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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Your old toys are at the Wisconsin Historical Museum
Madison museum moments
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Credit:Kenneth Burns

Nostalgia has a relentless pull, which is why certain eBay vendors make a mint selling yesterday's pop culture effluvia. If you are trying to control your PayPal habit, though, you can simply visit "Toy Stories," a Wisconsin Historical Museum exhibit that gathers mostly American playthings popularized in the latter half of the 20th century.

The collection will appeal to sociology buffs, as the language of an introductory placard suggests. "Throughout the late 1900s," it reads, "toys reflected shifting fads and fashions and values about education, gender roles, violence, and safety."

And for the rest of us, the exhibit provides an opportunity to ooh and ahh over toys we long ago owned and then lost, or sold at yard sales, or left out in the rain.

"Toy Stories" is laid out chronologically, and the first toys visitors encounter date from the middle of the century. These represent a technologically simpler era -- there is a Flexible Flyer sled, for example, and a set of Tinkertoys. But a toy from the late 1940s bespeaks changing times with its very name: Electric Football. Indeed, the exhibit is a testament to how thoroughly American culture has been transformed by technology. (Among later artifacts are various videogame consoles.)

The exhibit also is a bracing reminder of how thoroughly the toy industry and the entertainment industry are entwined. That was true in the 1950s, when toy guns were hawked by Roy Rogers (seen here in a looping reel of television commercials); and it was still true in the 1990s, the last decade covered by the exhibit, when a doll version of the Sesame Street character Elmo was selling at inflated prices worthy of the tulip bubble. In the intervening years, as "Toy Stories" documents, came toys that helped market television shows (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Smurfs) as well as stuntman Evel Knievel.

Several of the toys on display claim a Wisconsin provenance. There is a Duncan yo-yo, for example, produced by Baraboo-based Flambeau, Inc., and there also is a 1952 Kiddy Kook Fiesta tea set made by the Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc. Other toys once belonged to Wisconsin kids, like a colossal teddy bear that, a plaque notes, was acquired in 1968 by one Monica Marini, who kept it in her dorm room at UW-Oshkosh.

Also imparting a Wisconsin flavor are the laminated statements of various Dairyland luminaries, who recall their favorite toys. Among these: singer Al Jarreau, of Milwaukee, who loved his Lionel train set; Racine's Ben Sidran, the jazz musician (Lionel train set); and Capital Times editor Dave Zweifel, of New Glarus (Lionel train set).

But unlike many Wisconsin Historical Museum exhibits, this one does not celebrate Wisconsin culture per se. American children everywhere had these toys, from Barbie to Hungry Hungry Hippos. That is why a Tennessee kid like me can go to a museum of Wisconsin history and practically weep at the sight of the Star Wars toy I played with 30 years ago: the detailed Millennium Falcon spaceship piloted in the films by a rakish Harrison Ford. Mine was ruined when the dog peed on it.

This exhibit runs at the Wisconsin Historical Museum on Capitol Square through Saturday, May 26.

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