If, as John Seabrook writes in the New Yorker, American parents bought Erector sets and Monopoly because they believed they were prepping their kids to become builders or bankers, then the British and Irish parents who bought the horse-betting game Totopoly couldn't have been hoping for more (or less) than creating successive generations of trackside touts. Practically all that kept me from becoming a bookie, maybe, was the fact that my Totopoly-playing days, roughly 30 years ago, were limited to a single year spent as an American in Ireland.
Seabrook's point is that toys and games appearing before World War II -- of which Totopoly, debuting in 1938, is one -- appealed to parents. It was only after the war, he writes, that "toymakers began to make products that appealed exclusively to kids -- toys that, in many cases, parents actively disliked, which was the principal source of their appeal."
The theory holds with prewar Erector sets, which first sprang up under the Christmas tree in 1913, and prewar Monopoly, which made its initial public offering in 1935. And every postwar, parent-bumming toy manufactured since -- from Rock'em Sock'em Robots (1966) to Bratz dolls (2003) -- bears out the rest of the theory. Bolstering Seabrook's case is the scholarship of John Brewster, a toy historian who has written that early-20th-century toymakers "were marketing a particular social morality -- one that stressed industry, probity and individual endeavor." Play was child's work, Mr. Seabrook explains, "and building blocks and baby dolls were the tools that children used to become adults." "By the mid-1970s," he writes, "toys had stopped trying to prepare children for anything other than a perpetual childhood."
But what about Totopoly? Does a racing game that designates one player (ages 8 and up) a "tote clerk," or bookmaker, fit into that recreational, prewar continuum of "industry, probity and individual endeavor"?
The question arises because some 30 years after I raced my last horse to the Totopoly finish line, I have received the game as a gift -- no mean feat, given that Totopoly was sent to pasture 20-odd years ago. Thanks to eBay and a devoted husband, a late-1970s version of the game has arrived from Great Britain, along with a batch of earlier-vintage accessories ordered separately, and has become the family's newest favorite game. On Side 1 of the Totopoly board, players bid on racing enterprises and racehorses that they must see through training; on Side 2, players race the mounts that have survived training -- and that players can still afford -- to an entertainingly unpredictable finish.