The Ginghams, or My Own Personal Paperdollpalooza

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Most of us have heard of the famous foursome of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We’ve heard of Paul, John, Ringo, and George.

But have you ever heard of Sarah, Katie, Carrie, and Becky?

If you have, you likely 1) are female and 2) came of age in the late seventies/early eighties.  Those four girls are The Ginghams, a set of paper dolls that were oh-so-popular when I was a kid.  I had the original book of paper dolls, the one with the brown gingham background.  I had the “Ginghams Visit Grandma” set that came out a few years later.

And I had the fabulous Paper Doll Playsets.  I still have them, in fact.

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Earlier today, I pulled a chair over to my bedroom closet and got down a box.  Out came the playsets, which I hadn’t looked in about eight years, or ever since my parents came by bearing loads of old childhood toys they were tired of storing.   I was carried away on a wave of delight and nostalgia, remembering all the fun I had with these.

For the uninitiated, the Paper Doll Playsets each came in a little box.  They had a little scene of some kind — like Carrie’s Bedroom — that you could put inside the box and stand up and use as a background for your play.  The scenes all looked vaguely late-Victorian, or like they came right out of “The Music Man.”

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Each one also came with a doll, and about eight outfits (including hats!) and usually a cardboard accessory or two.  Here’s Katie’s Ice Cream Parlor, the very first one I ever owned.  (When I tried to put the dress on Katie, the thirty-year-old tape holding the tabs crumbled right off.)

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Paper dolls were such a huge, beloved part of my childhood.  My closest circle of playmates — my sister Amy, our neighbors Becky and Kelly, my best friend Jenny — all had sets of their own.  Some of us had identical playsets (I seem to remember Carrie’s Birthday Party being one that everyone owned).  I smiled to see the ballpoint pen “G” on the back of each piece of my sets, so I could tell my pieces from others’.

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Really, how awesome are these?  Look at Becky’s Schoolhouse, and her cute little sailor suit.  (Is that a prayer book she’s holding?)

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I think Becky’s Schoolhouse wins for cutest clothes.  Here are two more adorable dresses.

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When she wasn’t learning reading, writing, and ‘rithemtic, Becky also gave garden parties for her toys.  I wish my flower borders looked as good as hers.

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Looking through all the boxes, I remembered all those summer days of my past.  It’s a cliche to say that they were golden, but they were.  My friends and I would gather up our paper dolls, go to each other’s houses, and play for hours.  That was all we needed: paper and imagination.   We were happy as  clams.

There’s a very special memory attached to this one, Carrie’s County Fair.  I clearly remember buying it at Arthur’s ToyTown, a fabulous toystore in downtown Burlingame, where my grandparents lived.  It was a little toystore that sold one of everything, and it was a paradise for kids.  Alas, it has been gone for years.  But it was a part of those truly carefree summer days, when all you had to do was play and stop for lunch and play and then stop for dinner.   Do I miss those days?  You bet.

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As I arranged the paper scenes in their little boxes, I thought of how kids today don’t seem to play with paper dolls.  I see them here and there, but only rarely.  And that’s a darn shame.   I hate to sound like an old fogey, but there is something profoundly valuable about being able to amuse oneself so happily with such simple materials.  I’d hate for today’s kids to miss out on that.

Will I share these paper doll playsets with the boys?  I’m not sure.  This hesitation has nothing to do with gender roles (I grew up in the era of Free To Be … You And Me, so I’m totally fine with William having a doll) and more to do with a collectors’ awareness of the fragility of paper.  Neither of my boys is particularly careful with ephemera, shall we say, and I’d like these dolls to last for thirty more years, if possible.

But this trip down Gingham Lane got me thinking.  Here, on the cusp of summer vacation, I want the boys to discover their own imaginative passion.   I want them to have beloved toys that unlock their own creativity and keep them absorbed for hours (Matthew may have already found his; lately he’s been creating an elaborate Lego village on the surface of his old train table).

Whatever it is, it’s my hope that one day, when the boys are men, they will climb up on a chair and pull a dusty box down from the top of the closet.  I hope that they will pull out the toys they used to love and smile at the thought of the carefree days of play that made their childhood golden.

Did you play with paper dolls?  What are the toys that used to be a fixture of your summer afternoons?

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