note of nostalgia. It was not always thus.
For a sense of what the toy scene was like in my youth, consider Toy Story. It was not only a great movie but also curiously retrograde. Woody and Buzz, Rex the dinosaur and Slinky Dog, Hamm the oinker and Little Bo Peep – these are unitary toys, holdable in the hand, that evoke a simpler, more straightforward world of play. One reason the Toy Story movies worked for audiences of all ages was that they tapped the sentimental attachment that parents have for their long-lost toys. I don’t know for sure, but I get sentimental remembering my old collection of Matchbox cars, complete with their delicious lead paint, in ways that I think my son, now married and moving into his late 20s, does not, cannot, feel about “Toobers & Zots.”
Which brings me back to where we began, with the disappearing zot. Weeks passed and it never showed up – until one morning at breakfast. Surveying his bowl of Cap’n Crunch, my son let loose with a roaring sneeze. And suddenly, there on his tray, was the zot. Some zots, it turned out, matched precisely the size of a toddler’s nostril. Noticing this as we built our swooping structure, my son inserted the zot, inadvertently sniffed, and there it had stayed until a great sneeze could unloose it.
So here’s one last reason to regret the Cosmic Toy Expansion and recall fondly the toys of long ago. In all of history, no child ever tried to put a Matchbox Mustang up his nose.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.