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Friday, August 12, 2011

Cowboys and Indians

Cowboy & Indian Playset per Dozen - Click Image to Close
Image credit

        Hopalong Cassidy was all the rage when I was born.  He'd been all the rage as a cowboy hero for years and smart marketing had Hoppy's licensed products all over the place.  The Hopalong Cassidy television show was on the air from the time I was an infant until I was about four or five years old.  Even then I thought he was a rather peculiar cowboy star, but adults seemed to think kids should like him so I guess we did--kind of.

        Cowboy and Indian movies had been around since the earliest days of film-making.  My father had grown up with them.  They were still quite popular in the 50s, but science fiction and war movies were starting to become more ensconced in the cinematic hearts of young American boys.  I preferred the uncertain threats suggested by the sci-fi genre, but I still loved a good Western.

          Some of my favorite toys included the plastic little men that usually came in the form of soldiers or cowboys and Indians.  The army men were always a drab green color.  They often came with nifty green colored accessories like guns, artillery, and vehicles.  For some strange reason the bags of cowboys and Indians were brightly multicolored red, yellow, blue, and other colors.  Oddly the horses were in the more natural colors of white, black, and brown.  I could never figure out why those little men had to be so colorful, but that's they way it was and we just had to accept it.

           The little figures came in assorted poses that represented cliches that met the expectations that we had developed after watching countless Western films.  The Indians always included the archer on one knee poised with an arrow in a drawn bow, the wild running brave with tomahawk in the air, the warrior with knife ready for attack, and the noble chief holding a lance.  Most of the tiny faces looked fierce and intimidating.   The cowboys' faces were stern and stoic.   They usually stood in various stances of gun readiness.  Both groups had riders that could be mounted on horseback.  It was a cast of characters that was perfect for directing my own cowboy and Indian spectacle.

          Sometimes my little men clashed in battle.  I simulated gunfire and ricocheted bullets with weird little kid mouth sounds.  Tiny bodies fell from furniture that stood in for high cliffs and buildings.  Riders tumbled from horses.  Figures fought in hand to hand combat as I deftly maneuvered the little bodies to create blows with arms that were locked into permanent poses.  My imaginary Westerns had some violence, but they often had something that most kids' play did not have--circus.

          Circus and show business were an integral part of my life when I was growing up.  If there had been toy sets that consisted of miniature jugglers, clowns, and acrobats I would have probably had those, but since there were not I had army men and cowboys and Indians.   Army men did not seem to fit well into the circus, but I could easily create my own tiny circus with a Wild West Show theme.

           My miniature show had trained horses from the Western toy sets and some other animals from a safari set that I had acquired somewhere along the way.  The circus owner and the hero of my playtime movie stories was a little man dressed in safari clothes.  His greatest distinctions were that he was made out of black plastic (I had never seen a little man made of black plastic) and he had a missing arm.  It looked almost as though the arm had been chewed off, but I had no recollection of how he lost the arm.   Then again I don't even remember where the man came from.

           There was something rugged and heroic about the little black man with the missing arm.  I imagined that he had been a famous lion tamer who had lost his arm to one of the big cats.   Even with one arm missing he was tough and commanded respect.  No one dared to go up against the lion tamer turned circus owner.  He did not see a missing arm so much as a handicap as much as a minor inconvenience.

           One of the Western sets had included a cowgirl so she became the love interest of the one armed circus owner.  There was only one cowgirl in my toy collection so she was naturally the sweetheart of the only hero.  My hero had a few sidekicks and pals, but most of the cowboys and Indians were just movie extras on the imaginary set of my imaginary Western.

           I no longer remember the stories.   They lasted from day to day over a time span now forgotten.  The men, the animals, and the set pieces have long vanished to unknown places and reside only vaguely in my memory now clouded by the passing of the decades.  Only dust lingers from the parade of circus wagons that have long disappeared over a distant horizon toward a soft sepia sunset.
   Do you have any special playtime memories or toys that were especially significant to you?  Did you put stories to your playtime and did they continue from day to day?   How have the imaginary stories of your childhood play affected you to this day?

  And now a "Theme from an Imaginary Western":


  1. I as a child loved music more than toys.....playing the piano and studying for examinations were my love. Also reading, always had my head in a book albiet reading about the classical compossers or mystery novels.I did have a lovely doll which my mother bought when I was five but have passed it to my grandaughter when I moved around.

    Loved your post today, I can remember Hopalong Cassidy at the cinema as a child.


  2. I used to love the Western series we watched as youngsters - Gunsmoke (who can forget Chester's cries of 'Mr Dillon'?); Laramie; later the High Chapparal (OK- most teenaged girls like me swooned over Blue!); and who can forget Trampas in The Virginian? (more swooning!)Later came Alias Smith & Jones - then it all just seemed to die off :-(

    As the youngest child (with a 5+year agegap) I spent most of my time with the family dog virtually clamped to my side, so of course he became 'Lassie' (though he was a German Shepherd crossbreed who bore no resemblance to the gracious beast of TV fame!) - we had our adventures around the local parks and countryside! Happy memories :-)

  3. I too grew up in the cowboys and indians stage of entertainment...Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong, The Lone Ranger...I had the full gear and spent a good portion of most days enacting favourite scenes (that one lone rock that they kept riding around and around and around and). Of course I had dolls and art supplies and trucks and farm toys (I think Dad was in denial about having a girl). I remember clearly a wind up tank that shot caps. I think what I took from all this was that it is okay to be who you are at any given time.

  4. Great memories - I had the cowboys/Indians set, the soldiers set, farm animals and a collection of dinosaurs. There were some epic and (very strange battles) fought on the front stoop. :-)

  5. I had little plastic cowboys and Indians. Of course, now I can't hear that phrase without thinking Cowboys and Aliens! Somewhere I still have a box with my old G.I. Joe, Big Jim, and Steve Austin.

  6. As a child, I always wanted to live on a farm so I would pretend the shed behind our house was the barn and I would gather grass to feed my imaginary horses and cows. I assigned chores to my sister and brother--like gathering the imaginary eggs in the barn or sweeping out the stalls. I galloped around the yard on my imaginary horse and then took him in the barn to rub him down. It was great fun.
    Thanks for the excuse to fantasize again, Lee!
    Pam at

  7. Yep, cowboys/girls and Indians were my childhood too. I loved Hopalong, Roy Rogers and Dale, Gunsmoke, and a little later - Bonanza. We used to jump on our bikes and pretend we were one of the Ponderosa boys. I got to shake Dan Blocker's hand at the Pike's Peak or Bust Rodeo when I was twelve. He was Hoss if you don't remember. thanks...

  8. I loved those little green men, kept me occupied for hours. Do you remember the Mattel Creep Crawler maker? I loved that thing, made fishing worms with it. :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  9. My brothers had those brightly colored plastic cowboys and Indians. We loved playing with them with our Lincoln Logs!

    Legos are my favorite childhood pastime. My sister, two brothers and I made sure to have different sets from each other so that when we played we could create ultimate worlds! We had everything from town sets to space sets. The castle and pirate Legos were our favorites to play with though! Such good memories. :)

  10. I performed song and dance routines to an invisible audience. That was when I wasn't riding the garden wall or the bed clothes and pretending I was riding a horse.

  11. My dad spent months building a three story doll house for me. He even bought the latest Barby and gave it to me for X-mas. I cast the Barbie aside and took my Star Wars figures in to play battles. I think it was then he finally gave up on having a prissy girl for a daughter. I loved that doll house because he made it for me, but no way I was touching a Barbie. :)

  12. Yvonne -- I spent a lot of time with music as well. Now that I think back, it seems like I had a whole lot more time to do different things back then-- seems like I was always busy with something.

    Sue H -- I guess your German Shepherd could have played Rin Tin Tin. We never had any pets, but I rarely missed Lassie on Sunday evenings.

    Delores --Kid's play shouldn't be stifled as long as it's safe. I would have liked the tank.

    Li - I think I got some dinosaurs later. I fantasized some crazy science fiction style imaginary movies.

    Alex -- Maybe those action figures are valuable now like the old Barbies. Those came out after I stopped playing with toys, but my brothers had them.

    Pam -- I don't recall ever fantasizing about the farm when I was young, but I used to as a young adult.

    Jan -- I do remember Hoss and all his brothers. I never watched Bonanza regularly. If I recall it aired on Sunday evenings in conflict with other shows that my family watched. I did manage to watch a few episondes--maybe it was in syndication by that time.

  13. Jules -- I do remember the Creepy Crawler maker. I think my brothers and sister had one. You could make those gelatinous candy bugs with it.

    Laura -- I loved the Lincoln Logs. I used to also have American Bricks, which were similar to Legos. I'd build communties with those, boxes, and other materials and then destroy them in some cataclysmic fashion.

    Jab -- Putting together shows was always fun. My sister and I did that as well, especially if we had company to perform before.

    Ciara -- I always envied girls who had doll houses and would like to have had one for myself. It brought realistic play to a higher level. When Star Wars came out I was already an adult with a young son.

  14. I love hearing memories like this!

    I loved playing with my Barbies and other doll sets - created all kinds of stories with them. And LEGO - I adored LEGO! I'd create whole sets and have my dramas play out with the little folks I created. Loved it!

  15. Hi Lee .. I loved watching Cowboy and Indian movies on tv - when they reached the UK .. I had a doll, which apparently I was extremely fond of .. then my brothers got train sets and I think I was rather jealous of the communities of people, farmyards along the line etc .. so I don't remember ...

    Love reading about everyone else's memories though .. cheers Hilary

  16. I grew up in central Oregon in the fifties. There were lots of guys who made their living riding horses, herding cattle, mending fences, but they were just "the Hodeckers" and "the Bye boys" and "Old man Sturza" Roy Rodgers was a cowboy! He was clean and he shaved and he didn't drink or smoke or cuss. Reality just doesn't measure up to Hollywood.

    My favorite toy was my brother's Erector Set. I loved to MAKE things! My grandma figured it out and taught me to knit and embroider so I would have girly things to do. But I still put together buildings and robots every chance I could get.

  17. Cowboys and Indians weren't a part of my childhood but I had G.I Joe and Rainbow Bright. The G.I. Joes and Rainbow bright would always go on adventures together. Sometimes they would last days or even several days. I think these play times helped developed my creative side and have helped me look at the world from a different angle. Great Post! :)

  18. I had the Johnny West family, along with the buckboard that converted into a covered wagon, and a Jeep and horse trailer, and a cardboard backdrop for their ranch, and clothes for all the Wests, and a horse for each. I dreamed up daily western soap opera scenarios to keep them buys.

    I also enjoyed a good game of Feely Meely for a diversion.

  19. Your post let me remember how much Dad and I enjoyed listening to the Sons of the Pioneers record he'd had since the 1950s. Happy Friday, Arlee!

  20. I wasn't much into western things or little plastic men - LOL. I did like paper dolls. But mostly I liked to ride my bike.

  21. This was a very nice post, Lee. It has all the charm I've come to expect when I visit here.

    Strangely, no 'special' toys are coming to mind for me, at the moment. I spent most of my time as a kid playing outside without toys or pretending to be in a rock band. So, then it was whatever could pass for a microphone. :)

  22. Jemi -- Lego toys were not very prevalent when I was a child. My kids had them though and I used to play with theirs.

    Hilton -- I loved train sets. I had an American Flyer set, but my father would only set it up at Christmas. We didn't have room for it the rest of the year.

    Roxie -- Yes! The Erector sets were wonderful. They seemed so scientific and futuristic. I wonder if any kids still play with those? They are probably considered too dangerous now because of all the small pieces.

    Carol F. -- I agree that ongoing play episodes play a big role in developing story-telling ability.

    Val -- I never heard of it, but that Johnny West set sounds like my dream playset. Do I want to know what Feely Meely is? Never heard of that.

    Michelle -- My parents never had any cowboy or country-western music back then, but I remember hearing the Sons of the Pioneers on TV.

    Carol--Once I got a bike when I was about 10 years old, that was a major play activity for me as well. We used to have relay races that I organized with my friends and dubbed them "Pony Express". It was still a western theme.


  23. Suze -- I did a mean Elvis Presley impersonation when I was about 5 years old. Rock music was just coming on the scene back then so I didn't fantasize about it. I was in middle school when I first really started taking an interest in Rock.


  24. BOIDMAN ~
    I too had all the plastic army characters and cowboys and Indians. However, my plastic cowboys came in a light brown color ("realism" being more important to the toy-makers of my day than yours, I guess. ;o)

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  25. My favorite toys were baby-dolls and all things 'housey.' I adored my Easy Bake Oven and loved playing with my washing machine, dryer, and ironing board. I think I was destined to be a mom. ;O)

    I did make up stories as I played, and my mom wrote many of them down and made them into little books. Jeez, looking back, I was pretty much the same person I am today, only shorter.

  26. I don't remember any specific toys of my own, but I do recollect trying to get in on my older brothers' war games. They'd set up all those little figures and sometimes take pity on me and let me join in with my dolls as hostages or casualties of battle. Most of the time, I played "school" or "town" with a few dolls and stuffed animals. What a lot of fun we had using our imaginations! Thanks for reminding me, Lee.

  27. my son will be this way with all his star wars stuff. He pretends the fat legos are droids and he has Star Wars legos that he has put together with droids and ships. He constantly watches the movies and the cartoon Clone Wars. he even plays the online video games. He adds in his hot wheels collection and does battle/shooting scenes as we hear the constant "shooting noises" he makes.

    I think one day he'll look back and remember.

    As for me, I had the Fisher Price people/town/camping/car/house and created a whole make believe world. I played with "my people" forever...and was dismayed to find they are now really fat/wide (due to choking hazard) My daughter is just getting into it...

    Lake Forest, CA

  28. It was a tie between my barbies and my matchbox cars. Yup...matchbox cars! I loved playing out in the dirt making roads, mountains, etc...

  29. My brothers had those sets. As I remember it the little men spent an awful lot of time bouncing off my head. never asked for the story.
    My own favorite was a china tea set though I ever gave tea parties. I was always having a lavish dinner or playing restaurant.
    Thanks for the look back.

  30. I would make up plays with my brothers and they would last for days as we rehearse only to forget all about the performance when some new adventure came up.
    Blessings, Joanne

  31. I remember always designing houses. It didn't matter what materials I had, whether shoe boxes, blankets, or moss and sticks, I'd build anything form hobbit holes to castles to boat houses. If all else failed, I had my imagination, which had absolutely no boundaries. Yes, those were the days!

  32. Stephen McC-- The brown cowboys must have been a phase because the ones I see for sale online and in the store are the colorful ones.

    Word Nerd -- I feel like the same person. I've been wanting to buy some little men and Tonka trucks to play with.

    Walk -- Often my sister was my only playmate so we'd often share in the same games.

    Sandi -- Fisher Price made some cool toys. Were they the ones who made the Weebles?

    Donna -- I never had Matchbox cars--I don't know if they made them when I was a kid. But I sure liked the Matchbox vehicles when my little brothers started getting them.

    Giggles -- I can't remember if my sister had the tea sets and such. I think overall the boys toys were cooler, but that's me.

    Joanne -- My daughters used to put together plays and then perform them for the family and neighbors. Some of them were pretty good.

    Petra -- Cardboard boxes were often more fun than the toys that came in them.


  33. Shameful, Lee...

    Playing with toys that celebrate the oppression of Native Americans.

    Obviously, these toys have made you a violent person.

    Perhaps if you were to apologize to Native Americans for taking their land...

    I don't remember the cowboys and indians, but had slews of the soldiers. Mostly green, but I seem to remember red and blue ones...


  34. My brother and I played cowboys-girls. We played ranchers. We worked very hard daily to round up our invisible cattle.

  35. Hi Lee,

    I'm the nosy one from the Tiki Hut. I followed the white rabbit on over the comments.

    I can't recall a special toy per se, but I do remember giving my dolls fantastic lives complete with complicated histories. Being a storyteller is my calling. Now I just have to hone my craft and use the abilities I was blessed with the best way I know how.

    You popped over to my blog to say hi on Wed, but I'll leave my site according to the white rabbit rules :).

  36. Ah, you brought back some childhood memories Lee. My brother had those cowboy and Indian sets, as well as the "drab green soldiers." I was often recruited at playtime to be whatever side I was "assigned" (I was the younger sibling).

    I actually "enjoyed" playing with my "Toni" and "Revlon" dolls and my multitude of stuffed animals, which my brother had zero interest.

    I think the stuffed animals were my favorite and to this day, I've always adopted a variety of live pets - everything from cats and dogs to frogs, bunnies and lizards. :)

  37. My brother and I had the same Cowboys and Indians figures. I can visualize each one you described. We also had a couple of the bigger sets with fences for building corrals and one that had a fort (Fort Apache). We used to use small throw rugs, lowered gently to the floor by one corner, to make hills with lots of nooks and cranies for men to hide in. Lots of good memories there.

    Here's a question for you - do you remember Hopalong's horse's name?

  38. Loved your nostalgic trip into your toy box.
    My brothers played a game called Death Valley and one of the plastic figures was a manky looking goat they named Stinky Goat. I always felt sorry for that one.
    I had a Tressy doll whose hair got terribly matted while my friend was very diligent with her doll and made sure she was always immaculate.

    The funniest thing I rememeber was that when I was about six I used to tie my dolls up together with string and my older brother tied his cars and vans up with string, too. We realise it was because we'd travelled from Canada to UK to live and had had to leave all our toys behind, so deep down we were trying to keep our new toys safe and together!

  39. Larry--Now, now--The "violence" was always imaginary--it was my pretend movie. But all the little men preferred the Circus.

    Teresa -- That sounds more like work than play, but it was very industrious indeed.

    Isis -- I prefer to think of it as researching rather than being nosy. Thank you for stopping by.

    Paula -- I know my sister had some dolls, but I don't know if we ever played with stuffed animals other than throwing them at each other.

    Linda -- That sounds like my kind of play. I had the forts and fences and all as well and I also like to build elaborate sets.

    Madeleine -- Interesting that you came up with an analysis of what your play represented.


  40. I love these little toys, tokens treasures of our memories. Yes, touchstones of our youth. I love your soft, sepia sunset, dust included.

    Fun post, for me it was all about crayons and Barbie. I loved the colorful names; periwinkle blue, maize, midnight blue, jungle green and etc. I loved to give my dolls make overs. This began at an early age. I would add Dippity Dew to their hair, cut their hair and make clothes for them. I had a blast giving them make overs. I had one Barbie that you could change her hair color. Vinegar made her black hair; baking soda made her have red hair. She came as a blonde. So fun...thanks for the flashback to another time.

  41. Lee maybe you need to go see that movie, "Cowboys vs. Aliens". You can relive your childhood and if you do, could you let me know what kind of sunset is at the end?! ;D

  42. I love this post! I had the Star Wars toys when I was a kid and my brother, sister and I would think up these elaborate stories and spend hours setting up and playing. I used to do the same with my Barbie dolls. They were everything from secret agents to astronauts to doctors and world travellers. These toys developed my love of storytelling and why I became a writer

  43. I really love your stories. Thanks for sharing! :D

  44. What a cool story. It reminded me of all the Christmas mornings where my sons were more thrilled with the dollar bag of army men or cowboys n Indians than the expensive toys!

    As for me growing up, I was a total tomboy! I LOVED my matchbox cars. I made race tracks that covered my entire room. I did have a couple barbies and a barbie car but my barbie was the first stock car driver with her very own all girl pit crew!!!! I'm still a tomboy and love the smell of grease, oil and gasoline!

  45. I grew up with westerns, Dragnet, and war stories -- and brothers... so there were always loads of little soldiers and cowboy and Indians toys. I think those childhood games and movies played crucial roles in our lives. I joined the Army and went into law enforcement, and, my brother Patrick (who always wanted to play the Indian in our cowboy and Indian games) married a full-blooded Navajo.

  46. Barbies! They had blue eyes, blonde hair, impossibly small waists, and feet stuck in high heel position, and I loved them!

  47. Ella -- Loved that big box of Crayolas. Periwinkle was always one of my favorite colors. I do look forward to seeing Cowboys and Aliens.

    Melissa -- The simple toys of the past stimulated more creative thinking than things like video games where someone else has developed the basic story premise.

    IBD -- Always glad to have you stop by.

    Rasz-- Tomboy is not bad, it can be a very practical help in surviving adult responsibilities and not getting taken advantage of.

    Doralynn -- I guess we do probably tend to act out our aspirations for adulthood in our childhood fantasies and play.

    Theresa -- Barbies were hot, but they perhaps set the bar a little too high for most girls.


  48. A comment from Laura at the Daily Dodo reads:

    Blogger is playing silly beggars and lost my comment to your post, so I thought I'd drop you a quick email as I enjoyed it so much!
    As kids, we used to play 'Cowboys and Indians' in the more unusual form of Welsh vs English... it was quite something to collect english scalps (BTW I my parents are English and I'm bilingual!)
    My other half found a huge box of plastic cowboys and indians and soldiers on top of a bin saying 'free to good home'. Well - that good home is ours, as they have been set up in our defunct fireplace where they get played with every day... we really are 6 at heart!

    My favourite toys were paints and paintbrushes - and I was only allowed to paint as a real treat and this is the same feeling I get sitting down to paint now.
    Lovely post,
    Laura x (Daily Dodo)

    Thanks Laura!

  49. This comment has been removed by the author.

  50. Oh yes we played cowboys and Indians too! WE put ropes on our bikes and pretended they were horses! Never played with plastic guys though...but my kids surely did. Every Christmas it seemed they'd get a new set! We played paper dolls almost everyday which we made ourselves. The most fun in the whole world! Thanks for the blog visit!

  51. I never played with little figure toys growing up. Too many video games. Now I wish I had. :)


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