Hello Girls and Boys! A New Zealand Toy Story, by David Veart (Auckland University Press, 2014), 314 pp., $65
When I was a kid I lived next door to a boy who loved trolleys. He did not have just one homemade trolley, but a small fleet of them. Because he lived on a generous-sized property (or at least generous by the standards of suburban Auckland) he was able to play with his fleet down a long tree-lined driveway, on a grass sward next to his big brother’s vegetable patch and on a concrete path in front of his parents’ house. In fact he called his trolleys his bus company. He had drawn up schedules and timetables for the different routes his ‘buses’ took, and had given each trolley a destination board and number. Once or twice I remember being a passenger on one of his ‘buses’ as he pushed me on a bus route, puffing and making engine noises and the occasional anachronistic tram-sounding clang-clang.
Not surprisingly, the boy grew up to spend part of his adult life as a bus-driver.
Some argue that toys can mould destiny in this way. See what the kids choose to play with, and you have a good chance of guessing what sort of adults they will become. This perception can lead to much adult agonising. Trudge through the mountain of feminist critiques deploring the way dolls prepare little girls for stereotypical roles in lives of domestic drudgery and servitude. Listen to the wails that arise every so often at ‘war toys’ training little boys to be soldiers.
Yet if destiny was to be read in what I played with as a child, it would have predicted accurately that I’d become a book-reading wuzz. I got into reading early as my preferred pastime. I can’t remember ever owning a particular beloved toy, apart from marbles. I loved exploring the neighbourhood with a bunch of local kids, climbing through tunnels in half-completed roadworks, making hideaways in trees, hiding under an upturned dinghy near the Tamaki Estuary. But no toys were involved. I was uncomfortable in the presence of those young ruffians who played with ‘shanghais’, as New Zealand and Australian kids still called them (the rest of the world called them slingshots). They were the type of kids who would smash my milkies by aggressive index-finger shots with their steelies. I did remember one moment of ruffian glory, however. A schoolmate undertook the hopeless task of teaching me how to shoot with his prized ‘slug-gun’ (or ‘BB gun’, according to Americans). He was proud of his ability to bring down sparrows. He pointed to a tree. I took the toy weapon, faced vaguely in the direction of the tree he indicated, and fired. A sparrow obligingly fell down with a slug in its breast. ‘Ooo, you cruel thing!’ said my schoolmate admiringly. For a very short time, I had an unearned reputation as a marksman.
Now you see what the topic of toys has done to me, don’t you? I have been tempted into writing one of those non-reviews where the reviewer talks about himself and his attitude to a subject in general, rather than writing a real review focused on the book in hand.
So let me get to business.
David Veart’s Hello Girls and Boys! is a popular history of toys in New Zealand, their appeal, their influence, their manufacture, their distribution and the regulations that governed them. Of course, produced in sturdy hardback, large-page, large-ish print format, it is also very generously illustrated and is as much a work of nostalgia as a work of scholarship. I kept stopping and wool-gathering when I was reminded by pictures or text of something in my childhood. Given that David Veart and I are almost of the same generation (baby-boomers – my earliest childhood was the 1950s), many of the things he chooses to illustrate set off this nostalgic mood. Photos of little boys with their homemade trolleys. Those little plastic giveaways that used to be in cereal packets. The shot of the leftover US army facility in Mount Wellington, Camp Bunn, where Walter Nash arranged for a local manufacturer to produce toys under licence for an overseas company. Camp Bunn was in walking distance of my childhood home, and it was at first where our local picture theatre was situated. The section on one of the heroes of New Zealand toy manufacturing, Johnny Prowse, who, even when economic times were tough, managed to keep his North Shore Toys Company going, manufacturing cuddly toys. Prowse’s business was situated on Onewa Road, in walking distance from where I live now.
And if I go all nostalgic at sections of this book, so do other people, not least David Veart himself. An archaeologist who has done long service with the Department of Conservation, Veart cheerfully refers to the ‘backyard archaeology’ that unearths the playthings of former occupants of his house, or relates anecdotes of his own childhood acquaintance with Meccano and toy trains and baking-soda-driven bathtub submarines. Maurice Gee contributes a memory on creating, with his brother, a homemade canoe, which sank in the wilds of a Henderson creek.
But Hello Girls and Boys! is not a random nostalgia-fest. Its chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with a brief nod to pre-Pākehā Māori toys (stilts, top and kites honouring those who could tame the wind), and moving rapidly through those toys the earliest Pākehā settler kids brought with them. Veart comments on the 19th-century phenomenon of the unsupervised ‘wild child’, when families were large and children made their own (often rough) entertainment. Iconoclastically, he suggests that many of the ceramic dolls of the age were smashed by little girls not just because the dolls were fragile but because girls were angry at having to play with these boring things when they would rather be getting up to more interesting mischief outside.
What emerges as the book’s major theme is the tension between local and international manufacture of the toys with which New Zealand children played. Right up to the depression of the 1930s, the overwhelming majority of toys were made elsewhere. The imperial connection loomed large in Meccano and train sets for boys, and Queen Mary dolls’ houses for girls. (Yes, toy marketing was highly gendered.) Incredible snobbery was attached to imitations of the presentation dolls’ houses that were given to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Only rich Kiwi parents could afford those.
With the arrival of the Great Depression, the scene changes. Government decides toys are not essential items and are not worth the money we earn on exports. So importation of toys is strictly limited. The aim is also to boost employment here in New Zealand. Local toymakers try to fill the yawning gap, but their efforts are often crude and amateurish, even if ingenious. Thus begins the era when expensive import licensing means great prestige is attached to ‘genuine’ imported toys – all those little boys who boasted about having ‘real’ Hornby Trains and Dinky cars. At the same time, most New Zealand children had to make do with cheap painted wooden toys or inferior copies of overseas ideas.
But for David Veart there is what may be a ‘Golden Age’ for New Zealand toys from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s (though he places a question mark after ‘Golden Age’). New Zealand toy manufacturers learn how to play the games of getting licences to import designs and parts, or of buying franchises on overseas products. They also become far more skilled at producing their own original designs. There are many proficient small-town workshops manufacturing toys, but by the 1960s, there are four local ‘giants’ in the field. They are Lincoln Laidlaw’s Lincoln Toys with its brilliant marketing of all categories of toy; Tonka Toys specialising in toy cars and trucks; Torro Toys, which markets a line of interlocking blocks in (inferior) imitation of the international giant Lego; and the Lines Brothers who had the franchise for Tri-Ang Toys.
Veart revels in the toys of this particular era (coinciding with his and my childhoods) and spends time on such delightful oddities as the methylated-spirits-fuelled toy train that dashed about with great flames shooting out from all sides. But even in the 1950s, there are warning signs of the toy-selling power of international media. New Zealand did not have television then, but the American crazes for hula-hoops and Davy Crockett hats caught on here. And when television did come in, the whole game changed with New Zealand toys companies going under when they did not invest enough in television advertising.
The biggest twist of the knife came in the 1980s with Rogernomics, globalisation and the removal of import licences. So begins the era when toys played with by New Zealand children tend to be bought at barn-like Warehouses, and made by cheap Chinese labour to American designs.
David Veart is never judgmental about toys. He does note how ‘inappropriate’ golliwogs and ‘Maori’ toys eventually came to seem, and how they were phased out – or at least replaced with more culturally aware models. He does touch on gender issues and the matter of ‘war toys’, but he does not labour over them. He introduces the interesting topic of skateboarding by saying that children’s skilled athleticism in this area belies the view that today’s kids are all sedentary and glued to their i-Pods, i-Pads and computer screens. In short, he is a bit of a toy enthusiast and apologist, and he would never have put this book together if he wasn’t.
I said this was a book of both scholarship and nostalgia. It is, and its savvy about economics makes it a genuine history of New Zealand toys too. But I suspect its major appeal will be the nostalgic one.
NICHOLAS REID has a doctorate in history. He is an Auckland poet, teacher and biographer and runs the weekly book blog Reid’s Reader.