Simple Toys

My life in appalachia toy made with buttons

“Mom made lots of toys with strings. The button and string provided many hours of entertainment for children who didn’t have store bought toys. Mom also made a dancing doll out of cardboard with strings attached to the hands and feet. When the doll was hung on a flat surface and the dangling thread was pulled, it would dance up a storm. The thread spool was used for many different toys as well. My favorite was when Mom would make up some soapy water and we used the spool for blowing bubbles. If we could save enough spools to make four wheels, we built the fanciest car around.”

—Shirl 2017

I remember my Mamaw Marie making me a zizzer button to play with. It provided hours of fun, the only downside being if it got close to someone’s hair it immediately became so tangled you could barley get it out.

The imagination of a child is wonderful and if allowed to meander along simple toys are more than enough.

Paul and I loved to make roads out of books and blankets for his little cars to drive along. I remember being very little and realizing Mamaw Marie’s shoes made the perfect cars for my barbie dolls. Making mud pies and other pretend foods from items I found in my backyard entertained me for hours. Chatter and Chitter enjoyed the same activity. They’d serve their daddy and me full meals at their mud splattered pink plastic table in the backyard and stand by like chefs on a cooking contest show anxiously awaiting our verdict while we pretended to eat and enjoy them 🙂

Las night’s video: Treasures & Stories from the China Cabinet – in Appalachia.


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  • Reply
    Darlene Boyd
    February 21, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    We called them zizzers too. Boy what a mess if you got your hair caught in on of those things, but I’ve played for hours on end with one of them!

  • Reply
    Gloria Hayes
    February 18, 2022 at 4:45 pm

    Mud pies were the best!! Taking twine and stringing around trees grouped together to make rooms made a wonderful playhouse. Pieces of wood would make perfect boats to float in the ditch after a heavy rain. Tobacco sticks with more twine made a stick horse. Amazing how much fun you could have with just the simple things. Sweet memories!!

  • Reply
    Sallie the apple doll lady
    February 18, 2022 at 3:16 pm

    I didn’t play with those kinds of simple homemade toys as much as my much older siblings but I remember mud pies, making roads for small cars in the dirt, and crafting things from found objects. I had my favorite playhouses in the woods with moss for rugs too.
    My older sister worked with 4-H Clubs her entire career and realized that many children could not entertain themselves without tv and toys from the store. That was before electronics. So she started a collection of homemade “before-tv toys” and now has between 1,000 and 2,000, several from other countries as well. She has exhibited and instructed making them and as her retirement project several years ago, with the help of some woodworking friends, made a game cabinet with several wooden board games for each of the 4-H camps in Tn. They were to also teach responsibility, for users to learn to put them away and not lose the pieces. Hopefully her collection of those simple fun toys can find a home in a museum or place where others can learn what fun simple toys can be. The zizzy buttons, spool tractors, whimmy diddles, metal circular rings pushed with a stick, puzzles, puppets, homemade dolls, ballgames, rope jumping, books on the subject, board games, and all should not be forgotten. Give a kid a stick or box and they can usually find a way to have fun even in todays world.

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 2:11 pm

    Buttons, spools, sticks, and strings can make marvelous things.

    The twins will always remember and appreciate the freedom to imagine and play given by their mom!

  • Reply
    Tina Huffman
    February 18, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    I remember all the sweet games as a child…mud pies, matchbox cars, playing in the dirt, building tents with chairs and blankets. The real fun began as teens. Throwing knives at each other’s feet to stick in the ground, if you moved, you lost. Tomato fights in the garden with rotten unpicked tomatoes. Building rafts to float down the creek. Driving the truck down the railroad tracks hoping no trains would come. Sitting on the couch which was base, then attempting to sprint passed my brother without getting hit by the belt he was wielding. Playing hide-and-seek with cars driving all over town and racing to the bank parking lot which was base. Sneaking out of the house all summer through our bedroom windows playing tag in the dark. Climbing the town water tower just to sit and watch the world go by. There was much much more that we did. To say the least, growing up with two older brothers and a family next to us with 6 boys was an adventure! I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

    • Reply
      February 18, 2022 at 5:59 pm

      I’m just glad you Survived, Tina!!!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 12:08 pm

    Mud! Lots of memories you’ve sprung here, girl. At about three years old, I found a shiny little strip of material while digging in my Mud Pie Ditch. My cousin told me the shiny piece was a ‘FAERIE’S BELT’ and I believed her. – so for days I dug deep, looking for more of the Faerie’s clothes. We’re in our 70’s now and my cousin and I still laugh over that story.

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 10:34 am

    We didn’t have much in the way of toys until the house burned down. We used what was around us for entertainment, much to our mother’s consternation.

    We cut a grapevine at the bottom and would swing way out over the bank and swoop back in. That same bank was used as a slide: we’d take a running start and slide on our bellies in the dust all the way to the bottom. Mom had a fit because she’d have to clean us up — no easy task as it involved drawing water from the well and heating it up, standing us on a small stool in front of the kitchen sink and scrubbing us down. We had long hair.

    I had a penchant for capturing animals and bringing them home: a big black snake; a lovely green snake (the only one I’ve ever seen); a turtle (which mom found when she accidentally sat on it); a pony in our little basement; a baby skunk (the momma came all the way down the road to our yard looking for it. I ran to let it out of the doghouse and tried to haul myself up into the pine tree, but she got me good); and many others.

    I would routinely come home injured from tumbles off of horses, trees, and rocks. I once dislocated my knee trying to inner tube down a steep hill. My plan was to launch off the top of the bank, jump the road and barbed wire fence, and continue on down the hill. Nope. They had to go get the dogs to drag me and the inner tube all the way home.

    My mother hollered — AHHHH! — a lot.

  • Reply
    Sharon Cole
    February 18, 2022 at 10:10 am

    I remember making mud pies with my sister and cousins. So much fun! Take care and God bless!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 10:02 am

    In addition to simple toys, children also played outside a lot. Growing up, kids in our neighborhood played outside together all the time. Now we never see any kids playing outside in our neighborhood. Its a shame because there is so much to see, do, and explore outdoors but now days they are glued to their devices instead.

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 8:51 am

    This reminds me of my own childhood. Us kids used our imagination creating games to play and building forts, both inside and out doors. It’s sad that the art of imagination has been taken away by so much technology. Technology has provided lots of help in so many things in life, but it has also taken away the very thing that created it, imagination.

  • Reply
    Nancye Chambers
    February 18, 2022 at 8:47 am

    Beautiful stories! Sad that today’s children don’t know that with a saftey pin and a towel you can become Superman!

  • Reply
    Rita F Speers
    February 18, 2022 at 8:46 am

    Wow! This takes me back! I had a button zizzer too! My mud pies were awesome too! One time Mama gave me a little bit of old unused macaroni. I built a grand cake and decorated the sides and top with the macaroni. I did have a toy cake tin to mold the mud in….guess I was “rich” LOL! My little friends and I could spend hours making “playhouses” and “cooking” mud! My Dad rigged an envelope with a rubber band and a button somehow so when you picked it up, it would vibrate and startle you! FUN!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 8:40 am

    I think I told this before but one of the toys we made was a jimmy dancer. They were made out of empty thread wood spools and a sharp stick run through the spool and the spool was also sharpened on one side. That was what they now call a top. We made so many things out of what was handy.

    One of the Casada brothers mentioned this before but it was something we also made. A rock thrower made from a dried corn stalk. We cut a pocket at the top for the rock and leaving much of the stalk for the handle you could throw a rock much farther than just using your arm.

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 8:40 am

    My Mamaw was a prolific quilter and kept a box full of empty wooden spools for us grandkids to play with. We loved getting that box out and building all kinds of things with those spools. I haven’t thought about that in years. Thanks for stirring up good memories.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    February 18, 2022 at 8:31 am

    Our simples toys were flipguns, popguns, wooden boats, wooden sleds, ball bats and so on we made ourselves. We had relatively few store-bought toys and anyway we were out and about so much that we weren’t partial to anything sit and stay unless it was raining.

    About the treasures in your china cabinet, those kinds of items are more about the memories connected with them than the items themselves. It takes some living before we understand that from the very beginning. It is another meaning for, “It’s the thought(s) that count.” That is, someone was thinking of you and cared about you and delighted in delighting you. And that is the best part; not the ‘ thing’ so much as what it represents. We just can’t hand down the feeling with it. The next generation has to form their own feeling.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    February 18, 2022 at 8:17 am

    I enjoyed today’s blog quite a bit. I could see the spool being blown through to make big bubbles! I could see mom’s homemade marionette with its cardboard feet and hands dancing about! I could see you with Barbie crammed in a shoe driving about happily. I remember making cigarettes out of notebook paper and painting the end red as I persuaded my baby sister to “smoke” with me as we discussed politics. I asked her how hers was and she declared “just awful” while mine was “going bad” and I was “worried to death!” I had no idea what it meant but I didn’t care cause I was a big woman in my mind! Lol I love kids just being kids. I remember taking Carly and Mara to Toys R Us and THEY would beg to just go home while THEYD sit on lower shelves moving about with mom and dad. I think Murray and me had a bigger time than they did…. lolI guess we had never seen so much toys in one place ever in our lives….

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    February 18, 2022 at 7:52 am

    Last weekend we visited with a son & daughter-in-law and their young boys. Susan gave the younger (two year old) boys a set of trucks wrapped up in paper. He got all excited about it – as much the opening the present as the trucks, I think.

    A half hour later he was entertaining himself by digging up soil with a hand trowel and making pancakes.

  • Reply
    Steve Wortham
    February 18, 2022 at 7:35 am

    One of my favorite childhood toys was a tractor made from a spool, long stick, rubber band & a piece of crayon. It would crawl over rocks, piles of dirt and most everything I placed in its path. My imagination had no limits.

  • Reply
    Martha Justice
    February 18, 2022 at 7:29 am

    You have a “very special” husband. ❤ so do I ❤

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 18, 2022 at 6:46 am

    The imagination of a child is a beautiful thing to watch, especially when it is allowed to run free with no criticisms! Your girls were totally free to wander, play, and imagine. That is quite the gift you gave them; they have grown into women able to think and I love that quality in them!

  • Reply
    February 18, 2022 at 6:16 am

    I wish we had a huge shift back to simpler toys. I believe it allows children to exercise their imagination and thinking. Thank you Tipper, this post made me think of my own mud pies.

  • Reply
    donna sue
    February 18, 2022 at 6:08 am

    My parent’s house was built in the late 1800s. My Dad moved the house from downtown San Diego, to where we lived in east San Diego County when I was 4 1/2 and we moved into it when I was five. I had chicken pox the first year we were there. It has the narrow old wood slat floors, and I would play with my brothers’ matchbox cars and pretend each wood slat in the floor was a car lane/road. The far backyard was a dirt field that my sisters and I would pretend was our own neighborhood. We would use the heel of our shoe and draw our house in the dirt, complete with furniture for each room. Then we would pretend to clean our houses, cook, and take our children (dolls) to visit our neighbors. My mom would also give us clothespins and old sheets or blankets which we would pin to the fence and make t-pees to live in. My grandma gave me a magazine that had house plans in it, and I cherished that! My Dad and grandpa had been carpenters before my Dad began moving houses and other buildings, and they continued to do carpentry work on the side afterwards, too. So us kids had an endless supply of small leftover wood that we used as blocks. I would spend hours during summer vacations building houses using the floor plans in that magazine and those small blocks of wood. I also loved to spend hours drawing and designing clothes and shoes using my crayons and paper. In grade school I remember challenging myself to write down every state and it’s capital without peeking, and I did this item! I probably drove my grandma crazy asking her to “correct” any paper work I set my mind on doing, she was a school principal. And I would also write, starting with number one, and writing down every number there after, up to 1000 or more. That project I would work on for the whole summer, but I kept my papers of numbers neatly in order in my desk that each of us kids had in the back room, which we called “the playroom”. It was more like a sun room, with floor to ceiling windows as the walls on three sides of the room (one wall also had french doors to the back yard. My mom converted it into a library and sitting room once us kids got to old to play in it). I also loved to craft, and my mom taught me to crochet in 2nd grade, and I learned to knit in 4th grade, plus I learned to embroider in some young grade, so I spent a lot of time doing needlework. I still have a tablecloth I cross stitched in grade school, plus several “picture” squares I learned embroidery stitches on. We were not allowed to watch tv except for Saturday mornings for a couple of hours. So us kids played outside, or inside, using our imaginations to the hilt. I climbed trees and read books there so I could have peace and quiet away from my siblings. There were five of us. So our playroom in the house was a shambles from the time we got up in the morning until we had to clean it up before supper if we wanted to eat. We also rode bikes and roller skated a lot. And fought. We did a lot of that for sure. I remember one time when I was probably in second grade-ish, climbing to the top of the swing set and being too afraid to come down. I remember it was on a Sunday because my Dad was home. I sat up there crying and calling for his help for a few minutes, until he came out and lovingly rescued me. I will remember that feeling of relief and safety in my Dad’s hands forever. My Dad has always been my hero.

    Donna : )

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