Mint on Card (MOC)

Curator's Note

The transition from wood based toys to the “coldness” of materials like plastic and metal augurs a loss for Roland Barthes. Between the wooden toy – especially its ability to maintain close contact with the tree – and the child’s hand whose warm grasp marks a charmed object that “can last a long time, live with the child,” there grows a “humanity of touch.” The sweet and nostalgic integrity of the child’s relationship to a well-worn toy is not however the only means by which the care for and value in a toy is inscribed. Consider for a moment the complex cultural practices of preservation whereby tactility is purposefully devalued and distanced. Consider the toy collector. Collectors rarely play with their toys. Pristine and undisturbed packaging – illustrated or photographed images and the general graphic-design of the card (including its typeface) – adds tremendous value to a toy’s overall worth on the collectable toys market. Human touch devalues, if not damages, the precious object for collectors. Once opened, the toy is used, no longer an unattainable object but one all-too-familiar. The refusal to touch removes the toy from the realm of “play-thing” to an imposed realm of collectable artifact that, like conventional museuological practice, forbids tactile experience. Collectors curate their toys. They display them. Care for them. They catalog and index them. They trade and sell them. Mostly, they possess and preserve them. Preservation is a process dreamt in amber. Ageing must cease so that the toy’s “authenticity” is showcased, trapped in its own time within our economy of remembrance. For toy figures, say action-figures produced by MEGO, Mattel, Tomy, or Kenner, the expression “Mint on Card” speaks to this preservation process well. The strict definition refers to an un-circulated object, one that bypasses the store shelf altogether and goes from the factory/warehouse directly into one’s collection. In this instance the actual toy is only an element in determining value: economic, personal, and cultural capital. Cardboard-stock must be free of creases, tears, traces of sales stickers, and plastic bubble capsules to display the figure must not be dimpled or crushed. Cardboard packaging, another relative of the tree, induces a visual warmth (a humanity of vision) as the toy is out of reach and our desire to possess relies entirely upon our eye peering across the transparent surface of the plastic bubble. Packaging is ephemeral. It isn’t meant to last. Yet, to value the ephemeral as an integral element in a toy’s history and our memory of it – as well as the protective buffer for a time-capsulated artifact – defies the quick death factor Barthes assigns to “graceless materials” in an act of making the toy an “object for all time.”


Very interesting piece, Ray. I've always been fascinated by the design choices that go into toy packaging, which must simultaneously capture the "iconicity" of the toy, tell its story (sometimes the back of the cardboard is great precisely for how it situates this inanimate object within a larger universe and supplies a ready made narrative that those possessing the toy can choose - or not choose - to engage with), demonstrate its usability (i.e., show it in action, give the plastic 'life'), and sell other products. All in all, these designs seem designed to both spark and manage consumer imaginations. As to your point about collectors not playing with these objects, I'd suggest that we might need to extend our definition of 'play'. While there are definitely those who collect for monetary and other social rewards, play can also take the form of talking to, looking at and arranging materials. I recall taking great pleasure in arranging issues of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spiderman by villains on the cover or directionality of Spidey's swing, all the while preserving these books in mylar plastic and cardboard backboards

You’ve identified a particularly important aspect of the toy in calling attention to packaging, and the idea of keeping a toy MOC is only one important manifestation of this. On the one hand, some collectors do prefer to display their toys outside of the packaging where they can more freely mingle with all the other toys they’ve collected. There’s even a market for ‘opener’ collectibles with damaged packaging at websites like—though true to your argument, it’s a discounted one. Many other collectors even open their figures so that they can be disassembled (boil and pop!), recombined (head swap!), repainted, and re-sculpted. For these collectors, custom-crafted toys provide a way to obtain objects of desire not offered by toy packagers, and the idea of mint, untouched toys is actively rejected by a Frankenstein aesthetic (one with its own economic cache, based on auction prices for custom figures on eBay). On the other hand, my counter example proves your point. Collectors frequently make customs of figures that have for one reason or another been left out of existing toy lines, to truly complete collections toy companies left unfinished. But that drive for completion results not just in the production of custom figures, but also custom packaging for them. Customizers reject the idea of MOC to harvest resources, but then recreate packaging to replace what was lost in the process of creating new toys. The toy isn't as complete with its packaging.

The sight of a Mint-on-Card figure, trapped, as Raiford says, as if in amber within its plastic bubble, always has a particularly poignant connotation for me. It recalls, fittingly, an image from the franchise that launched this kind of toy: Han Solo encased in carbonite. He never became a figure in that format, of course -- it wouldn't have been much of a figure, stiff and unarticulated --though I believe the artefact appeared as part of a Jabba's Palace playset. So the action figure in its bubble -- whether Han, Flynn or the Sullustan Nien Nunb -- always looks frozen, encased in carbonite, in perfect hibernation, but waiting to be taken out, made to move, made to talk, brought to life.

Reading through this discussion, I am reminded of the progression which occurs in the Toy Story film franchise. In the first film, the most dreaded character is the boy and girl next door who abuse their toys. While some of what they do is genuinely abusive (blowing up toys with fire crackers), much of it involves the kind of subversive play which Derek describes here -- mixing and matching the pieces or inserting the characters into a situation outside their original narrative (forcing Buzz Lightyear to participate in a tea party). By Toy Story 2, the threat comes from the collector who removes the toys from circulation, in much the way Raiford describes here. Between the two films, then, we get a pretty clear message about how Disney/Pixar thinks we should treat our toys -- play with them but only in the ways pre-scripted on the packaging.

I was reminded today when talking to a journalist about Star Wars that the whole beaten-up, used-universe aesthetic of the original trilogy totally contradicts the Mint-on-Card appearance of pristine toys. (Again, echoing the contrast between the painfully frozen, stiff Han Solo and the vibrant, charismatic, scruffy guy from the Tatooine bar.) Like many kids, I didn't just play with the figures but painted them, customised them, even melted blaster holes in the Creature Cantina playset. I wonder now if that was a semi-conscious attempt to make the toys a better match with the Star Wars universe of the films, where part of the appeal is the rich backstory implied by the details of mise-en-scene -- Luke's speeder has been scuffed from previous adventures, whereas the toy landspeeder looks like it was just polished in a showroom, and again, Han Solo (like Boba Fett) has a previous life implied by the little additions and accessories to his costume.

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