Camp Small Fry

History is filled over & over with fad toys that every child must have. Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh, Tickle Me Elmo, the list goes on & on. They become overmarketed and eventually the next big toy comes along and the formerly hot product is left to rot under childrens beds and in the back of their closets or the attic. They all have a life cycle, but some toys go above and beyond the typical must have toy status and become simply: a craze. You know it’s a craze when it’s on every child’s christmas wish list, and none of the stores have any.

Parents go insane because their children will wither and DIE if they don’t get >insert toy name here< They drive from mall to mall and toy store to toy store, or call stores 100 miles away in a despersate attempt to satisfy their kids. There’s the inevitable fights between parents at stores, or the mod that crushed the doorway as the store opens and the unfortunately ones who get trampled. Nowadays ebay becomes the place to go, commeanding prices 2, 3 even 10x what they would normally cost. It’s a sellers market.

I can think of no toy that typifies such a craze better then the Cabbage Patch kid dolls. The dolls hit the market in 1983 and were a sell out hit that Christmas. You couldn’t buy them anywhere. Well technically no one could buy them. You adopted them. That was one of their many charms. Also, each one was unique, supposedly no two looked alike (although with so many produced how would you know?)

Enter Sandy Stein, a dentist in Rumson, NJ. He was a thinker, trying to invent or create something. He conceived a mechanical toothbrush, but discovered the idea had been patented in the 1700’s. During the CPK craze children coming in for checkups began insisted that he give their dolls a dental exam too. Thats when the idea hit him. He ran an ad in the NY times for “Camp Small Fry”, and used descriptive text that was lifted virtually word for word from a summer camp his own children had attended. Initially there were no responses, but a NY Times reporter saw the ad, and interviewed him for an article. The article was printed in newspapers worldwide. The floodgates had now been opened.

One person wrote to the Steins and asked if the bunks for the dolls were co-ed. Another asked if there would be religious services provided. Some business people wanted to be associated with the camp. One accountant wanted to be known as the official accountant for the Camp Samll Fry. Soon dolls started arriving by mail. What had once sounded like a crazy idea now was a reality and the question was: what to do next. Does he stick the dolls in a corner and then ship them back to their owners when camp was over, or does he go thru the motions of a running a real camp?

The Steins decided to write letters home from the dolls to their owners. As if that wasn’t surreal enough, the owners began to write to the dolls! Eventually the pressures of running a camp for dolls began to get to them. The belief of the owners that the dolls were real kids with real personalities slowly started to affect them. Mrs Stein began to feel uncomfortable being naked in her own bedroom because the dolls were watching. She even told her husband she wouldn’t make love to him unless they turned the dolls around. It was just too creepy. Unfortunately for the Steins they weren’t making any money. You would think that it was the perfect business model. You collect money ($30 was the cost to send their dolls to camp) and have to do virtually nothing. Except that wasn’t the case. Due to pressures from the doll owners they had special boxes made to ship the dolls back home in. They needed liability insurance, they had to create special stationary, they took pictures and it actually proved to be a losing proposition, as the business finished 10K in the hole.

Then there were the nasty letters. As one might expect, there were those who felt what they were doing was wrong, taking advantage of young children and charging them to send their dolls to day camp. It was disheartening, but they felt that there really was nothing wrong with their idea. If people wanted to treat their dolls like they were real, he was providing a service. History is full of entrpeneurs filling a “need”. And to be honest, the man actually gave them their monies worth and didn’t just leave the dolls in a box for two weeks and then send them back. So can you really say he’s a bad guy? I personally can’t. Unfortunately within 2 years CPK sales plummeted and in 1987 Coleco, the parent company, filed for bankruptcy and the CPK camp was to be no more. .

Here’s my take: if people are stupid enough to want to spend money to send a doll to camp, how can you blame this guy and call him names? It’s a doll. Its not real. Yiou wanna dress it up and pretend it’s real fine. He’s just offering a service. If you got the money and wanna fantasize about your doll going to camp, well.. damn, I wish i’d thought of the idea first. Well maybe not, considering he lost money. I love that this happened in NJ because where else but NJ would a person set up a sleep away camp for dolls?


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Rick Lincroft on July 31, 2013 at 4:50 PM

    Actually, the water tower at the Bell Labs Campus at Holmdel, was styled to resemble a transister, a nifty little electronic device invented by Bell Labs, that allowed radios to fit in your pocket, and your computer to fit on your lap, instead of filling a large room.


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