For most of us, summer is a special time of year. Growing up, summertime meant time off from school, trips to the beach, and memorable family vacations. Summer is baseball, pool parties, and leaving home for camp. From high-performance water guns to battery-powered cars, many of the best toys we ever had were made for summer. As the days become shorter and the leaves begin to fall, we look back at some of the toys that made summer the best season of childhood.
The Super Soaker
The year 1990 marked the beginning of a revolution in water-powered weaponry with the release of the Power Drencher, the original name of what would become the Super Soaker. The Super Soaker actually dates back to 1982, when NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson built a prototype with PVC pipe, acrylic glass, and an empty plastic soda bottle. As a part-time inventor, it took 8 years of manufacturing setbacks and marketing struggles before the Super Soaker was ever sold in stores.
Originally made by Larami and now produced by Hasbro under the Nerf brand, Super Soaker has generated more than $1 billion in sales since its debut. For any kid growing up in the 1990s, the Super Soaker and its many accessories were a must-have for summertime water warfare.
If you’ve never tried on a pair of Rollerblades, you probably didn’t grow up in the 1990s. I spent countless hours every summer rollerblading around the neighborhood. I’d skate to friends’ houses, skate to the store, and sometimes, I’d just skate around in a circle because I didn’t have anything better to do. Ah, the carefree joy of childhood! Those were the days. The only negative experience I had with Rollerblades was the summer of 1999, just a couple months after the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. While skating around on a hot summer day, I picked up a little too much speed and wasn’t able to avoid crashing into a brick building in an effort to avoid a parked car. I spent the evening picking gravel out of open wounds. It was not my proudest moment. Although Rollerblade is just one of many brands of inline skates on the market, they are undoubtedly one of the most memorable. In fact, the name “Rollerblade” is often used generically to refer to any type of inline skates, demonstrating just how ubiquitous these wheeled boots were in the 1990s. From the X Games to movies, Rollerblades have had a significant role in popular culture. In the 1993 movie Airborne, a California teenager is transplanted to Cincinnati, Ohio where he demonstrates his talent on inline skates to earn the respect of classmates.
When I was about 3 or 4 years old, my grandparents gave me a battery-powered maroon Jeep that I could drive around my neighborhood. This is one of the earliest toys I remember owning, probably because within hours of unboxing it I drove it down a hill into the lake behind my house. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but this was one of the hottest (and most expensive) toys of the late 1980s. They were called Power Wheels, a brand of battery-powered ride-on toy cars for kids ages 12 months to seven years old. The Power Wheels brand dates back to 1984 when San Francisco-based toy company Kransco acquired Pines of America, makers of battery-powered vehicles for children. Two years later, Kransco renamed the line “Power Wheels”. By 1990, sales of the battery-powered vehicles reached over 1,000,000 per year, and in 1994, Mattel purchased the company and the Power Wheels line immediately became a part of Fisher-Price Toys. Although I never played with my Power Wheels Jeep much after my first traumatic experience, as an adult I can see why kids loved them so much. They had the portability of a bike when you were still too young to ride one, featured beloved characters like G.I. Joe and Barbie, and who doesn’t want their own set of wheels?
Slip ‘N Slide
Since its debut in 1961, the Slip ‘N Slide has been a part of suburban summertime fun. The toy was invented by Robert Carrier, an upholsterer who was inspired by his son’s makeshift water slide on the family’s driveway in Lakewood, California during the summer of 1960. Concerned for his son’s safety on the concrete, Robert Carrier brought home a 50-foot roll of waterproof synthetic fabric called Naugahyde, which he unfurled in the yard and hosed down. It wasn’t long before neighborhood kids showed up by the dozen to slide down the slippery beige material. Realizing he was onto something, Carrier used his upholstery skills to refine the product, filed a patent, and presented the concept to Wham-O, the makers of the Frisbee and the Hula-Hoop.
“It was quite a departure from the playthings of physical play in the middle of the 20th century,” according to Patricia Hogan, a curator at the Strong National Museum of Play. Not only were there no outdoor water toys besides leaky water guns before Slip ’N Slide came along, but the toy’s lack of rules and prescribed motions ushered in a new way to play. “There aren’t too many toys where you throw your body with abandon the way you do with a Slip ’N Slide,” Hogan says. “It lasts probably about a second — but what a second!”
By its 50th anniversary in 2011, more than 30 million Slip ‘N Slides had been sold. As a testament to its enduring appeal, you can still find the Slip ‘N Slide at pool parties and other summertime festivities. Although intended for children, it’s not uncommon to hear about adults acting like kids with larger and more dangerous homemade versions of the Slip ‘N Slide. In fact, I’ve seen friends of mine create massive, soap-covered Slip ‘N Slide contraptions going downhill into a pool. A similar and more terrifying build was featured in Episode 145 of MythBusters. Clearly, the Slip ‘N Slide is one of those summertime toys we’ll never forget.
One of the first toys I can remember playing with is also one of the most simple — the sandbox. There’s not much to a sandbox. They’re cheap to build or buy, plus kids love playing in the dirt, which explains their staying power in play. In my case, my parents got me the green turtle sandbox with its shell used as a lid. This was especially well-timed given the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the early 1990s, which I absolutely loved. This circular green sandbox combined with metal Tonka trucks and sand castle tools was a trusted combination for summertime fun.