If you think back to your childhood and consider some of your favorite playthings, you may recall a distinctive toy crafted from smooth, pastel-colored plastic that opened up to unveil an entire world within, complete with swinging refrigerator doors, pull-out beds, lit-up pavilions, and moving ice skating rinks. Yes, we are indeed talking about Polly Pockets, the beloved toy that first hit shelves in 1989 and quickly became a sensation across the globe. And along with other forms of nostalgia, like a newfound love for miniatures and an interest in historically inspired countryside living (ahem, Cottagecore), Polly Pocket—which hasn’t been reproduced in its original form since 1997—is also seeing a major resurgence.
Thanks in part to the pandemic, “nostalgia has been at its peak. Everyone’s also on their phones all the time, and I think seeing a crazy tiny, colorful plastic memory pop up on your feed can spark some joy,” says Polly Pocket collector and set designer Julia Carusillo, who runs the Instagram account @polly_pick_pocket.
And joy is exactly what Polly Pockets were intended to inspire. Chris Wiggs first designed one in 1983 for his daughter Kate as a tiny dollhouse inside an old makeup compact; he ended up licensing the concept. There was something satisfying, easy, and yet theatrical about a toy that transformed from a simple, familiar form like a heart, diamond, or oval case to reveal a complex, dazzling interior space with movable parts.
Over the years, British manufacturer Bluebird Toys would go on to create more than 350 distinct sets (or clamshells, for those who know), each incorporating tiny Polly and various friends, who stood on a circular platform that enabled them to be set in what Julia describes as small, self-contained worlds outfitted with tiny mechanisms, moving parts, flaps, and secret doors. By the mid-’90s, Julia says, Bluebird had found “a great groove with the right ratio of moving pieces, molded spaces, printed images on walls and floors.” The creations ranged from a bowling alley set that incorporated a real cassette player (circa 1989) to grand multilevel mansions, each with fully developed color palettes, accessories, and paraphernalia, and a level of detail that revealed a true understanding of design, spatial planning, and decor.
Although Mattel (of Barbie fame) took over in 1998 and changed the entire line (read: enlarged the dolls and sets to the point where fitting one into your pocket was a long-lost dream), in 2018 they relaunched the toy in a scale closer to the original—which may, in part, have jump-started an interest in the original compacts. Around this time, these cheery old sets started to be sold on resale sites like eBay for several hundred dollars—some in mint condition brought in over $1,000.
But the timing of the rerelease also coincided with the aging of the toy’s original audience, who were seeking to reminisce about their own childhood (and, we should point out, reaching prime collecting age). Germany-based Polly Pocket collector Laura, who works as a biologist in a medical lab and runs the Instagram account @pollypocketbylaura, began her collection in October 2012 after spotting a few old sets at a local flea market. After scooping them up and discovering more on eBay, she has now amassed a collection of more than 200 sets. Though that might sound like a lot (and, we acknowledge, it is), she is quick to remind us that a set can be as small as a ring compact with a single seat or station for Polly.
So what exactly makes Polly Pockets so appealing today? Laura admits that she asks herself the same question. “It’s not that I ‘play’ with them anymore,” she emphasizes. “It’s really that they’re detailed worlds where you can slip away from reality for just a moment.” That sense of fantasy and escape resonates with other collectors, like Therese, who lives in Denmark and runs the account @pollypocket_nostalgia. “It’s like a little piece of magic and light, where you can disappear for a while,” she explains. And for Thailand-based Arisara Leerasantana, a marketing manager who runs the Instagram account @pollypocketworld, she sees Polly Pockets as “dream houses” that bring back happy memories of childhood.
That’s also what interests so many of their followers, especially during the pandemic. “I believe that most of my followers on Instagram are ’80s and ’90s kids looking for nostalgia or a trip down memory lane,” says Therese. The sense of escape that so many have sought during the pandemic can be satisfied with slo-mo shots of a bubblegum pink clamshell opening to reveal, for example, Polly in Paris, Julia’s favorite piece. “It has a moving elevator, tiny sculpted cherubs in the likeness of a Polly pocket figurine, an alfresco dining setup, a hidden room with a purple chaise lounge. And keep in mind, the overall [dimensions] of this compact are 3" x 3"x 1",” she gushes.
But nostalgia aside, there’s also something irresistibly satisfying about the size and efficient use of space—almost as if Polly Pockets were the original tiny house, where everything fits perfectly and has its own special spot. Laura’s favorite sets are lockets, the smallest openable clamshells in which the toy designers “tried to fill out every corner of the space they could get,” she explains. Julia is equally enthralled with the design quality: “I’m always in awe of the detail Bluebird was able to accomplish in their toys, and the creativity behind designing and molding such perfect, complex, personal fantasy places. The fact that the clamshells are shaped like books, clocks, suitcases, stars, hearts, and more is just whimsy at its finest.”
So what’s in the future for this vintage toy that only seems to get harder to find (especially at a reasonable price), especially following the recent interest in Polly Pockets? For Arisara, even as prices increase, it’s still about the thrill of the hunt—it’s “a little adventure for collectors to collect the complete set,” she says. Indeed, as Laura explains, “the fun about collecting is the search” regardless of the price.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest