Ask yourself which toys are most collectible: train sets, die-cast cars, and – it almost goes without saying – Star Wars figures. The most obsessively collected examples tend to have one thing in common – they were originally marketed at boys.
While these toys aren’t collected exclusively by men, women are less likely to have vast collections of them. So which vintage toys are women seeking out?
Thanks to her peculiarly oversized head and bulging eyes that change colour with the pull of a string, not many girls wanted to play with Blythe when she was introduced in 1972.
“They were only released for a year,” says Laura Kate Shippert, one of the organisers of BlytheCon UK, which was held in Bristol earlier this month. “They failed terribly; people thought they were a bit freaky and scary.”
Their popularity in recent years was sparked by a book called This is Blythe, in which photographer Gina Garan featured the dolls artfully posed like real fashion models. Others then started picking up second-hand Blythe dolls – which were relatively cheap at the time – dressing them in glamorous outfits and photographing them in exotic locations.
“They are anywhere from £100 to £400 new, then after a while some become more popular and harder to find, and the prices will fluctuate,” says Laura Kate.
She has 17 Blythe dolls, but only one is an original from 1972. She paid £400 for it about 10 years ago, which was “a steal” even at the time.
Laura Kate considers her own collection to be quite small compared to other people’s.
“I know someone who owns like 40 of them and I think ‘but you could own a house’,” she says. “If that’s what makes her happy and that’s what she wants to spend her money on, she’s an adult, she can make her choices. It’s not cocaine.”
My Little Pony
The My Little Pony phenomenon began when the toys were launched in 1982. About 150 million ponies were reportedly sold in the 1980s, with their popularity boosted by an animated TV series. Actor Danny DeVito even lent his voice to the 1986 film My Little Pony: The Movie.
Martina Foster loves My Little Pony so much she has a “pony room” in her house filled with somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 of them, worth between £10,000 and £15,000.
Martina was seven years old when she was given her first one – a pony called Tootsie printed with lollipop “cutie marks”. She rediscovered them while searching eBay as a student, then got her old ones out of the loft.
“I thought, ‘I’ll buy the ones that I always wanted, just for fun’,” she says. “Then you get sucked into it.”
Martina says the market fluctuates but rare ones in good condition can now fetch thousands of pounds. The most she has spent is a £200 for a pony called Rapunzel – “a bargain” because it is now worth about £500.
Martina is vice chairman of this year’s UK PonyCon, which is being held in Nottingham this weekend. As well as attracting collectors of the original toys, the convention attracts fans of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated series, which launched in 2010.
While My Little Pony was marketed towards girls in the 1980s, many fans of the animated series are adult men.
“It is fairly watchable even for grown-ups,” says Martina. “You can watch it as an adult and there are some witty things in it and in the end it’s all about friendship and accepting other people.”
Pippa was marketed as “the pocket money fashion doll” when she was sold in the 1970s, but Vectis Auctions has sold Pippa dolls for as much as £1,400 in recent years. She and her friends are much shorter than normal fashion dolls at only 6.5 inches (16.5cm) tall, which meant production costs were low.
Heather Swann started collecting them about 20 years ago after picking one up in a charity shop for 50p. She wanted to collect them as a way of recapturing her childhood.
“Isn’t that why people collect toys?” she says.
After Heather’s charity shop find she started buying more dolls through eBay.
“They were much cheaper then, as ladies of a certain age were just beginning to find them,” she says. “Unfortunately they are now becoming expensive and many collectors are after them.”
Heather describes her collection of about 50 dolls as “medium size”, as many women have hundreds. She has seen individual dolls sell for hundreds of pounds but the most she has ever spent is £40.
“I don’t tend to buy the expensive dolls, I now just look out for the ones which need a transformation,” she says. “I enjoy the process of restoring them.”
Care Bears were originally painted in 1981 to appear on greetings cards, before the characters were turned into soft toys in 1983. A television series followed, as did books, a plethora of merchandise, multiple LPs and a film in 1985 for which Carole King was persuaded to write and perform songs for the soundtrack.
Jennifer Hawkins loves Care Bears so much she had her favourite one, Bedtime Bear, tattooed on her arm.
“I was looking around earlier and I think I’ve got something Care Bears-related in every room, except my bathroom,” says Jennifer, who lives in Gloucester with about 200 Care Bears.
“But they make me happy so I’m quite happy to have them everywhere. I like the cuteness, I like having the little faces to talk to, I like the fact that they represent different feelings.”
Jennifer got one of her favourites – called Beanie – “as a comfort” when her grandfather died the day after her 14th birthday.
“He [Beanie] comes pretty much everywhere with me now,” she says.
She estimates her collection is worth “a few thousand”. The most she spent on an individual bear was £140, which was a 25th anniversary version of Bedtime Bear, and resisted the temptation to spend £500 on an original 1980s Bedtime Bear that was still in the box.
“Unfortunately I can’t afford to spend a month’s rent on one bear,” she says. “That’s definitely a bit too much.”
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Barbie and Sindy
Barbie was launched in 1959 and swiftly became a cultural icon, gathering fans among each new generation of girls.
Linda Richardson was not one of them. When her mother gave her Barbies, she chopped their heads off.
“My passion was always cowboys and Indians and motorbikes and all that stuff,” says Linda, who lives in Cumbria. But she now has an “obsession” with dolls and has more than 500, worth about £35,000 at a “conservative estimate”.
Her passion was ignited 15 years ago on a trip to buy presents for her son.
“I saw these Native American Indians and they happened to be Barbies and that just set it off, really,” she says.
She did not buy the dolls at the time but started researching Barbie online and “found a whole new world”.
Most of the ones she buys are aimed at collectors, rather than the typical Barbie dolls made for children. She keeps them protected behind glass doors in a room lined with bookcases.
She also has some “de-boxed” dolls she puts in dioramas, photographs and posts on Instagram. “It’s just something to do,” she says. “It keeps me out of trouble.”
Others favour Barbie’s rival, which went on to become the best-selling fashion doll in the UK when it launched in 1963.
Melanie Quint only had one Sindy as a child but now has 60 or 70, worth between three and four thousand pounds.
“I decided to sell all of my childhood dolls and when I looked on eBay I realised there was this massive collecting and restoration community,” she says.
Instead of selling her dolls she ended up buying more.
“It’s nostalgia at the end of the day,” says Melanie. “You look at the face and the doll and the fashions and it takes you back to the way you were when you were a child.”
Melanie now runs Dollycon UK, which is for collectors of all dolls but has a particular focus on Sindy. A particular highlight is the “hilarious” cosplay competition, where people dress up as particular dolls.
“It’s very tongue-in-cheek,” says Melanie. “They pick some of the weird outfits, the 70s stuff. It’s really funny seeing what they do.
“We had one woman last year who dressed as Action Man Frogman, in a full suit with flippers on. I couldn’t speak, it was hilarious.”