Apartmenttherapy.com user posts like “Terrific Toy-Tastic Home” and “How to Display Small Vinyl Toys” prove I’m not the only grown-up who wants to unveil my plastic toy collection. Since WWII, toy makers have reveled in the cheapness and malleability of plastic, and collectors have gathered plastic vintage figures, character merchandising toys, and urban vinyl pieces. If I picked three plastic figures from the National Museum of Play at The Strong to display in my China cabinet, I would select these.
Star Wars inspired a cult-following; Yoda had impressed me after he said, “do or do not…there is no try.” The films also fueled a monumental change in the toy industry when Kenner Corporation first released the 3 3/4 inch Star Wars figures in 1978. Inspired by the popular 12-inch G.I. Joe figures these new smaller toys consisted of less plastic, cost less, and fit easily into kids’ hands. With Lucasfilm’s approval, Kenner marketed the toys simultaneously with the release of the films, which no other toy company had successfully done before. Immediately after a kid saw Star Wars, he could create the galaxy with Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, alien creatures, and robotic droids in his own backyard. With one of these figures in my china cabinet, I know the force will always be with me.
Because of its dainty bow and blank expression, it is hard to find a less judgmental companion than Hello Kitty. Shintaro Tsuji’s company Sanrio welcomed Hello Kitty into their corporate home in 1974. Sanrio’s fans seemed blasé about Hello Kitty at first, but slowly started to ask questions about her background. The company typically refrained from providing back stories for its characters in the hopes that individuals would play with their own emotions and project their feelings onto the toy. However, Sanrio soon used these questions to gradually develop a Hello Kitty story and additional products. People delighted in the Kitty’s niceties, such as her London birthplace and how she cares for a pet kitty. Recently, Sanrio launched several Hello Kitty products to benefit the American Red Cross Japan Earthquake and Pacific Tsunami Relief Efforts. I’d be proud to display a cute and socially responsible kitty on my shelves. Besides, Hello Kitty wouldn’t pull the stunts my usual live confidant’s been up to— barking at my neighbors, rolling in the dirt, and begging for table scraps.
Disney helped mainstreamed the urban vinyl movement with the release of Vinylmation figures in 2008. Woodrow Phoenix, author of Plastic Culture: How Japanese Toys Conquered the World, defines this movement as a “blending of art, graphic design, and toys to create original items that come from personal sensibility.” Disney artists use a blank three-dimensional Mickey Mouse-like shape as a canvas to spin a classic tale, put a mini-theme park in the palm of your hands, or to showcase their own art styles in the urban series. Sure, the Disney Company says this isn’t their iconic mouse, but like Mickey, this is one rodent I wouldn’t mind sitting with at the dinner table.
Plastic toys represent fads and complex values. Vintage figures preserve history and exemplify progress. Merchandising toys depict consumer trends. And the current urban vinyl movement presents artists belief in toys as a form of high-art. For all of these reasons, I am going to dig out my shoe boxes of plastic figures and showcase them alongside the champagne glasses, ceramic bowls, and candle sticks on my credenza.