Retro gift ideas–Ten classics you can still buy in time for Christmas

Play Doh SW

Some toys are timeless.  Once upon a time I or one of my siblings received every single gift on this list under the Christmas tree, and we got hours and hours of use out of these.  Some bring out the creative in us.  Some are just plain fun.  But all of them are classics, and we’re lucky that, with a little effort we can still find each of them, if not under the original brand name, then re-marketed but containing the full spirit of the original.  Check these out, listed in no particular order, with links to the quickest way to find these for your gift giving list via


View-Master — If you’re not interested in recently available subject matter reels for this classic 3D image camera, then go to any antique sale in any town and you’ll likely find boxes of the old packets of three reels, ranging in subjects anywhere from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to the Apollo Moon Landing to The Six Million Dollar Man TV series to every travel destination on Earth.  All you need is a basic viewer.  We picked up an original Sawyer’s black 1939 camera on a visit to the birthplace of the View-Master, Portland, Oregon, and it works the same as the classic 1970s red one you remember.  The same mechanism still runs today’s viewers.  Just grab yourself (or that person on your gift list) some reels and get started.

Etch a Sketch

Etch A Sketch — If you’re watching the modern classic Christmas movie Elf, you’ll find Will Ferrell doing some pretty detailed art work.  It’s actually possible and now and then contests reveal brilliant artworks using this temporary art form.  Created by French inventor André Cassagnes and sold by Ohio Art Company since 1960, the red frame and white knobs have one of the most recognized designs ever.  You know you need one, or need to buy one for that certain family member.

Shrinky Dinks

Shrinky Dinks — There is no limit to what you can create with a Shrinky Dink.  Want a bookmark with your favorite Superman image?  Need a key ring with your favorite fantasy film star?  Or show off your own creativity.  Simply draw your own image on the plastic and bake it.  It shrinks up and hardens into a sturdy keepsake.  They make a great Scout project–in fact they were originally created in 1973 as a craft project for Scouting.  And they were sold by the same company that released Colorforms (below).  And don’t forget about the similar fun craft project, Makit & Bakit.

Silly Putty

Silly Putty — It’s fun, it’s cheap, and who doesn’t have some comic image to transfer and then stretch, roll back into a ball and bounce it off the wall?  It’s a product still owned by the Crayola company, and where else can you expose kids at any age to actual viscoelastic silicon polymers and Non-Newtonian fluids?  And it’s safe.  Since 1950, 300 million plastic eggs holding the famous putty have sold.


Colorforms — So many versions of Colorforms have sold over the years that you can still find them pretty easily online and a version of the basic original set from more than 60 years ago is still regularly in stock.  The vinyl, multi-colored, re-usable adhesives allowed kids to create and re-create scenes from their favorite TV shows or characters.  Introduced in 1951, Colorforms included so many subjects that it is hard to imagine anyone not finding something they’d like.  I once had Colorforms from the original Star Trek, Peanuts, The Fonz, Marvel Superheroes, Mickey Mouse, Scooby Doo, Evel Knievel, Tricky Mickey (the Mouse as Magician), and the awesome oversized Castle Dracula.


Lite-Brite — Today’s Lite-Brite is a little more high-tech and expensive than the original, but if you can afford it you get the same effect.  Bright plastic opaque pegs can be punched into black paper stencil patterns and a light source behind the black paper makes the colorful images come to life.  Or you could use black construction paper and make your own designs.  Like Colorforms, there was an endless supply of subjects turned into Lite-Brite stencil patterns, sold in handy packets.  Remember the jingle?  “Lite-Brite, making things with light, outta sight, making things with Lite-Brite.”  Created in 1967, the original pegs came in orange, red, green, blue, yellow,  pink, purple and clear for white.


Slinky — What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound?  A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!  Everyone knows it’s Slinky.  Why does it work?  Who knows.  It’s just cool watching something “go” without power even if it’s just down a flight of stairs.  Then again, more precocious kids could get some physics knowledge from this boingy toy.  Based on a helical (helix) spring, momentum and gravity make it all work.  Created nearly seventy years ago, the Slinky is still sold today, including in the form of a dog as seen in the Toy Story movies.


Play-Doh — Another great creative toy, every grown-up kid that made action figures and other 3D objects out of Sculpey once began with good ol’ Play-Doh.  What other modeling compound began as a wallpaper cleaner that kids started to just play with back in the 1930s?  Made from flour, water, salt, boric acid, and mineral oil, and sold as a toy since the 1950s, the smell of Play-Doh has been listed as one of the most recognizable scents around.  Made over the years in more than 50 colors, most of us only had white, blue, green, red and yellow.  Remember the Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop, where you could push clay through dolls heads to make hair you could trim?


Tinkertoy —  Created in 1914, the year after the Erector Set was invented and two years before Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoy would be replaced in the market with Legos, which dominate the building toy market to this day.  But Tinkertoy allowed kids (and adults when the kids weren’t around) to make all sorts of machines that worked.  Based not on blocks but mainly wooden (and later plastic) sticks and hubs, they came in a container that looked like an oatmeal canister.  My dad once spent a night making a giant clipper ship complete with sails.  Although you can still get plastic versions under the same name, the Fiddlestix toy sets look more like the originals.


Spirograph —  Of all the toys on this list, Spirograph may very well create the most amazing results with the least effort.  Beautiful color kaleidoscope-like designs could be created with wheels edged with teeth, moved by pens inside bigger wheels, with plastic gears made from circles, triangles and bars.  Created in 1965, Spirograph made so many unique designs and each time you’d be surprised by the result, especially when mixing different pen colors.  Deluxe sets are still sold under the original brand by Hasbro, and generic sets closer to the original are sold under the generic geographic name of the pieces–hypotrochoids.

Happy shopping and reminiscing!

C.J. Bunce

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