We went there on a whim. I’d been to Marietta’s Children’s Toy & Doll Museum before, when I was a kid myself. This was in the 1980s on a Girl Scout field trip, and even then I’d found it a bit creepy and bush-league, full of fading playthings arranged without much flow or reason. The centerpiece was “The Talking Dollhouse”, a boxy Victorian-style doll house with a looped recording describing the scene in each room. As a dollhouse-obsessed little girl, even I couldn’t get behind the Talking Dollhouse.
Back then the Toy & Doll museum was in a basement, but it eventually expanded and moved into a restored Queen Anne house in the charming tourist draw of Harmar Village, where it nicely compliments the brick streets, antique stores, and scant car traffic. There’s also Whipple’s Whimsical Toys at the foot of the Harmar Bridge. It’s a really neat shop full of vintage-style toys in two retrofitted train cars, and my daughter Frances likes to go there and manhandle all of the tin wind-up gizmos and wooden pop guns.
But the store was closed, so we needed a plan B to occupy the humid summer Saturday. We had exactly six dollars cash, and that was what it would cost for both of us to visit the nearby Toy & Doll museum. So we did it.
This place really is a labor of love. The toys were all donated by local residents and it’s run by volunteer docents, and therefore only open on weekends from 1-4pm between May and October. According to the brochure, the museum provides “a glimpse into the past of what entertained and educated children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”.
There are two rooms full of dollhouses, a room of transportation-themed toys, a few rooms of dolls, and a small library of price guides and history books. Most of the toys on display there are quite antique, but I saw—and photographed—a lot of items I was quite familiar with. The Talking Dollhouse now speaks by a CD in a small boom box, technology that itself almost seems museum-worthy.
The room Frances and I enjoyed the most was the playroom, where kids could go crazy playing with actual toys—very helpful for pent-up kid release after looking at all of the items behind glass. There was a 1968 Skipper doll in there, a sturdy wooden dollhouse, a bunch of Matchbox cars, and a Teddy Ruxpin with a cassette tape in its back, but no batteries. Half of the stuff in the playroom could have fetched pretty decent prices on eBay.
We’d just watched Toy Story II the night before, and the idea of playing with toys versus preserving them was very fresh in my mind (the plot of Toy Story II involves Woody getting abducted by an evil nerd toy collector, who plans to sell his very rare and now-complete set of Woody’s Roundup dolls to a museum in Japan for a very tidy sum).
In the Toy & Doll Museum’s display cases, I saw a few toys I remembered from JCPenney toy catalogs when I was young. They looked aged and strange collected together, so different from the days when fresh toys in brightly colored boxes held such allure and promise.
Frances is nearly five years old, and while she loves toys, she’s still little enough to have a grand old time sorting through a bucket of acorns. My mom saved a lot of my old toys, and now Frances plays with them contentedly, though most of them—choke-able Fisher-Price Little People and soft, squeaky Woodsies finder puppets—could easily make sense displayed alongside the artifacts in the Toy & Doll Museum. So many things there provoked a sense of both familiarity and discomfort in me, a product of the early 1980s.
I’m old enough that a lot of people I talk to don’t have a reference point for that era of pop culture. But I’m glad we went. It’s once of Marietta’s hidden little gems, a window into the past that made me consider the future. Which of Frances’s new toys will she treasure when she’s older? Which ones will seem crazy and pathetic? Objects have lives, just like us. Frances and I left after an hour or so, to resume our own lives, each of us with a slightly altered perspective on the value of old stuff.