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5 Amazing, Kitschy Retro Gifts for Under $20

By Edited Apr 17, 2016 3 6


Golden Years

As a kid growing up in the late 1960s to the early 1970s there were certain things that were staples of any kid’s life.  Stuff came and went, but there were plennya things that left lasting impressions. 

Dependent upon a kid’s background these things were fun or enthralling or mysterious; in at least a coupla cases, they were risqué.  [Or, maybe they weren't part of that child’s life (sad, sad Junior) and maybe were just something I took note of as a sprout that left me with a sense of nostalgia.]

I grew up in Chicago at a time when parental guidance meant giving you enough fiscal responsibility to venture to the corner store and buy a deck of Winston’s for yer Mom (“Here’s a

Vic Dillinger (late 1960s)
dollah, you can spend a nickel on candy and bring me back my change!”), no questions asked by the shop keep.  It also meant strolling into the corner tavern as an eight year old—“But come STRAIGHT HOME!”—to tell the old man it was time to leave.

I have nothing but fond memories of many of those things associated with those glorious times when kids weren’t precious little bundles of protoplasm to be protected and mollycoddled by milquetoast parents. 

We were REAL KIDS who went into bars, bought smokes, took sips of beer, and played with bugs, dirt, and things like Erector Sets.  [Erector Sets had small nuts and bolts that today’s precious bundles—>GASP!<might put in their mouths and swallow!]

So, here’s a look back at some of the classic things from my childhood that are still available today and which would make amazing, albeit kitschy, retro gifts for that hard-to-buy-for person on your Christmas list or birthday or anniversary or Valentine’s Day or maybe just because.

None of these things will break the bank, either.

Etch A Sketch
I initially hated it, because I didn’t have the hand coordination to make a perfect circle.  But, over time, I found the item fascinating, mostly as it related to the mechanism behind its working. 

The Etch A Sketch was invented by an electrician in France in the 1950s.  This guy, Andre Cassagnes, produced it under the name “Telecran” (who knows what the hell that means?).

Ohio Art Classic Etch A Sketch Magic Screen
Amazon Price: $14.99 $13.66 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 17, 2016)

It used a mechanical armature plotting mechanism that scraped an interior surface coated with aluminum oxide dust held in place by static electricity.  The silvery surface, when two control knobs (“vertical and horizontal”) were turned, was marred by “black” lines as an internal stylus (controlled by two grid bars made of metal rods with pulleys secured with nylon monofilament) scraped away the particulate on the underside of the glass screen, creating an image that could be seen.  Shaking the Etch A Sketch “erased” the picture drawn and left the surface a blank, silvery canvas.

Ohio Art started in 1908 selling metal picture frames and other novelties.  The Telecran gizmo was introduced to the US where Ohio Art co-opted the design, made a few refinements, patented it, and started marketing the toy under the name “Etch A Sketch”. 

Many people have managed to create intricate artworks on these devices.  Much of this work has found its way into art museums where it is displayed (without fear of being shaken “clean”).  Keep in mind these graphic works are done by a single point dragging through the shiny sludge to make these transient pieces, roughly equivalent to drawing the Mona Lisa without ever letting your pencil leave the page!

Etch A Sketch Taj Mahal

Just buy one and try to make a perfect circle.

It is a game based on the roll of a die, so the element of chance is there.  Winning it merely means you got truly lucky (or were the recipient of the benefits of statistical analysis, something no 3-year-old can grasp). 

The game was invented and marketed by William Schaper in 1949.  [The name was pronounced “SHOP-per”, and the company’s commercials in the late 1960s and early 1970s featured the slogan “Schaper Always Keeps You Laughing!”  It also made the games Ants in the Pants and Don’t Break the Ice.]  The company became a subsidiary of Kusan in 1973, then Schaper was bought out by Tyco Toys in 1986.  Still later, in the mid 1980s, Cootie became the property of Hasbro (the parent for Milton Bradley, the name under which it is marketed today) when that company secured the rights to it and three other of Schaper’s games.

For children aged three to six years old, what makes it good for that age bracket is that no reading or learning of complex rules is required.  A simple explanation is all that is necessary. 

The object is to build a bug—a “cootie”—complete with a head, thorax, proboscis, antennae, eyes, and legs.  The player rolls a die, and the corresponding number on the die (“1” for the body, etc.) determines game play.  The first player to complete his or her plastic bug wins.  To keep up with the times, starting in the 1990s the game’s bug began featuring things like in-line skates and tennis shoes with the legs and some other accessories.

This game has a certain charm.  I remember my maternal grandmother had one in her home that my younger brothers and I played incessantly as kids (that version was the original Schaper one with two eyes needed versus the modern one where the player gets a single eye pair to add).

Amazon Price: $10.99 $9.99 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 17, 2016)

It was dopey. 

It was also fun because no one person could dominate the game since it was based on the randomness of a die throw.

Lava Lamp
The senior Dillinger was a techno hound back in the day. 

In the mid- to late-1960s we were among the first people I knew who:

  • had a television with a wireless remote control unit (powering a huge black-and-white console Zenith)
  • were the first on our block with a color television (at a time when over half of what was televised was in the grey scale)
  • owned a 16 mm home film projector
  • owned, and regularly used, a home reel-to-reel audio tape/playback recorder (among my dad’s favorites, played incessantly, was Johnny Cash’s At San Quentin)
  • took “instamatic” photos with an early version of a cartridge-based camera that required smearing a developer with a cylindrical sponge over the photo as it came out of the camera to see the picture

So, for a brief period we had cutting-edge stuff (maybe for a few years or so).  Anyway, sometime around 1968 or so one of the more amusing things he brought home was a Lava Lamp (also goes by the name “Lava Lite”).

This was a “space age” looking thing, invented in 1963 by a British accountant, something right out of The Jetsons.  It was a tapering glass cylinder atop a hyperbolic metal base.  In the base was a light bulb.  In the sealed glass container was what is presumed to be anti-freeze (the company is very cagey about the contents of the “working” part) and a lump of what looked to be wax. 

The lamp plugs in—the bulb heats the waxy substance in the base of the vessel and it begins to amorphously rise in lumps and globs to the top.  Once there, the clump cools just enough to condense and sink back to the bottom of the glass enclosure.  Convection keeps things rolling along.  Not much else happens. 

But, ya know what?  My siblings and I would sit and watch this damn thing for hours.  We would place bets on which glob would hit the bottom, murky pool first.  It was fascinating.

Since those years, the thing fell out of favor then regained some cachet as a “retro” home décor item in the 1990s.  Now, it’s a standard item for hipsters and nerdlings alike.

Stripping Pens
Junk like this was usually reserved for its titillation factor for guys who had never seen a naked woman: “Wow, wouldja looka dat?”  Great stuff for someone who was easily aroused by the 1” image of a nude female inside a pen barrel.

These things are pens.  The cap or upper part of the barrel features a liquid filled capsule with a transparent viewing section.  What you see upon typically being handed the pen is the image of a classically hot pin-up model, either in an evening gown or bikini.  No big whoop.

But, turn the pen upside down, and—>BOY, HOWDY!<—her bikini or dress floats off and she’s nekkid!! 

Female Striptease Pens-2pk
Amazon Price: $11.99 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 17, 2016)

Now, granted, this was the late 1960s to early 1970s.  Nekkid meant maybe you saw the woman’s derrière and one, or both, of her breasts.  Pretty innocuous stuff but, hey, who doesn’t like looking at women in the buff?  These were gimmicky things, but for an eight-year-old interested in wimmen (like me), they were an introduction to the truly wondrous and awesome female form.

Compared to the hardcore world in which we live today there is a certain naïve charm to these.  Vintage ones are tough to come by, but for fun there are reproductions. 

Ogle away!!

Lucky Drinking Bird
And now we’re full circle. 

Remember at the beginning when I toldja part of what I hadda do as a kid in Chicago was go and roust the old man from the local watering hole? 

Well, here’s the fun part: I loved that place

That bar had character.  You’d walk in and the air was a heavy blue with cigarette smoke, there was a pool table, coupla pinball machines, and that “bowling” thing that had the bent spring wires sticking out and you used a metal puck to slide down the “alley” to knock down plastic pins that hung from a back drop.

It also had the regulars, guys I grew up with, like these two older gents named “Rudy” and “Bottles”.  They practically lived at that bar; they were always seen together there, and they always gave me a quarter or gum or whatever; they were part of my childhood.

But the really fun thing there was this oddball novelty sitting on the bar top itself.  It was this bulbous glass cylinder filled with colored water (in a tube inside the bulbed cylinder), and had bird feet at the wide end and a bird’s head and top hat at the other, smaller end. 

In front of it was a shot glass filled with either bourbon or brown colored water (I never found out which).  Regardless, the little glass bird would endlessly drop forward, dipping its bill in the liquid before it, raise up, bob for a second, then dip forward again to repeat the process.

The Famous Drinking Bird
Amazon Price: $11.00 $0.99 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 17, 2016)

The bill on this bird was always wet, it never seemed to slow down or alter its rhythms, and this was the closest thing to perpetual motion I had ever seen as a kid. 

As my parents would go to visit people I would look for this bird wherever we went.   Occasionally, I’d find someone had a Drinking Bird in his or her house!  Someone having something that cool on a kitchen counter or a shelf had to

Drinking Bird novelty
be a really rich person because, hey, I’d only seen one in the corner tavern and everybody knew—including Rudy and Bottles—that the guy who owned the joint was rich!  So, as a sprout I equated the Drinking Bird with class, not kitsch.

Later in life I learned better.  Regardless, I still think of that novelty bird and recently found it is still alive and well.

Only, today, no lone kid can go into a bar to see one, so you just gotta buy it for yourself (and pretend you’re rich!).


Trucker Man
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Apr 17, 2016)


Mar 27, 2015 10:19am
Lava lamps are still in fashion for kids that need sensory lights.
I was born in 1980 but still did most of the things you said. I was the oldest Child, Grandchild, Cousin and so I not only got booted out the front door to fend for myself but also to keep an eye on some of the others and I was 8 years old.
I also entertained myself with pretend camping in the woods, rolling down hills, fighting, mud pies and making perfume from other people's flowers...oops!
Money wasn't too available and even used my brother's flat metal trucks as skates once.
Crazily enough, it was still better than now because everyone else was just as poor so no one felt pressure!
Mar 27, 2015 11:19am
This comment has been deleted.
Mar 27, 2015 11:47am
We were mostly broke later, too, but we all loved the lava lamp. My mom would only turn it on if we practically begged, and then we'd sit and wait for that first dollop of glop to ascend. And, in your childhood, it sounds as if you did physical stuff outside (unlike today's kids who all seem to sit around playing PS games and texting while they play them). Thanks for reading.
Mar 27, 2015 11:57am
That's what I love about our village, kids still go out but it is a rarity for most of the UK. I liked your choice to write about Vic and feels good to jump back in to the community again.
Mar 27, 2015 1:37pm
Welcome back!
May 5, 2015 8:34pm
Wonderful gift ideas. I especially love the lava lamp!
May 6, 2015 7:23am
As I kid I thought it was pretty cool, too. Thanks for reading.
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  1. "Etch A Sketch." /en.wikipedia.org. 9/12/2014 <Web >
  2. "Ohio Art: History." ohioart.com. 9/12/2014 <Web >
  3. "Cootie: product description." hasbro.com. 9/12/2014 <Web >
  4. "The Game of Cootie." en.wikipedia.org. 9/12/2014 <Web >
  5. "Lava lamp." en.wikipedia.org. 9/12/2014 <Web >

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