The Nostalgic Reason I Accidentally Started Collecting Fisher-Price Toys From My Childhood
I don’t know what it is about ’90s kids, but our wistful longing for simpler days feels uniquely potent. Between the void that existed for me prior to October 1989 and the absolute chaos machine that was the early aughts, there was one word: bliss. Before the unrelenting notifications, medical bills that torpedo down my chimney like I’m the recipient of a thousand Hogwarts invitations, and (gulp) dating apps, there were the extraordinary relics of my childhood. Bright green slime. Butterfly clips. “Now That’s What I Call Music!” Volume 1.
Over the past few years, capitalism has come to collect, zeroing in on the former children, like me, who once believed stockpiling cardboard Pogs was a reasonable investment. The evidence is everywhere. Etsy artists re-animate truly wild and fabulous versions of Furby (Google “long Furby” if you dare). Movie theaters and streaming services dole out reboots like Snickers on Halloween. I could log into my Paramount Plus account right now and binge the entirety of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and that is a luxury I never could have fathomed in 2005.
As much as people seek out the brightest memories from the happiest days of their lives to cope with the latest crisis du jour, every memory can’t be blister-packed and rebranded for a restless and frustrated market of 30-somethings. In 1998, I could adventure with the neighborhood kids until the streetlights blazed; now, I don’t even venture to the corner store and back without my cell phone. And a year’s worth of therapy will not untangle my feelings about the throwback garb on display at the local Urban Outfitters. I’m here for it — but it’s not real.
Which leads me to: Beloit, Wisconsin, August 2021. Poring through the antique stores dotting the state line near my hometown of Rockford, I spotted it. A home as familiar as the one where I took my first steps. A Tudor house with a very open concept, a one-car garage but no bathroom, and a squirrel and bird’s nests and a dog and cat adorning the perimeter. Of course, I’m referencing the vintage (late 1980s) Fisher-Price Little People Tudor House. Of course. Despite stopping in for antique pieces to style my first-ever home with my first-ever (and last, fingers crossed) fiancé, I blew my very modest budget on an old plastic dollhouse, much to the bewilderment of my partner.
My family never owned the Fisher-Price Tudor dollhouse, but it was a staple at my Grandma Ann’s home, where I spent countless wonderful hours. At some point, without realizing it, I played with her Tudor dollhouse for the last time. My Grandma has since passed, and there’s no telling where the toy wound up. All memories of the dollhouse and its tiny, oddly-shaped, and brightly-colored inhabitants evaporated, only to condense back on that antique store shelf amid tattered board game boxes and Hot Wheels. Maybe something about shopping for a home that she’ll never see — which I own with a man she’ll never meet, that I’m marrying at the wedding without a place for her — disturbed 7-year-old me, somewhere out there in the multiverse. Maybe it’s not that deep. I really can’t tell.
Later that winter, impulsively stopping at an antique mall, I happened upon another Fisher-Price dollhouse — this time, the 1970s Play Family A-Frame House. As if I’d discovered a Tesla with a “free” sign on the windshield, I snatched the cabin so quickly it popped apart at the handle. I broke it, I bought it (and I fixed it!). As an avid lover of A-frame cabins, something about harnessing this ridiculous children’s plastic dollhouse (and furniture, and more oddly-shaped, brightly-colored inhabitants) felt essential. Now, whenever I pop into an antique shop or get lost late at night on Etsy, I find myself searching for more. The coveted 1969 Little People Play Family House #952. The 1974 Sesame Street House #938. The late ’80s School House Playset #2550. You get the picture.
The old Tudor dollhouse I tinkered with as a child on my Grandma’s living room carpet was already old and worn by the time it reached me in 1996. I loved it all the same. And maybe my older relatives felt that nostalgic warmth in their chests and bellies as they watched me play, astonished that a simple plastic house could delight a child who had access to Nintendo 64 and Tamagotchi. And now, as the oldest 32-year-old to walk the earth, I bask in astonishment at the sight of kids younger than 10 in bucket hats and tattoo choker necklaces. Ah, the circle of life.
Maybe one day I’ll have kiddos of our own to play with my collection. Maybe, just as I engage with my childhood nostalgia as a coping mechanism now, in the 2050s they’ll look back on this era for a sense of comfort. If they do, I might not fully “get it,” but I’ll completely understand. It’s not real, but it’s something.