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What Happened to Plain Old Lego Bricks?

When I was a kid, my brother and I built all kinds of things out of Legos -- spacecraft, buildings, pseudo-Voltrons, abstract art pieces, and so on. We kept all our bricks in a gigantic denim bag that so heavy it was hard for a four-year-old Higgins to carry. But even the bag itself was well-designed: when you opened the bag, it actually laid out as a flat circle on the floor, allowing easy access to a fantastic Lego collection heaped within.

As kids, my brother and I only had one or two "themed" Lego packs -- one was a set of "moonscape" plates that you could presumably build a moon station on, and another had something to do with knights and castles. But in general, we just had a metric butt-load of bricks, no Indiana Jones, no Star Wars, no custom "only fits in one place" bricks from those sets that kids get nowadays.

So what happened to good old generic, non-themed Lego bricks? The New York Times says: Turning to Tie-Ins, Lego Thinks Beyond the Brick. From the article (emphasis added):

Even as other toymakers struggle, this Danish maker of toy bricks is enjoying double-digit sales gains and swelling earnings. In recent years, Lego has increasingly focused on toys that many parents wouldn't recognize from their own childhood. Hollywood themes are commanding more shelf space, a far cry from the idealistic, purely imagination-oriented play that drove Lego for years and was as much a religion as a business strategy in Billund. ...

In the United States, Lego's biggest market and the biggest toy market in the world, games with themes like "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" were among the reasons Lego sales jumped 32 percent last year, well above the global pace. But experts like Dr. Jonathan Sinowitz, a New York psychologist who also runs a psychological services company, Diagnostics, wonders at what price these sales come.

"What Lego loses is what makes it so special," he says. "When you have a less structured, less themed set, kids have the ability to start from scratch. When you have kids playing out Indiana Jones, they're playing out Hollywood's imagination, not their own."

What Do You Think?

Do your kids play with Legos (or do you still play with them yourself)? How do you feel about the themed kits overpowering the general-purpose brick sets? I'd be particularly curious if anyone out there knows of good sources for buying just the regular bricks, as indeed they can be hard to find in some toy stores. (Note: if you search on Amazon for "lego bricks" there are some good options there, particularly the "Basic Bricks" set.) Leave your thoughts in the comments!

See Also...

The Early History of Lego, The Lego Lifestyle Home, and Stop the Lego Mania!

(Story via Kottke.org; photo "United Colors of Legotton" by Flickr user Guillermo, used under Creative Commons license.)

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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