American Family Archives | Preserving Toys – Old & New

Toys in my collection range from the 1930s handmade truck in the center – something my dad played with when he was a kid and I have since inherited – to Rat Finks I messed around with in the 1960s, to the wind-up zeppelin on the far left that I picked up last year.

No matter your age – 1 to 99 – toys are a part of who you are.

The types of toys you played with as a kid, whether homemade in the 1930s or store-bought just last week (hey, I still buy myself toys, and I’m 58), each holds a special place in your memory, and believe it or not has helped shape the person you are today.

Toys Snapshot Kids at Xmas
The kids at Christmas, amongst all the toys, in December of 1958. The task at hand is to preserve both the photographs of such occasions, and the old toys themselves.

Yup, toys are an important aspect of the family archive, and while most of the previous blogs in this series have centered on old photographs, 35mm slides, old home movies, family photo albums and such, toys hold all sorts of important family and sentimental value – from the old ones that have been passed down to the newer ones you or your kids played with (or you still play with).

To get you on the right track, I’m gonna break this blog into a couple of sections, as follows:

Preserving Family or Heirloom Toys

Preserving Collectible or Valuable Toys

I will say from the start that there is significant crossover in terms of both the archival materials and the overall strategies used to preserve each of these two general categories of toys in your collection, but it still merits discussing in this way.

Toys Snapshot Two Men in Car
Two “kids” still playing, c.1930s. Toys, large and small, are very important to the growth of one’s imagination. Go and find one of YOUR old toys and see just how fast you return to fond memories of your own imaginative childhood (or adulthood, as these two jokers are doing).

Now, before we get started, I just wanna to say that “play” is a HUGE component of people’s lives (see pix above), as it is the wellspring of imagination that forms during our childhood and can lead us – as adults – into all sorts of new realms of self-awareness.

Toys can even shape people’s entire destiny or career path, and I can truthfully say that because I myself have lived it – and am living it NOW (see pix below).

This tin airplane (it’s a Douglas DC6, if you’re interested) that I started playing with when I was 7-ish back in the mid-1960s was to ABSOLUTELY CHANGE MY LIFE. It’s large – about two feet long – it’s battery powered, and it rolls around on the floor with lights flashing for a minute or so and then stops. When stopped the door on the side opens and a stewardess appears (yeah, they weren’t called “flight attendants” back in the day), and the people in the windows “disappear” as if they have left the plane. Pretty damn cool all around, folks. The coolest thing these days is that I STILL HAVE IT. Read on to see how this toy changed my life (and no, I’m not a pilot).

As mentioned, I’m not a pilot, nor am I a dealer making a living selling toys to collectors, but this single toy airplane did indeed change my life. What I am is a writer and an artist, and it is the toys I grew up with (and those I have recently purchased) that have shaped much of my current life. All that will become clear below, but here’s a hint:

12 Rat Finks copy
Yeah, Rat Finks from my collection of 50 or so of ’em that I started when I was a kid. I still pick one up on eBay every once in a while, if it’s a color I don’t have. An icon of the 1960s, these small 10-cent gumball machine characters were sardonic, ironic, and represented the “counter culture” of the 1960s in a way that I was oblivious to at the time but fully embrace in my “old age.” They were “…the anti-hero answer to Mickey Mouse.” Show this pix to ANY guy in their 50s and older and they will instantly know EXACTLY what they are lookin’ at (and a smile will creep across their face – guaranteed!). What a hoot!

Anyway, if you’re a Jane or John D. Citizen who wants to safely and archivally preserve YOUR old toys, or those of your kids / parents / grandparents / great-grandparents, or if you’re an amateur (or serious!) collector, this blog’s for you.

When you’re finished reading it go and find YOUR cool stuff and treat it right! You’ll be glad you did!

Toys Barbie 4 w:GI Joe

As mentioned above, whether you’re safely preserving family or heirloom toys, or you’re a serious collector with thousands (if not hundreds of thousands!) of dollars invested in whatever it is that you collect, preserving toys – old and new – comes down to just a few basic concepts:

Use Museum-Quality Archival Materials (acid-free boxes / safe bags / archival tissues / etc.)

Keep Things Organized and Identifiable (now, and for generations to come)

Store Your Archivally Preserved Collections in a Safe Place (never in your attic or basement!)

As we go through the suggested procedures and materials illustrated below, please keep in mind that while I am addressing MY collections in this blog, everything I am doing to preserve my collection can be applied to YOUR OWN collection. All you need to do is select the right sized bags and boxes for your particular toys and BOOM, YOU’RE DONE!

It really is that simple.

Now that I’m thinking about it, what it really all comes down to is choosing the right archival boxes, enclosures, and cushioning materials (and a few other things here and there):

Toys Planes
There are four different types of archival boxes depicted in these photos. While each is acid-free and completely safe for your toys and collectibles, factors such as box size, depth and color – and how many toys you want to place in each box – will determine just what type of box will best suit your needs.

Toys Barbie 5 w:GI Joe Toys Hotwheels 1 Toys Lunch Box 2 Toys Christmas Toys 2 Toys Old Truck 2

Yes, for whatever toys I’ve (YOU’VE!) got, there is most likely a perfectly sized acid-free box, an equally perfect archival bag or enclosure, and the right type of cushioning material for your particular needs. All ya gotta do is figure out what’s what, so let’s go do just that!

Preserving Family or Heirloom Toys: The “Old Stuff”

Toys Snapshot Girl with Doll Stroller
An old snapshot from the family archive, with a doll in a toy stroller being taken along for a walk. Check out the stylin’ hand-warming muff the little girl has hanging around her neck.

To get things started, the following series of photographs are usually set up as “before & after” shots of toys and the archival solutions to their safe long-term storage. Beneath each set of photographs are the specifics of which archival materials were used and why. For access to additional information, each photograph and description will be active links that will take you to the specific materials mentioned. It will all look something like this (only seriously, without the all the silliness suggested below):

Enclosure: Archival Baggy Bag

Box: XYZ Whatchamacallit Box

Cushioning Material: Acid-Free Stuff-o-Rama

What’s Up: general information regarding each toy, and some other interesting odds & ends associated with it

As mentioned, while the specific toys illustrated and described here may not resemble ANY of the toys YOU have in your collection, each toy is used here as a generalized example as to just HOW to store YOUR artifacts, whatever they may be.

And with that, we’re off!

Toys Arthur's Boat 1 Toys Arthur's Boat 2

Enclosure: archival Polyethylene Bags – 3½ x 5½” bag for the sailboat / 4½ x 6¼” bag for boat & box

Box: N/A

Cushioning Material: N/A

What’s Up: to get started, this small sailboat was found in the box in the photograph. My mom’s hand-written note inside the box states that “Arthur made this for me when he was a little boy – Mom.” What all this means is that my Uncle Arthur, who’s now in his 80s, made this small two-inch sailboat for my mother (now deceased) when they were both kids in the late-1930s / early-1940s. The “Mom” referred to in the note in the box is my mother’s mom, as she was the source of the information as to what this is and where it came from. The sailboat itself was stored in a safe archival polyethylene bag, and then placed back in its box to be stored in a larger polyethylene bag in order to keep them together. Neither bag is sealed closed, as such artifacts need to “breathe,” as is the case with most toys in your own collection. Later in the process this precious toy will be placed in a larger acid-free Drop Front Box along with other family treasures.

Toys Old Truck 1

Toys Old Truck 2 Toys Old Truck 3

Enclosure: truck wrapped in a sheet of pre-cut Archival Tissue

Box: 5 x 7″ Black Hinged Lid Box

Cushioning Material: Shredded Archival Tissue

What’s Up: this truck, handmade in the 1930s by my grandfather, belonged to my dad. It was wrapped in a sheet of archival tissue, and then placed by itself in a perfectly-sized black hinged lid box, safely nestled in a bed of shredded archival tissue. The truck is wrapped in archival tissue (or could just as easily have been placed in a polyethylene bag) in order to keep the naturally-occuring dust that is present with any shredded paper from getting into the nooks and crannies of the toy. As long as your toys are wrapped or bagged, shredded archival tissue is often one of the BEST cushioning materials to use, especially for glass or very fragile toys.

Toys Christmas Toys 1 Toys Christmas Toys 2

Enclosure: toys placed in individual Polyethylene Bags

Box: 12½ x 15 x 4¼” Tan Short Top Box

Cushioning Material: crumpled sheets of pre-cut 16 x 20″ Archival Tissue

What’s Up: these handmade Christmas toys date from the 1920s-1930s, and belonged to my father – and his father before him. While very fragile, they have lasted relatively intact for over 80 years, and now it’s my turn to make ’em last the next 80! They were placed in individual polyethylene bags and then placed, along with other old Xmas decorations not shown in the photo, in a Short Top Box with crumpled sheets of archival tissue placed around and between them.

Toys Barbar Stuffed Elephant 1 Toys Barbar Stuffed Elephant 2

Enclosure: stuffed animal placed in an unsealed Polyethylene Bag (unsealed so it can “breathe” in storage)

Box: 5½ x 11-3/4 x 6″ Black Short Top Box

Cushioning Material: none needed, as another stuffed animal was to be added to this box

What’s Up: jumping ahead a few decades from the era of my dad’s toys (see pix above), this is “Barbar” (named after Babar the Elephant, but I couldn’t say that back when I was a toddler so he’s forever Barbar). Sure, he’s just a run-of-the-mill stuffed elephant from the late 1950s, but as one of my first and most cherished childhood toys (hey, I saved it didn’t I?) this little grey foot-long piece of pure joy is going to my grave with me, folks. ‘Nuff said! I chose the 6″ depth of the Short Top Box illustrated above as Barbar is 4″ deep and wouldn’t fit in a 3″ Drop Front Box, my usual go-to box of choice.

ASotW 5 Record Storage Box Plane in Box

Enclosure: N/A, model placed as-is

Box: 15½ x 12-3/4 x 10″ Record Storage Box

Cushioning Material: crumpled sheets of pre-cut 16 x 20″ Archival Tissue

What’s Up: there is an interesting story here! My dad built one of these cool working models of a WWII-era P-51 Mustang fighter for me way back in the late-1960s / early-1970s. I loved it, but like many of our collective childhood toys – yours & mine – it “went the way of all things.” Decades later they re-issued this model and I built one for him for his birthday, the model you see here (I liked building model airplanes, and that will be important to know at the end of this blog). I inherited this model back again after my dad’s death in 2006, and am gently and safely storing it for my grandkids (if I ever have ’em).

Preserving Family or Heirloom Toys: The “New Stuff”

Toys Snapshot Girl with Doll
Most of the toys I’m discussing in this blog are pretty much “guy things,” yet I’m including this pix as all of the archival materials / tricks / tips I’m using for MY toys will work just as well for “girl things” you may have in YOUR collection of stuff. Now, I’m a card-carrying feminist, but we gotta face the fact that old-school toys were often gender-specific. That’s just the way it was, folks, but knowing what I know I made sure that both my daughters (now aged 23 & 21) were brought up with the sorts of toys THEY liked, not what the “pink aisle” in the toy store sez they should have. Yup! (Please click on the image for more subversive information that challenges the dominant paradigm.)

Toys Rat Fink Comic

Enclosure: comic book in an archival 8 x 10″ 3-Ring Print Page

Box: acid-free Tan Binder-in-a-Box (also available in black)

Cushioning Material: N/A

What’s Up: remember my collection of Rat Finks (see pix toward the top of this blog)? Well here is a 3-D Rat Fink comic from the 1980’s. See, I told ya I “still like my toys.” I can safely store a whole gang of comics in this type of economical acid-free binder. Boom! ‘Nuff said, Daddy-o.

Toys Planes

Enclosure: toy airplanes placed in individual Polyethylene Bags

Box: acid-free 16½ x 20½ x 3″ Drop Front Box (also available in tan & black)

Cushioning Material: crumpled sheets of pre-cut Archival Tissue will be placed between and around each toy

What’s Up: as mentioned, I like toy airplanes, but see the plastic multi-staged rocket on the right in this pix? An identical one was placed on my birthday cake when I turned 5 or 6. The “Space Age” was just starting back in the early 1960s, and I just LOVED that rocket (the white and blue nosecone had a spring in it and “launched” when the little white lever on the side was pulled back). I lost that original rocket in the seas of time, but found an identical example – still in its original bag – in the basement of an old out-of-the-way model shop in the middle of nowhere. Bingo! Now its a prized possession – worth about $5 bucks but priceless to me. You’ve got similar treasures, so treat ’em right!

Matting Enterprise (no ruler)

From cheap plastic birthday cake rockets to Star Trek – not a very far leap for a kid growing up in the 1960s. This promotional still photograph of the Enterprise was found on eBay a few years back, and serves as the example of “how to archivally mat stuff” in our fully illustrated blog on Matting. Check out our blogs if there is anything YOU want to mat / mount / frame.

Toys Enterprise in Box

Enclosure: N/A, although could be placed in a Polyethylene Bag or wrapped in sheets of Archival Tissue

Box: acid-free 14-3/4 x 12-1/8 x 5″ Artifact Box

Cushioning Material: Shredded Archival Tissue

What’s Up: purchased in the last 10 years (while in my late 40s), this model of the Enterprise is totally sharp. It lights up and plays a number of recordings – “phasers on stun” / “fire photon torpedoes” / “go to warp factor seven, Mr. Sulu” – cool stuff like that.

Toys Viewmaster 1 Toys Viewmaster 2

Enclosure: View-Master viewer placed in a 7-1/8 x 10-3/8Polyethylene Bag / reel packet in 4½ x 6¼” bag

Box: acid-free 5-3/8 x 6 x 5-3/8Tan Hinged Lid Box

Cushioning Material: N/A

What’s Up: I’m not a big Kiss fan but I am a big 3-D collector and researcher, so I had to have this reel packet as it points to what the culture thinks is important. For storing single viewers this small Hinged Lid Box is the ticket. Reel packets in individual bags will also fit in this box. See pix below for storing multiple examples of stuff, including whatever you have in YOUR collection (which probably does NOT include Kiss View-Master reels, but you get the idea).

Toys Viewmaster 3

Enclosure: View-Master viewers placed in a 7-1/8 x 10-3/8Polyethylene Bag / reel packet in 8 x 10″ bag

Box: acid-free 10¼ x 5½ x 4½” Tan Hinged Lid Box

Cushioning Material: N/A

What’s Up: Not a big pro wrestling fan either, but it’s an important cultural phenomenon so it’s in the collection. Again, storing “one” thing in YOUR collection might mean using this-or-that box, while storing “multiple examples” of the same thing might mean simply using a bigger box.

Preserving Collectible or Valuable Toys

There are many toys that people collect purely for “the fun of it,” while others collect as an investment as some toy prices are in the stratosphere. Below are some of the more general categories of “collectible” toys, and while you perhaps have no interest in the specific types of toys illustrated please take a moment to consider how the archival needs of each toy is being addressed, as you can apply those principles to your own stuff.

Sometimes the best archival storage solution means using a product “off label,” in other words using a particular archival box or kit that was created for a specific use and using it for something entirely different. A good example below is the 35mm Slide Storage Kit, which was designed to store 2,4oo individual 35mm slides but can also be used to store dozens upon dozens of Matchbox or Hot Wheels cars in your collection. Yup, “off label” is often the ticket, folks!

Toys Lunch Box 1 Toys Lunch Box 2

Enclosure: collectible lunchbox placed in a Polyethylene Bag

Box: 12½ x 15 x 4¼” Tan Short Top Box (two lunchboxes will fit in this box)

Cushioning Material: crumpled sheets of pre-cut 16 x 20″ Archival Tissue

What’s Up: some lunchbox prices are INSANE, often selling for hundreds if not thousands of $$$. Depicting a host of subjects, these “everyday” lunchboxes from the 1950s-1970s are now really quite collectible and sought after. If storing YOUR old lunchbox, consider placing a reusable desiccant canister in the archival box before you close it to help keep things dry, as old steel will rust.

Toys Barbie 4 w:GI Joe

What can I say? While I never played with either of ’em – the figures in the pix above and below were borrowed from friends – Barbie (and Ken and Skipper, etc.) and G.I. Joe dolls are also highly sought collectibles, with rare vintage examples commanding thousands of dollars. Below are two ways to archivally store them – both MIB (mint in box, as the saying goes), and loose or open.

Toys Barbie 1 Toys Barbie 2

Toys Barbie 3 Toys Barbie 5 w:GI Joe

Enclosure: Barbie, still in its original box, stored in a Polyethylene Bag, as are the open Barbie and G.I Joe dolls

Box: acid-free 11-3/4 x 15 x 3″ Drop Front Box

Cushioning Material: N/A, as the bags themselves serve as cushioning material

What’s Up: multiple examples of your Barbie or G.I. Joe dolls can fit in a single box. Got more dolls? Consider a larger box of the same design, or a number of the same-sized boxes. Here the bags themselves offer cushioning and separation between each doll.

Toys Pez 1 Unwrapped Toys Pez 2 Wrapped

Toys Pez 3 In Box

Enclosure: Pez dispensers placed in 2 x 9½” HD Poly Envelopes (usually used for 35mm film negatives)

Box: acid-free 11-3/8 x 2 x 2-3/835mm Slide Box (usually used to store 35mm slides)

Cushioning Material: N/A, as the sleeves themselves serve as cushioning material

What’s Up: yeah, Pez collectors. Do you have any idea how many vintage / rare Pez dispensers I probably threw out back in the day? You probably did too! Cheap and seemingly unimportant, now they’re worth big $$$. Again, while perhaps you don’t have any Pez dispensers in YOUR collection, the idea behind examples like this is to continually bombard you with ideas for using a host of archival materials in novel or “off label” ways to protect what you DO have!

Toys Hotwheels 1 Slide Box Kit

Enclosure: Hot Wheels (or Matchbox) cars placed in individual Slide Tray Bins (8 cars will fit each Slide Box)

Box: acid-free 11-3/8 x 2 x 2-3/835mm Slide Box / then placed in a full blown 35mm-2400 Slide Storage Kit

Cushioning Material: N/A, as the Slide Tray Bins keep cars from coming into contact with each other

What’s Up: do you have old Hot Wheels or Matchbox cars? Know someone who does? Illustrated above is a PERFECT example of the “off label” use of a standard archival product. This 35mm slide storage kit is a great way to store dozens of toy cars (144 to be exact!), and everything can be easily labeled for simple organization and quick retrieval.

Toys Hotwheels 2 Toys Hotwheels 3

Enclosure: Hot Wheels car, still in its original packaging, placed in an individual 4½ x 6¼” Polyethylene Bag

Box: acid-free 12½ x 7½ x 5-3/8Black Hinged Lid Box

Cushioning Material: N/A, as the bags protect the cars from coming into contact with each other

What’s Up: if you have a collection of toy cars that are still in their packages, consider protecting each one in its own polyethylene bag and then placing them, in alternating fashion, in a correctly sized box, as illustrated above.

Toys Guns 1 Toys Guns 2

Enclosure: toy cap guns in my collection, each placed in a correctly sized Polyethylene Bag

Box: acid-free 16½ x 20½ x 1½” Tan Drop Front Box

Cushioning Material: N/A, as the bags protect these cap guns from coming into contact with each other

What’s Up: while researching stereotypes of Native Americans for a book I wanted to write I began collecting toy cap guns – specifically those with Indians on the handles. While that book will never happen, I still have the cap guns. As mentioned, the 3″ Drop Front Box is my usual “go-to” box, but in this instance I’m using a 1½” Drop Front. Likewise, if YOU have “thinner” toys in YOUR collection, just select this sort of box – it’s perfect for the job and available in a host of sizes.

Conclusion: Toys as a Life Influence

OK, so now it all comes together! Below is a pix of a piece of “artwork” I made for my parents when I was a kid out of a chunk of an old 2×4, and fortunately I still have this “toy,” shown on the right in a protective polyethylene bag before being carefully stored in an archival box.

Toys Lance's Wood Sculpture 1 Toys Lance's Wood Sculpture 2

1. a zipper-pull I had found someplace, stuck in a blue cap of some form or another with a ton of Elmer’s glue

2. a mini pinball game I got in some random box of Cracker Jacks

3. drawings of mom and dad (yeah, I still can’t draw, even though I ended up getting a Masters Degree in art)

4. “To mom and dad,” as scrawled in my elementary school chicken scratch (hey, it was a gift)

5. “Form Lanny,” as for years (and years!) I spelled “from” as “form” (and to think I ended up as a writer)

Now, just WHY am I mentioning all this??? Well, as I said, I ended up going to grad school in art (photography / sculpture / art history), and this is one of the ONLY surviving pieces of my early “sculpture,” so it’s worth archivally preserving!

Which brings me back full-circle to that tin airplane I described at the beginning of this blog. Before I go into linking the “sculpture” above and that old toy airplane, this is how I’m preserving that sleek and shiny relic from all those years ago:

Toys Plane 1

Toys Plane 2 Toys Plane 3

Toys Plane 4

Enclosure: each half of the plane (it comes apart) placed in a 20 x 24″ Polyethylene Bag / stairs in 4½ x 6¼ bag

Box: acid-free 28-3/4 x 17 x 6″ Textile Storage Box (did some say “off label?”)

Cushioning Material: large sheets of Archival Tissue cut off of a 36″ x 1,000 foot roll

What’s Up: I don’t need to say anything more, folks, cuz you get the idea – if you have something large and awkward, or small and delicate, there is probably a perfectly-sized box for it! ‘Nuff said.

So, an interest in making “sculptural” toys (see old chunk of 2 x 4 above) + an interest in old airplanes + the ability to build model airplanes + a crazy counter-culture attitude shaped early on by the whole concept of Rat Finks = zany ideas:

American Icarus Model

Various plastic toy airplane models I cobbled together a few years ago to make a “Frankenplane.”

American Icarus Sculpture 1

The same toy airplane model cast in mirror-polished stainless steel, with solid gold propellers.

American Icarus Sculpture 2

American Icarus Sculpture 3

The sculpture on its custom-machined, polished aluminum base.

American Icarus Book

A “photo album,” complete with fabricated aluminum portfolio box with sandblasted aircraft rivet pattern.

Remember those snapshots from the top of this blog? Well, I’ve been collecting snapshots for years, so I finally put them together and published this large 16 x 20″ photo album (see pix above), complete with photo corners and hand-written captions in white ink (edition of 100 handmade copies worldwide). The result is a “graphic novel” on the life of the fictitious aeronautical engineer who created the designs for the Frankenplane and others like it. It’s his life story – and a narrative of everything that happened in the 20th century – told in found snapshots.

This is what I do as an artist and a writer, and it all came from that single toy airplane I got all those years ago! You bet I’m preserving it, as it’s a toy that truly shaped my life.

You have them too, I’ll wager, so do the right thing and take care of ’em!

‘Nuff said.

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