The Easy Bake Oven

Peggy Derrick

Catalog Number: 2014.fic.354


If I didn’t give it away in the headline, would you recognize what this is? If so, you are either over a certain age, or you know your way around popular-culture icons.

This is the original 1963 Kenner Toy Co. Easy Bake Oven. It baked small cakes with the heat generated by two 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. Children could, as the advertising said, “bake their cake and eat it too.”

What kid could resist that? Apparently not many.

So many adults still have such fond memories of their Easy Bakes that there was great consternation at the first reports that incandescent bulbs were going to be phased out. How would the Easy Bake ever bake again?

When the Easy Bake first came out, it was thought to fill a need for active toys for girls; building sets, chemistry sets and BB guns all were seen as boys’ playthings. It was thought that girls needed interactive toys, too.

Those toys — which included the Easy Bake, the Vac-U-Fun and toy sewing machines — focused on domestic tasks, even though all young children love to help with household chores, not just girls. (An all-too-short childhood phase, in my opinion.)

And, of course, baking and eating cakes, cookies and pies is hardly gender-specific either. Plenty of boys enjoyed Easy Bake Ovens, even if they had to play with a sister’s toy. Some chefs recall their first culinary efforts on Easy Bakes, and in 2003 David Hoffman published a book of chef-authored recipes for the Easy Bake. The “Easy Bake Oven Gourmet” includes recipes for gourmet meals from appetizers through desserts, all in Easy Bake proportions.

The Easy Bake was as popular in La Crosse as in the rest of the country. It did not take long after its 1963 debut for it to become a must-have Christmas gift staple. By 1965, it was found in Christmas ads in the La Crosse Tribune from Kmart, Sears, Jupiter and Bell stores, and the Tractor Supply Co. on Rose Street. In 1966, Tausche’s Hardware also featured it in its ad, as did the new J.C. Penny’s Toyland on Main Street.

Fifty-four years later, after multiple company mergers and design updates, the Easy Bake is still available, made by Hasbro, and looking nothing like this original. The light bulbs have been replaced with a heating unit.

Still marketed almost exclusively to girls, it was available only in pink and purple until one young girl, in 2013, started a social media campaign to get the company to produce a gender-neutral version so her younger brother could enjoy an Easy Bake without being embarrassed or made fun of. The result was a sleek black and silver model.

The Easy Bake’s stature as a classic has been growing for years, as passing generations have grown nostalgic for the toys of their childhood, and references to it on TV shows have raised awareness of its popularity. In 2006 it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, and in 2011 Time magazine chose it as one of its All Time 100 Best Toys. Clinching its place as a pop-culture icon, Hallmark sold an Easy Bake Keepsake Ornament in 2015.

History and nostalgia intersect in childhood memories, and this Easy Bake, despite its poor condition, is a happy reminder to many of their own past and of times gone by.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 30, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

An Early Christmas Card


Bob Mullen and Amy Vach

Catalog Number: 2017.fic.1673

It’s that time of year when mailboxes are overflowing with cards from family and friends. Sending Christmas cards is a time-honored tradition. Today, Christmas cards make up 25 percent of the greeting card industry, worth a colossal $2 billion.

The first Christmas cards were commercially produced in Britain in 1843. For most people, Christmas cards were too expensive to buy and mail, and they didn’t catch on in the United States until more than 30 years later. That was when a Boston printer named Louis Prang began mass producing inexpensive Christmas cards in the United States.

Prang’s cards were colorful chromolithographs, with images of flowers, plants or children accompanied by a Christmas greeting. His business became wildly profitable and spawned an entire industry. Prang became known as “the father of the American Christmas card.”

His success inspired other printers to produce Christmas cards. Their quality varied from Prang’s high standards to cheap copies. These postcards were very affordable to the average person. Some were religious, but many were humorous, nostalgic or just plain cute. By 1915, the folded Christmas card mailed in an envelope gained popularity. Those trends have continued to the present day.

This humorous Christmas postcard was created by Louis Prang in 1886. Under the words “Merry Christmas,” it shows an inkwell that has tipped over and spilled its contents. It reads, “You’d better look out for your actions this year, there’s many a very sad lot arises in unguarded moments, my dear, to make one’s whole lifetime a...” The last word is covered with spilled ink. So, the message is a poetic pun, a blot of spilled ink and a blot on one’s character, perhaps a humorous reminder to be a better person.

Someone enjoyed this Christmas postcard enough that they passed it on to a friend and wrote in the margins ““eh!” and “ha! ha!” on the front and “Too good to keep,” on the reverse in pencil. Since this postcard is at the La Crosse County Historical Society, it was probably traded in La Crosse.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 23, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.

A Costume for Playing Calliope


Carole Mullen

Catalog Number: 1994.094.01

Local piano teacher Juanita Beck’s spangled violet pantsuit helped to put people who came to hear her calliope in a festive mood. With silver stripes, loops of gold sequin beading, a matching pillbox hat, and a treble clef and “Juanita” on the jacket back, the costume went well with the ornate circus wagon housing Juanita’s calliope.

Beck’s vibrant costume was sewn by local seamstress Della Schultz in 1956, and it was donated by Schultz to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1994. The fitted violet jacket and pants probably were considered daring for a woman in the mid-1950s.

A pantsuit was practical for Beck for a couple of reasons. First, it wouldn’t get in the way while she was seated inside the small wagon the way a fashionable crinoline would have. Second, Beck had a limp and wore a metal leg brace, which the pantsuit concealed. Her limp was caused by unsuccessful surgery after injuring it while chasing one the Palomino horses that she and her husband, Brownie, rode in parades. One of her later costumes, an old-fashioned fuchsia gown with matching picture hat, accomplished the same objective.

By the time her violet pantsuit was made, Beck had been playing calliope for many years. She and her husband, Brownie, acquired the former Ringling Brothers calliope in 1946, along with a circus wagon once used as a monkey cage. Joseph Schoenberger of Hackner Altar Co. was commissioned to carve six wooden mythological scenes that were attached to the wagon holding the calliope.

The restoration of calliope and wagon took a few years, but by 1949 Juanita and Brownie Beck were on the road with a colorful calliope wagon drawn by eight pygmy mules.

Over the years, they hit the circuit of Midwest parades and festivals, dazzling spectators with circus nostalgia and the potent draw of Beck’s calliope playing. She was quite the trooper, playing song after song inside the hot, steam-filled wagon. Many remember her calliope playing as the much-anticipated finale of the Oktoberfest Maple Leaf Parade.

After Brownie’s death in 1980, Beck continued to play calliope in the Maple Leaf Parade for another decade, and she taught piano lessons almost until her death in 1993.

In the late 1960s she had made a record of her calliope playing, “Calliope Capers,” also preserved at La Crosse County Historical Society.

Beck was justifiably proud of her music on a difficult instrument, and on copies given to friends she signed the record, “Try and forget me now.” But for those who heard this talented local musician play, Beck’s calliope made her hard to forget.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on December 16, 2017.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.