BEACHCOMBING: ‘The History of America in Toys’

Photos by Peter Hvizdak

 

In 1949, while America was still adjusting to a fragile post-World War II economy and people were eager to part with household items or memorabilia for a little cash, Herb and Gloria Barker hit the road.

They were newlyweds who had settled in Connecticut and they soon learned they had a shared interest: They delighted in driving around New England and beyond on weekends, stopping at tag sales and thrift shops to pick up “collectibles.”

“In those days, people put things out on their lawns [for sale] because they were short on money,” Herb Barker recalled on the phone from his home in Hollywood, Fla., where he moved in 2000.

“We were always looking,” he says. “And my wife got this idea: collecting ordinary items that people were just discarding.”

Those cheap tchotchkes included wooden toys, a Lone Ranger ring from a cereal box and a Betty Boop doll. The Barkers snatched them up for 50 cents or maybe a buck. (That little ring is now worth $750.) Barker notes, “Then we realized we were building the history of America in toys.”

This colorful history is on display at the Barker Character, Comic & Cartoon Museum in Cheshire, where the Barkers long ago set up shop. Its 80,000 items are jaw-dropping to behold, especially for the baby boomers from my generation who grew up on Howdy Doody, Lassie and Superman.

Sharing my wonder was this magazine’s photographer and fellow “boomer,” Peter Hvizdak, gaping with excitement at the glass cases filled with rare remnants from our youth: Monkees bobbleheads! The Pillsbury Doughboy! The Wizard of Oz ruby red slippers!

“Look at this!” he calls out on his way up the staircase to the museum’s second floor. “A framed Betty Boop comic strip!”

Reaching that second floor, our eyes are drawn to the ceiling: dozens, maybe hundreds of vintage lunch boxes hung in rows. Maybe you remember carrying one of them to school: Mork and Mindy, The Munsters, The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe, Planet of the Apes “Everything you see was purchased by one couple,” Museum Director Judy Fuerst reminds us. “The focus is on character and personality.”

That was clear as we stood near a large couch, taken up by the members of The Simpsons family. That’s one of the museum’s big crowd-pleasers, along with the 8-foot “Incredible Hulk” statue downstairs.

Barker told me a key mission of his museum is educating children about American history, starting in 1873; the oldest toy in the collection is a cast-iron elephant ramp walker, made in that year by the Ives Co. in Bridgeport.

“A lot of our items were made in Connecticut,” Barker notes. “We have the original Mickey Mouse watch from 1933. That was made in Waterbury.” It is now valued at $1,900.

Fuerst shows me the watch in one of the Walt Disney glass cases. One of the rarest pieces in the museum is a tube of Mickey Mouse toothpaste from 1934.

I notice no tag on the toothpaste estimating its value. “We can’t say what it’s worth,” Fuerst tells me. “It’s priceless.”

The tags are on the museum’s items only to inform the public; nothing is for sale. Fuerst and her staffers frequently overhear shocked exclamations from visitors who read those tags and say, “My mom threw that out!”

But if you want to take something home, next door to the museum is the Barker Animation Art Gallery. There are more than 1,000 pieces of art on display, including Star Wars paintings, original hand-painted cels from Disney movies ($600-$800) and a collection of Dr. Seuss’ “unorthodox taxidermy,” featuring the two-horned drouberhannis and the goo-goo-eyed Tasmanian wolghast.

Barker, who has set up two more art galleries in Florida, says it’s still painful for him to be separated from his museum collection. “It was a great pleasure to be surrounded by it.” But he and his wife still sometimes buy items in Florida and ship them up to Cheshire.

Asking Barker to name his favorite items in the museum, he says it has to be the Popeye collection. “Popeye was born Jan. 17, 1929; I was born six days later.” He particularly likes the Popeye boxing ring, a rare item valued at up to $10,000. “Very few of them were made and they’re very colorful.”

What about the long-term future of the collection? Barker, who has four grown children, eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, says, “The museum is our legacy. We want it to keep going. We want it to be seen by more people.”

The museum, at 1188 Highland Ave., Cheshire (203-699-3822), is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. The art gallery has longer hours; see BarkerAnimation.com for details on the museum and gallery, including admission prices.Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.

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