Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#23, December 23, 1998


by Marylaine Block

Looking back at Christmases in my childhood I remember some wonderful presents, but among the most magical was a dollar bill.

A dollar was serious money then, that could buy four paperback books, or enough steak to feed the whole family. And oh, what a kid could do with it!

You had to plan how you were going to spend it, because there were so many things you could get for only a nickel or dime or a quarter: an egg full of silly putty you could shape and throw and bounce off the wall; a slinky; a yoyo, good for hours of serious play as you tried to master the basics and special tricks like "walking the dog;"

You could buy a Pez dispenser and enough Pez candies to give you a bellyache, and still have enough money left over to buy coloring books or paper dolls. (Anyone who knows me now would be amused to know how much fun I had putting elegant skirts and blouses and dresses on those perfect cardboard cutout women.)

A dollar bought me miniature looms for weaving pot holders, and little tube devices with pegs; you'd wrap yarn around the pegs and with a crochet hook you could make miles of little knitted wool tubes.

And of course for a dollar you could get paints and crayons and chalk and those blunt children's scissors. We'd spend hours drawing and cutting and pasting, making art that might not have looked much like the real world, but that satisfied us immensely.

My brother would use his dollar for bottles of enamel to paint his model planes and cars, or modeling clay to build the landscape for his train set, or little train stations or crossing signs or bits of track. A dollar bought him complete sets of baseball cards, or several issues of Mad Magazine.

You could get a deck of cards for a quarter, good for hours of fun, playing all the different kinds of solitaire, or bloodthirsty games of "Slap" (for which my sister cultivated sharp pointy fingernails). My mother and I had a deal: after dinner every night we'd play cards, and the loser would do the dishes (unless my mother lost).

I got to wondering if a kid today could have anywhere near as much fun for a dollar, so I spent some time at a major discount store looking at price tags. And you know what? Even now, a dollar can be magic.

I found glitter yarn at 96 cents, and colorful squares of felt for 20 cents. Fifty cents would buy an embroidery hoop, 28 cents some embroidery floss. For 97 cents I could get glitter glue or packs of paint brushes. For 33 cents I could get artificial flowers with twisty stems, to twine around a pony tail or decorate a package. A pack of colored pipe cleaners was still just a buck.

Even now a dollar is good for drawing pads, packs of stickers, markers, crayons, paste, coloring books and special, extra wide "sidewalk chalk." I could go fishing on the cheap, since bulk spinner bait was two for a dollar, and fishing hooks or sinkers cost 97 cents. A cap gun costs more than a dollar now, but the caps for them are available for 97 cents. Hours of viewing pleasure are yours with a birdseed ball that costs a buck, or bits of scenery for a fish tank, or even a one dollar goldfish.

What you can't get for a dollar, of course, is pretty much anything advertised on Saturday morning cartoon shows. The cheapest of Barbie dresses was $1.37, and anything with Barney or Disney characters cost a lot more.

But you know what? The things kids can still buy for a buck are things that help minds and hearts and bodies grow. They're things kids can imagine with, master their bodies and their worlds with. What they create will make them feel proud and competent.

By all means, get your kids some of the toys they've asked for. But you might also give them a dollar. Their imaginations will do the rest.

* * * * *


Now, in December, 2011, as the grandmother of a a 3 year-old and a 5 year-old, I know that prices for these things have gone up, but they still remain inexpensive and endlessly entertaining. I have also watched the kids have wonderful fun with office supplies. They make art out of post-it notes. With scissors and paper cutters, they joyously cut out pictures from old catalogs and magazines, and use tape and staplers and glue to make collages. They cut strips of paper and staple them together to make paper chains, and fasten colored paper clips together to make more chains. They use hole punches and string to put their cat pictures and stories together into home-made booklets, and use glue to make art with the little circles the hole punch leaves behind. And for art projects and maps of places that exist only inside their heads, they use large swatches of newsprint from end rolls that I bought from my local newspaper for $2. It's still true that the cheapest and most wondrous toys are the ones that let children's imagination do all the work.

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