Philadelphia, PA – The early 70s
I had lots of toys as a kid. Cars, trucks, games, action figures, and comic books. I loved all of my toys. But one of my favorite toys was modeling clay.
I owned several of these packs of clay as a kid. The problem with store-bought toys was they come in very specific shapes and sizes. The plastic army men or spacemen figures are rigid and are stuck in their cast positions. But clay can be shaped into anything you want. The things you can make out of clay are limited only to the skill of your hands and your imagination.
So your choices are unlimited as to what you can create with clay. It was my favorite toy as a kid. A simple shapeless lump of modeling clay.
It was great when you first opened the packet because you had a few colors to work with. But in time they all eventually blended and all of your clay was one color. Brown.
This didn’t matter because it wasn’t about the color of the things you made, it was the shape and what you did with them.
Unlike Play-Doh, clay never dried out. It stayed in its natural form no matter what you did with it. If you left Play-Doh out and didn’t seal it up in an airtight container, it dried out. It turned hard as a rock.
I remember Play-Doh had a salty taste to it and I do remember eating a bit of it as a kid. Children learn early by putting things in their mouths. It’s a primitive learning skill. Play-Doh, like Elmers Glue, was both non-toxic and didn’t taste that bad. Even if it was just an experimental exercise.
But Play-Doh just didn’t hold the same eternal magic and durability as modeling clay. If you made something out of Play-Doe and it was good, you wanted to give it to your mom or just leave it out. It then turned to stone and became a permanent artifact. You couldn’t play with it anymore. But with clay, if you needed more clay or were tired of your sculpture, you could simply squish it and make something new.
I remember watching the 1933 classic film, King Kong. I immediately grabbed my clay and sculpted the great ape fighting with a giant snake from a scene in the film. My father was impressed with my creation, and how I captured the moment in the film. But at some point, I either moved it or changed the positioning of the figures and my dad said I messed it up. This hurt my feelings so I squished it. I thought…it’s my clay and I’ll make what I want. You can’t create the things that I can.
Modeling clay is such a wonderful toy for children. The highest form of intelligence on the planet is creation. Remembering or memorizing facts and figures already created and thought of by others is just a memory exercise. That’s a decent skill and it is needed. But taking a lump of shapeless clay and turning it into something that never existed before is a real talent.
Isn’t creating something our greatest homage to our creator? To emulate our creator is the best compliment we can give to that entity. Real or not. Why settle for someone else’s vision of what a toy should look like. Clay gave me the ability to create my toys and characters to make my adventures.
I once sculpted a little brown bunny rabbit for my mother. It was maybe two inches long. My mother loved it so much she placed it on a shelf in our kitchen and it stayed there for years. My mother passed away a few years ago but always kept the little rabbit. A couple of years ago my older sister found that sculpture and gave it to my daughter to give to me. After half a century in existence, the bunny was still intact. After 50 years he was a bit dried out but that’s how durable modeling clay was back then. (Sadly, he crumbled a few years ago and I had to toss him.)
My friend RJ and I spent hours and hours making things out of clay. I remember he once sculpted the nativity scene out of clay and presented it to his mother for Christmas. It was a great work of art for a child. He was very talented as a boy.
One of our favorite things to make was a thing we called “Clay Guys”. They were little men about an inch tall. We occasionally made little clay girls. The only difference between these simple figures was the female clay people had a little swatch of clay hair on their heads and two tiny balls of clay on their chests. These were covered with another thing swatch of clay around the figure to form a dress. There was nothing sexual about it because we were just children, but that’s how we defined the gender of our characters in simple child terms. But 99% of our characters were guys. Clay guys!
Sometimes we’d find little things they could use as tools. Like a pin or needle from a sewing kit. These became swords in the hands of our characters. Sometimes, instead of the little bump on the top of their shoulders that represented the head, we would replace that bump with a marble. Two little oval clay eyes were affixed to the marble, which made that figure into an alien. Cat’s eye marbles looked the coolest because it was as if you could see inside the alien’s head and his thoughts were swirling around in there. Hence making him a brilliant alien.
Here you can see us with an army of alien clay guys!
As I write this, I wonder where this perception of what an alien life form could look like. I’m guessing it was probably inspired by images we’d seen in comic books or old science fiction films we liked to watch. Mad Theater and Horror Theater on channel 17 with host Doctor Shock come to mind.
Sometimes we’d make the occasional giant clay guy or the monster that our little clay guys had to fight to the death. The cool thing about our clay guys was they could be destroyed, but also resurrected. If one of your guys lost an arm or was cut in half during a battle, he could be repaired, or even squished and reborn as a new clay guy!
We would make little search parties of clay guys and send them on journeys through our house. Climbing, jumping, hanging from ropes (strings), and going into battles were all part of the adventure. We knew some of our team wouldn’t come back from the journey, but that was the fun of it. Our toys had mortality. They could die on the adventure. But as I said, you could always bring them back from the dead to live and play with again.
Once we made a bunch of clay guys and stood them all up in a line going across our street. The cars would come, and run over part of our team squishing them horribly. We knew we’d lose a few, but there were always the survivors. If you could pick the cinders, dirt, and stones out of the survivors’ bodies, they’d live again to go on another adventure tomorrow.
The possibilities of making things out of modeling clay were endless. It was the best toy and inspired us to use our hands, our minds, and our imaginations. Sometimes the simplest things are the most fun. I know now there are so many high-tech toys out there and video games are king. But holding a lump of clay in your hand and making something from your imagination was the best.
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