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Museum or giant toybox? One family’s vast collection of playthings and artifacts is the stuff of childhood memories

Kiddie shampoo was a lot more fun when it came in bottles like these, as seen at the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum.
Kiddie shampoo was a lot more fun when it came in bottles like these, as seen at the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum.Diane Bair

CHESHIRE, Conn. — You’ve seen the bumper sticker, “Caution: I Brake for Yard Sales”? Consider the case of Gerry Barker of Cheshire. Not only did his late parents, Gloria and Herbert, brake for every sale, they bought stuff, ultimately accumulating 80,000 playthings and icons of American childhood. You can see their personal collection, dating from 1873 to 2019, at the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum. Set in a converted barn, the Barkers’ booty comprises one of the largest collections of toys and childhood artifacts in the world.

“My favorite part is when people come in and run up to something, saying ‘I had that!’ ” says curator Blake Bassett. “This place is a nostalgia machine.”

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For sure. Alas, you can’t play with the toys — although Bassett is happy to make the circa 1900s record player operate if you ask. (It has a little dancing man atop the arm of the phonograph.) Nearly everything — other than movie-theater standups of the Incredible Hulk and the Simpsons — is inside a display case, so you can look but not touch. Some items are quite rare and valuable, like the ramp-walking toy elephants from 1873, produced in Bridgeport. Check out the display of tin toys, “the holy grail of toy collecting,” says Bassett, each valued at $400 and up. “Tin is a rarity, since a lot of it got melted down as part of the war effort,” she says. One of the rarest items here is not a toy but a tube of Mickey Mouse-branded toothpaste, circa 1934, still full of Milk of Magnesia-flavored goo. Not only did it taste nasty, but it came in a lead tube (”Perfect for the kiddies!” Bassett quips).

The most valuable item in the museum is a wind-up Popeye toy, worth about $14,000. Herb Barker loved Popeye as much as the sailor man loved his spinach. “Popeye was Herb’s favorite guy. They had the same birthday,” Bassett says. Popeye first appeared in 1929 and quickly became a breakout character. The museum owns at least 1,000 Popeye pieces, Bassett says, including a set of Russian nesting dolls.

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Popeye the sailor was museum founder Herb Barker’s personal favorite. The museum owns at least 1,000 Popeye pieces, including one worth about $14,000.
Popeye the sailor was museum founder Herb Barker’s personal favorite. The museum owns at least 1,000 Popeye pieces, including one worth about $14,000.Diane Bair

Gloria Barker had her own favorite category: Disney stuff, especially Snow White. “Visitors here make a bee-line to Disney,” Bassett says, a sign of how enduring these characters have become in the world of popular culture. The museum displays some of the earliest Disney products, including a Pluto Paddle Puppet produced in 1936, and Snow White story cards, made in 1938 in France, where “Blanche Neige” was a huge hit.

Every item has been appraised and inventoried and is organized by type of toy or character. The museum is spread over three rooms, and stuff is absolutely everywhere, even hanging from the rafters. It’s sensory overload, in the best possible way. Look, there’s a set of “Charlie’s Angels” paper dolls! And over there, a vinyl Batman lunch box! If you happen to have one of those at home in the attic, here’s good news: A vintage Batman lunch box may be worth $800, Bassett says, noting that the family recently sold a beat-up one for $400. Old superhero items from the 1950s and ’60s are especially collectible, and tend to sell for big bucks.

There’s no interpretive signage at this family-owned museum. A visit here feels like wandering into your aunt and uncle’s (supremely organized) attic and poking around. Items are numbered, though, and a printed guide indicates what’s where, from marionettes to Mickey Mouse. To keep little visitors engaged, the museum offers a scavenger hunt with a small prize at the end. Some locations are set up as selfie spots with the Hulk, the Simpsons, and Scooby-Doo and the gang.

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Who has the most fun here? Grandparents with their grandkids, says Gerry Barker. Who else but a boomer could truly appreciate a Donny and Marie lunch box circa 1977, or a Ringo Starr shampoo bottle, or original clay Gumby models from the 1950s and ’60s TV show, donated by artist and creator Art Clokey? And yes, there’s Barbie — including a 1960s doll with the signature striped swimsuit, three wigs, and an alluring expression. Here, a display of Colorforms; there, a Steve Urkel doll, and those unavoidable-in-the-’80s California Raisins. There’s even a room with cereal boxes (holding their long-expired contents), including a box of Flutie Flakes. Awww! From Betty Boop to Beanie Babies to bobbleheads, every fad lives on forever at the Barker Museum. And if you look closely inside the case of bobblehead dolls, you’ll see Herbert Barker — he had a bobblehead made in his own likeness.

“My father felt that there are special joys in collecting,” Gerry Barker says. You’ll definitely marvel at the Barkers’ enthusiasm for collecting as you wander this space. You may get the urge to scour eBay for, say, a Cher doll still in the box, with tiny Bob Mackie-esque gowns. Mostly, you’ll feel a twinge of nostalgia when you spy a long-forgotten relic of your own childhood — a wistful reminder, perhaps, of that little kid who carried a Snoopy lunch box on the first day of school.

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Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum, 1188 Highland Ave., Cheshire, Conn.; 800-995-2357. Open from Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ages 18-64, $5; ages 3-17, $3; students and seniors, $4. www.barkermuseum.com