Pixy Stix have been around since 1952, and are still delivering sugar highs almost 60 years later. Uploaded by random.hydryad.com.
Want to hazard a guess about how Pixy Stix came to be popular? Okay, maybe you think it was created as a drink mix. But then kids found out how good the powder tastes, so the powder came to be sold as straws. Hey, you’re right! Your next challenge is to guess how Jujubes got their name.
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Pixy Stix have been around since 1952, marketed then by the Sunline Company in St. Louis. Today you can get the Stix in two sizes – a smaller paper straw and a larger (almost two feet long) plastic straw. And they’re now available in a variety of flavors, including blueberry, orange, watermelon, lemon, pineapple, strawberry, Maui punch, cherry, green apple, and grape.
Because of their high sugar content, Pixy Stix aren’t recommended for those with a tendency to have blood-sugar fluctuations. Oh, by the way, if you wonder what Pixy Stix powder would taste like if it were made into a solid, the boys in the lab can tell you. They’re called Sweet Tarts. Same stuff. It’s better living through chemistry.
Movie candy has traditionally been sold in those larger boxes so that theater owners could charge higher prices. Of course, another tradition is to stop at the 7-Eleven on the way to the movie, buy cheaper candy and hide it in a purse. Uploaded by couponmamainsc.wordpress.com..
I’ve placed this post under “kid stuff,” but we have to be honest here. Lots of adults prefer candy to popcorn (or nachos or any other current concession fads) as movie fare. For many of us, it allows us a (mostly) non-judgmental way to eat what we wouldn’t otherwise buy out in public.
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There’s a certain canon of concession confections we all know. Some have been bringing profits to theaters for generations. Some of the most popular candy items sold through the years as movie treats include:
Of course, movie candy has always come in those large boxes, allowing theater owners to charge outlandish prices. But that’s part of the movie-going experience. Also part of the movie-going experience is stopping at the 7-Eleven on the way to the theater and hiding candy in a purse. Whoops! Did I let a secret out of the bag?
From its creation in 1928, Weekly Reader has helped kids understand what's going on in the world around them, in language that they can understand. It's also had a Presidential poll for each election, and been right all but once: when Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush. Uploaded by girlsinwhitedresses.wordpress.com.
Since 1928, kids have looked forward to the day each week when they’d get their copy of Weekly Reader. It was created by York, Pa. educator Dorothy M. Johnson. She said, “I saw children reading folk and fairy tales and myths, which I adore, and to which there is no objection; but the pupils had no idea of what was happening in the world — not a flicker. The idea came to me that school children needed a paper of their own, especially written, so they could read it.”
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Johnson contacted an organization called American Education Press, who agreed to publish the weekly magazine for grades one to six. (It’s now available in Pre-K through high school.) She served as its editor-in-chief until 1971. And through its history it’s been somewhat schizophrenic about whether to call itself My Weekly Reader or just Weekly Reader. For the last decade or so, it’s been the latter.
I think I liked Weekly Reader because it was written on a level for kids. Or maybe it was because we could read it in class, which meant no other lessons for a while. And there was usually cool stuff about sports, or space. Or sports and space. Weekly Reader is now in the Reader’s Digest family and produces specific editions for current events, health, and science. But with the Internet and explosion of media for kids, it can’t have the same impact it once had on kids who looked forward to each week’s issue.
Archie's creator, John Goldwater, wanted a comic character to capitalize on the popularity of Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy movies. The year was 1941. Uploaded by comicsbulletin.com.
Though the publisher is also known as Archie Comics, I’m celebrating the comic books themselves. Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, Moose, Miss Grundy, and Mr. Weatherbee. The town of Riverdale, and Riverdale High. The quandary over whether he likes Betty or Veronica more. The rivalry with Reggie. Yeah, those Archie comics.
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I’d never thought of it before, but when John Goldwater created Archie in 1941, he was inspired by the popular Andy Hardy movies starring Mickey Rooney. He had a nickname then – “Chick” – and he showed up in Pep Comics #22. And while Goldwater guided the magazine through its most popular era, the comic was written by Vic Bloom and drawn by Bob Montana.
Betty and Veronica have had their own title through the years. So has Jughead. And in an attempt to be “relevant,” Archie Comics now has its first openly gay character, Kevin Keller. Archie now seems dated to me; I can’t imagine today’s kids buying into these characters. But when I was growing up, I loved them. They weren’t challenging, but they were fun. And, of first importance, aren’t comic books supposed to be fun?
No doll has ever captured the imagination of American girls the way Barbie has. She celebrated her 50th birthday in 2009. Uploaded to Photobucket by bcsmith46.
She looks pretty good for 50, don’t you think? It’s rather amazing to see the impact a simple doll has had on American girls. She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t wet. She doesn’t come with some goofy birth certificate. She’s a doll, for heaven’s sake.
And yet…she’s become an icon, both revered and reviled. Some say that Barbie’s figure leads girls to unrealistic body image issues, and contributes to anorexia and bulimia. Yeah, well. Mattel has sold over a billion of the things. There’s not that many people with eating disorders.
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Did you know her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts? Or that she’s had more than 80 careers? That she’s had 43 pets? That she didn’t have a belly button for 41 years? Personally, I don’t know whether she’s stringing Ken along or vice versa, but I think their relationship has been platonic long enough.
So to Barbie, I say congratulations on your longevity. And happy birthday. It’s hard to imagine an American girl’s room without you.
(Originally published April 10, 2009)
(By the way…a friend of mine, Stacy McAnulty, just published an online book called My Life According to Barbie. I can personally testify that it’s funny, because I served as its copy editor. It’s available for Kindle, iPad and the Nook.)
Every middle-age man thinks he'd be rich now if only his mother hadn't thrown out his baseball card collection. Sorry, fellas, but chances are they weren't in collectible condition. But you might actually like them better that way. Uploaded by zeprock.com.
Don’t pay any attention to all those bandwagon jumpers who decided in the mid-80s that baseball cards were the investment of the future. Their interest was as wide as the outfield and as deep as the chalk on the baselines. Real baseball cards have a historic and visceral appeal that transcends dollar values.
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Not that it isn’t fun from time to time to pull out, say, the 1958 Al Kaline card and ponder its value. But I honestly get more of a thrill just looking at Al’s mug against that bright red background than I could ever get by selling it. I remember the smell of the gum that Topps inserted in each pack. And how it was often stale, and broke into pieces when you tried to chew it.
Baseball cards are a small part of what makes America special. Kids today look for rookies, embossing, and swatches from game-worn uniforms. But you can’t beat the old cards. They were from a simpler time. A sweeter time.
Bridge to Terabithia won the Newberry Medal for children's literature in 1978. It was made into a feature film in 2007. Uploaded by reelingreviews.com.
I read lots of great children’s stories to my boys when they were growing up. Made up quite a few, too. I don’t know if they remember them after all these years (Guys?), but I remember Bridge to Terabithia best because it’s the one that got to me as I read it.
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I don’t want to spoil the plot if you haven’t read it, so I won’t do much of a summary. The story revolves around a boy and girl, friends and neighbors who are both very creative and enjoy fantasy stories. So they create a “magical kingdom” which they name Terabithia, in which the boy (Jess) is king, and the girl (Leslie) is queen. Let’s just say that a tragedy occurs, and that’s where I broke up. After all these years, I still remember that moment.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson is a beautiful book that won the 1978 Newberry Medal for children’s literature. Paterson, a Christian, was asked whether her faith influenced her writing. She answered, “C.S. Lewis said that the book can’t be what the writer is not, and I think you write out of who you are. In fiction, you don’t start out to teach a lesson (because that’s propaganda, that’s not fiction), you start out to tell a story. What you believe deeply will come out and the story will reveal you, whether you mean for it to or not!”
Wouldn't it be an incredible legacy to have created as many smiles on both children and adults as Theodor Geisel did through his books? Uploaded by drseuss.wikispaces.com.
Interesting fact 1: The father and grandfather of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) were both brewmasters. You don’t think those fanciful rhymes were helped along by the family recipe, do you? Nahhh.
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Interesting fact 2: Dr. Seuss was an advertising art director for fifteen years, working primarily on the Standard Oil account. Knowing some wildly creative art directors myself, I’m not surprised one whit.
Interesting fact 3: During WWII, Dr. Seuss made propaganda films with Frank Capra, where he first learned animation.
Okay, enough facts. Time to conclude with some sparkling verse:
You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch.
With a nauseous super-naus.
You’re a crooked jerky jockey
And you drive a crooked horse.
Bugs has been named the number one cartoon character of all time. Ever since his first appearance in 1940's A Wild Hare, Bugs has been our favorite wascally wabbit. Uploaded by top39.com.
It was all there in his very first appearance, A Wild Hare, directed by the legendary Tex Avery and released in 1940. The distinctive voice provided by Mel Blanc (Great American Things, July 31, 2009) … his eternal adversary, hunter Elmer Fudd who says for the first time, “Be vewwy vewwy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits” … and his now-famous catch phrase: “What’s up doc?” The only thing we didn’t know until his second film (“Elmer’s Pet Rabbit”) was his name: Bugs Bunny.
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Audiences have always loved his smart-alecky attitude, and his fearlessness in the face of the dangerous hunter. Okay, we always knew there was no way Elmer would really get Bugs, so we felt safe. Bugs quickly became the star of the Merrie Melodies / Loony Tunes (Great American Things, March 10, 2010) cast of characters. He appeared in 163 cartoons over the years, not including his twelve appearances in features such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam.
Bugs should actually be introduced as “Academy Award Winner Bugs Bunny,” since his film Knighty Knight Bugs earned the statue for Best Animated Short Film. In 2002, Bugs took the honor of number one cartoon character of all time as selected by TV Guide. One of the magazine’s editors summed up the appeal of Bugs Bunny perfectly: “His stock…has never gone down…Bugs is the best example…of the smart-aleck American comic. He not only is a great cartoon character, he’s a great comedian. He was written well. He was drawn beautifully. He has thrilled and made many generations laugh. He is tops.”
Charles Schulz created a group of characters that America has taken to heart. They're our kids now. Uploaded by lcjapan.com.
Charlie Brown will never get to kick that football. Lucy will always give out psychiatric help for five cents. Marcie will always call Peppermint Patty, “Sir.”
Charles Schulz has gone to his eternal reward, but his legacy is seen by millions of people each day. Peanuts never gets old, never goes out of date. Look at all the forgettable comic strips in your local paper, think of all that have come and gone, and Peanuts goes on.
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Peanuts doesn’t have the feeling of anarchy that infused Calvin and Hobbes, nor the daily dose of reality found in Dilbert. What it has is a sense of humanity, and a spirituality that resonates with its audience and which was intrinsic to Schulz’s own life.
Peanuts was created within a month of my own birthday. I won’t say how long ago that was, but Gutenberg had just invented the printing press. Now they say newspapers are a vanishing enterprise. Maybe so. But Peanuts will always be with us — as long as there’s a Great Pumpkin, or a pathetically bare Christmas tree .
The first Lionel trains were created by a fan manufacturer to feature its motors. Turns out people couldn't have cared less about the motors or the fans, they wanted those trains. Uploaded by cokerfamily.com.
For many families of the 1940s and 1950s, a Christmas tree wasn’t complete without a Lionel train set encircling it. This wasn’t accidental, of course; as early as the post-WWI era, Lionel made the rounds of major department stores, showing them how much better their Christmas displays would look with a toy train included.
For many years, Lionel disdained realism in its products. It made its trains larger and painted them in brighter colors than its competitors. Model train aficionados turned up their noses, but the mothers and fathers who bought
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Christmas trains loved Lionel. It overwhelmed other manufacturers, eventually becoming synonymous with toy trains.
Lionel’s golden decade was 1946-56. Then something happened – kids became more fascinated with toy cars than trains. The company failed to diversify, lost business, and eventually had to file bankruptcy in 1967. General Mills purchased the brand name, and eventually a new Lionel company formed, but it has no direct link to the original.
Even though toy trains aren’t what they once were, seeing a train set humming along beside stations and through tunnels, is still a wonderful sight. Lionel trains were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006.
The Polar Express is a picture book, written by sculptor turned illustrator/writer Chris Van Allsburg. It won the Caldecott Medal for Children's Literature in 1986. Uploaded by privatelibrary.typepad.com.
Children’s author Chris Van Allsburg created this beautiful Christmas story about a fantasy train that carried children to the North Pole on Christmas Eve to see Santa Claus. One boy in particular is picked up in front of his house, then journies with other kids in their pajamas on this magical adventure.
When he arrives at Santa’s workshop, the boy is chosen by Santa himself to receive the first gift of Christmas. The boy can choose anything in the world he wants, but he asks for a beautiful-sounding silver bell from Santa’s sleigh. He puts the bell in his pocket, but soon realizes in horror that his pocket has a hole
Chris Van Allsburg. Uploaded by barnesandnoble.com.
in it, and the bell is gone. The next morning, however, his sister sees a package with the boy’s name on it at the back of the tree. It’s the bell, of course, which Santa found on the seat of his sleigh.
Director Robert Zemeckis adapted The Polar Express and made it into a live-action animated film, “starring” Tom Hanks. The movie was well received, but it’s the book that still captures the imagination of children with its beautiful and evocative illustrations. It won the Caldecott Medal for Children’s Literature in 1986. Both the book and the movie end with this beautiful quote:
“At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”
Between 1955 and 2005, more than TWO BILLION cans of Play-Doh were sold. The Toy Industry named it to the Century of Toys list honoring the most important toys of the 20th century. Uploaded by childrensscrapstore.co.uk.
This eternal kid’s substance, this staple of second grades and day care centers, wasn’t created as a toy. It began its existence as: a wallpaper cleaner. Now, I don’t know exactly how a group of Cincinnati schoolchildren decided to play with wallpaper compound, but they did. And they liked it. They liked it a lot. So the Kutol Company of Cincinnati thought, Hmmm. And Play-Doh was born.
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In the scenario above, Play-Doh existed for over a decade before what became its primary reason for being was discovered. The owner’s son took the compound to an educational convention, where Woodward & Lothrop decided to carry it. Then Macy’s of New York followed. And Marshall Field’s of Chicago. And success was just a matter of time.
While there are some additions to the compound to make it more kid-friendly, its main ingredients are water, salt, and wheat flour. It’s clearly a successful formula – more than two billion cans of the stuff were sold between 1955 and 2005. And the Toy Industry Association named Play-Doh to its Century of Toys list. I’m telling you, that’s got to be the most impressive wallpaper cleaner of all time…
Nabisco animal crackers, or Barnum's Animals, come with a signature string on top. Nabisco uses 8,000 miles of that string each year. Uploaded by ireference.ca.
The first cookies baked in the shape of animals came from the kitchens of Stauffer’s Biscuit Company in York, Pennsylvania back in 1871. The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) began marketing them as “Barnum’s Animals” in 1902. They have a long history, and since they have something of a retro feel to them, you’d think these animals might become extinct.
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But you’d think wrong. Even though they’re not as sweet as other cookies, kids still love ’em. And though they’re not exactly the height of nutritional excellence, parents know that lots of other treats their kids might otherwise enjoy are a lot worse.
The animals used to be somewhat hard to identify. The details were lacking, and a bear looked a lot like a lion, for example. But techniques have improved, and the animals are much more distinct today. It’s said that there have been 37 different animals represented since 1902, though today that number is 19 (in Nabisco’s product). Of course, animal crackers wouldn’t be the same without the characteristic string on top. Some say it was added so the box could be a Christmas ornament; others think it’s simply a convenient handle. Either way, Nabisco now uses 8,000 miles of string on its boxes each year…
Published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are won the Caldecott Medal as the most distinguished American picture book for children. Uploaded by collider.com.
Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak and published almost 50 years ago (1963), still is a favorite of children everywhere. According to HarperCollins publishers, it has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide as of 2008. The book won the Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished picture book of the year.
Poster from the 2009 film. Uploaded by myrabybee.blogspot.com.
The story isn’t all that complicated, which is appropriate for its age group. Young Max puts on a wolf suit, gets into trouble, and gets sent to bed without his supper. Sendak draws monsters that are more likely to tickle than frighten, and his prose breaks rules in a way that kids find hilarious. By the end of the story, Max is ready to go back home, and home is once again ready for him. All is right in his world.
Wild Things has reached a special status now; the children who originally loved it grew up, and got to share it with their children. Now their grandchildren are smitten by it. The book is still in print, and one of the reasons it’s still popular is that its illustrations aren’t dated, those monsters look just as “scary” now as they did when it was first published. Kids still love this book — and their parents still love reading it to them.
Duncan yo-yos were so popular that they were included among the very first toys included in the National Toy Hall of Fame. Yes, there is one. Uploaded by yoyoz.co.uk.
It’s on a string. It goes down. It comes back up. What’s so great about that, to have it considered a Great American Thing? Duncan took this simple concept, which seems to date back to 500 B.C., and made it cool.
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They did it in part by having yo-yo professionals – yes, professionals – go around the country doing exhibitions. Kids loved it. The youngsters who’d mastered the art of getting the yo-yo to “sleep” and “walking the dog” could now do more impressive tricks, such as “around the world” and “rock the baby.”
While yo-yos were on a par with hula hoops and frisbees as a fad toy of the baby boomer generation, they’ve definitely not gone away. There seems to be a yo-yo community thriving online and in the social media, and Duncan still sponsors traveling pros and world championships. Duncan yo-yos were included in the initial class of the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Take a look at the video below to see the amazing things done with a yo-yo today, something earlier Duncan generations couldn’t have imagined:
For kids, it's about the arcade games, the tokens, the tickets, and the prizes. For adults, it's a place Where a Kid Can be a Kid. Uploaded by arcadeheaven.word.ress.com.
A friend of mine calls this place “Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Hell.” I get that. But the company’s slogan is “Where a Kid Can be a Kid.” Parents and adult relatives endure the place. But kids… They love it. Love it.
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Kids get to play arcade and skill games (must be the national Skee-Ball headquarters), spend tokens to win tickets, and exchange them for kid-friendly prizes. Then they go back to the table, eat a couple of slices of pizza, get a visit from a costumed character, open birthday gifts (at the ubiquitous parties), then run back to the arcade to win more tickets. The adults eat average pizza, listen to the Chuck E. Cheese and his fellow animatronic characters sing songs they recognize, and make sure their kids stay safe.
It’s a brilliant concept. Kids love the noise, the parties, the games, the prizes. Parents love two things: 1) that their kids are happy, and 2) when they get to go home.
It's actually a classic cat and mouse story, except Wile E. Coyote fancies himself a genius, and he always JUST MISSES his prey. Uploaded by thecartoonpictures.com.
Poor, poor Wile E. Coyote. Never quite able to capture his prey. Many times he got close – oh so close, so tantalizingly close – only to hear “Beep Beep” (actually more like “Meep Meep”) and be left empty-handed.
Uploaded by cs.sjsu.edu.
RR and Wile E. are creations of the great Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers. Wile E. would devise the most elaborate contraptions (often purchased from Acme Corp.), and would easily outsmart the poor Road Runner. Unfortunately, he would also outsmart himself.
I like what writer Kevin McCorry said: “Wile E. Coyote is every man’s failing hero. His facial expressions or proclamations on hand-held signs as one of his schemes is about to go painfully awry are always totally empathetic…The ACME materials that he utilizes become more and more fantastic, like tornado seeds, earthquake pills, dehydrated boulders, an ice-making machine, and a jet-powered unicycle, and all fail by necessity of their one possible fallibility, which Wile E. never anticipates.”
Road Runner became so popular that, out of all the Warner Brothers cartoon characters, the Saturday morning show had the title “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour.” While essentially a takeoff on the classic cat and mouse game, in Chuck Jones hands the characters became much more complicated – and more popular.
Fred put on his cardigan and changed into his sneakers for 895 episodes spanning parts of five decades. Uploaded by pre.cloudfront.goodinc.com.
The changing of the shoes. The putting on of the sweater. The singing of the theme song. All these images are part of our cultural history – the sweater is now in the Smithsonian. But what we all remember most about Fred Rogers is his gentle and patient spirit, which made his show a safe place for kids to visit.
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Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (originally Misterogers’ Neighborhood) originated in Pittsburgh, and appeared on television from 1968 to 2001. PBS broadcast all but the first couple of seasons, which originated on the defunct National Education Television network.
Rogers wrote the theme “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” in 1967, and sang it to his audience as he changed his suit and shoes for 895 episodes. Wouldn’t you like to hear it just one more time? Take it away, Fred:
While the show was on ABC (1959-1961), it was called Rocky and His Friends. When it switched to NBC (1961-1964), it became The Bullwinkle Show. Uploaded by images.onset.freedom.com.
Actually, there were two series that ran one after the other: Rocky and His Friends (1959-1961) and The Bullwinkle Show (1961-1964). Both were produced by Jay Ward, and featured essentially the same cast of characters.
Each episode contained several recurring elements: Fractured Fairy Tales, Peabody’s Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties, Mr. Know-It-All, Aesop and Son, and Bullwinkle’s Corner.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Uploaded by home.comcast.net.
The good guys were, of course, Rocket “Rocky” J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose. They foiled the plans of the bad guys, who were (of course) Natasha Fatale and Boris Badenov. The show all but developed the concept of dual interest – simple cartoon hijinks for the kids, puns and parodies of current events for adults. All the modern animated productions should be sending Jay Ward’s heirs royalty checks.
Close observers of the show have noticed lots of “continuity” errors on the show – Boris Badenov’s mustache would come and go, colors would change, clothing wasn’t the same. The reason is that the production was animated in Mexico to save money. It became clear that with cost savings came a sacrifice in quality. Some things don’t change, do they?
Copyright 2009-2011, Robin G. Chalkley. All material on these pages, and the listing of items as Great American Things, is copyrighted. The exceptions are the photographs and videos, which remain the property of their respective owners.
Header photo used courtesy of Flickr photographer too melo.