Throughout the ages, the beaches around the world have been a destination of leisure for many. People set aside time and finances to plan a trip to the beach to have a great time, whether it’s relaxing with a good book, catching up with family and friends, going fishing or surfing, or doing whatever it is that makes them feel good. Growing up, we would take our family vacation in Sunset Beach, NC, and I can vividly remember playing for hours on end in the waves with my brother without a care in the world.
Lots of kids, mostly young but some old, often bring their favorite toys to the beach with them to play with, while others bring toys specifically to use on the beach. Obviously, in the past, the number of toys available was not anywhere near what is available today. There weren’t stores like there are today, especially on the Outer Banks, that offered entire aisles of toys, let alone whole sections of nothing but beach toys. So, if you wanted a toy to play with while on vacation, you most likely brought it with you, and sometimes, these toys got left behind only to wash ashore years later.
A common toy from the past that is not as popular anymore is a bag of marbles. One fun thing to do with your marbles while visiting the shore was to sling-shot them into the ocean to see who could shoot theirs the farthest. Fast forwarding to now, beachcombers have the pleasure of finding these gorgeous glass toys which have been transformed by the ocean into frosty seaglass marbles. A truly treasured piece for any beachcomber.
In some areas of the world, like parts of the Great Lakes and England, marbles are more common to find compared to the Outer Banks. I drool over my phone when I see some of the images fellow beachcombers find from their beaches in Scotland and Australia. Just this morning, I saw a perfectly frosted light lavender marble that someone had found! I personally have only found two marbles in my lifetime, and they were found at Lake Heron, MI.
Another item that beachcombers often search for, like marbles, is doll parts. Porcelain and ceramic dolls, sometimes with cloth parts, were the only dolls available before the mid-1800s, which is roughly when plastic was invented.
Porcelain and ceramic can also be transformed by the ocean into a kind of seaglass, so finding a seaglass doll part, whether it be a head, hand, torso, or foot, is a trophy find for beachcombing enthusiasts. I am sad to say that I have never found any doll parts – porcelain, ceramic, or plastic – but I know many beachcombers who have, although not so much on the Outer Banks. Most pieces are white, but every now and then, someone finds one with paint still on it!
Since we are on the subject of body parts, I know of beachcombers who have also found human glass eyes, false teeth, and even a prosthetic leg, just in case you aren’t freaked out enough yet!
Although I have yet to find a doll piece, I have found many figurines and characters over the years, especially tiny toy soldiers. Toy soldiers have been around for centuries starting off as painted metal toys depicting the different militaries throughout the ages. I don’t know much about the ones I have other than some are pink, which likely means that they were the original plastic toy soldiers made in the late 1960s, according to my research. Most of them say “Made In China” underneath but a few of them are blank. My favorite one has a piece of coral growing around his neck, and it looks like he’s being strangled by a sea snake monster.
In 1997 a storm hit the coast of England where a cargo boat was caught up and a container was knocked off that had approximately five million Legos! It’s sad to think about five million pieces of plastic going into the ocean all in one second but absolutely amazing that there are beachcombers out there trying to clean them all up. A lot of them are ocean-themed Legos, too! There’s even a book out about it, “Adrift: The Curious Tale of The Lego Lost at Sea.” I also have a few Lego pieces, but they are nothing as cool as some of the pieces found near Cornwall, which is near where the wreck occurred. It totally reminds me of the Great Dorito Wreck of 2006 right here on Hatteras Island.
My personal favorite toys that I have found are my Donald Duck and Jafar, from Aladin, as even though they are plastic characters, finding them made me feel nostalgic. It takes me back to growing up in the 1980s with the big wooden TV on the floor, watching cartoons, and eating cereal on the coffee table with my brother.
I have also found a few adult toys too, if you know what I mean. I guess you’ll have to message me if you want to know the full details of that story.
More commonly, I am starting to find dog toys. The most popular so far are the Chunk-It balls, followed closely by rotten tennis balls. These can be sometimes hard to identify, but since I can’t leave debris on the beach, I have collected enough partially decayed tennis balls to figure out what they are.
Oh, and I can’t forget about golf balls! They like to wash up with little, tiny bivalves growing on them.
The most popular toys I find these days are plastic sand toys. It’s astonishing the amount I have collected off the beach. I would conservatively estimate over a couple thousand over the past 20 years. A few years ago, I decided to start keeping all the sand toys to make a display of how many a single person could find in one tiny area of the world. I even find the plastic netting they came in with the cardboard tag, usually from the Dollar Tree.
When I find a “rare” one I get excited, but it also makes me sad because do we really need all this plastic to have a good time at the beach? It seems like such a hassle to have to lug it all the way to the shore, which I assume is why it sometimes doesn’t make it back to the car or beach house.
Anytime I find a toy I often imagine what that child (or adult) was doing before they lost the toy. I usually get a feeling of happiness because I always think that, whoever it was, they were living their best life. Playing so hard at the beach, spending quality time with family, and just simply being, that these toys didn’t really matter anyway. Do we really need all this extra plastic stuff in our lives, or do we really just need each other and the ocean?
In any case, toys make an unusual beach find that can be trash or treasure. As always, the value of anything that has washed ashore is in the eye of the beholder!
About the Author: Kristin Hissong is a North Carolina native, a UNC Charlotte graduate, an Outer Banks resident of nearly 20 years, and a dedicated, “professional beachcomber.” She has spent more than 20,000 hours walking on both our local shores and shorelines around the Eastern Seaboard, and has collected thousands upon thousands of items from the Atlantic Ocean.
For the past decades or so, she has been beachcombing on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands every day, collecting both treasures and trash on her routine expeditions. From typewriters to coffee makers, fishing rods to recliners, if you name it, there’s a good chance she has seen it washed up, and has hauled it back to her collection, or to the closest dumpster.