The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, author

Friday, September 23, 2011

At The Core Of The Happy Apple: A Mystery Solved

Let me begin by stating that I'm careful with things. Like an Entwife, I prefer order, and plenty, and peace. Wanton destruction is something I can't remember indulging in even once in my entire life, and I make the following confession with a contrite heart. Caution: this post contains possibly disenchanting revelations. If you have fond recollections of the Happy Apple and prefer to let its inner workings remain an enigma, please don't read on.

Some background first. The Fisher Price Happy Apple was a wobble toy from the early 1970s, and countless babies loved it for its cheery face and soothing chimes reminiscent of a gamelan. They also enjoyed its invitingly chewable and easily detached stem and leaves, features typical of playthings in that less-regulated era. Fisher Price shortened the stem later to discourage teething, and here are the two versions:

Chipper, aren't they?
Fisher Price retired the Happy Apple after 1974, which is odd considering the toy's popularity, and sad because quiet lovely sounds are always good for people no matter what their age. Although it was made to be patted, batted, and swatted by tiny flailing hands, the Apple is best savored when held close to the ear and just barely shaken. If Fisher Price could make a minimalist version for the present day, unencumbered by perilous foliage and minus the rather overly-insistent grin, they'd sell jillions. I'd buy one in a heartbeat.

And now for the regrettable part of my tale. Always keep in mind while reading further that my Happy Apple was nowhere close to mint condition when I acquired it at the local Goodwill some months ago. Shorn of its stem and greenery and covered with a heavy patina of scratches, it looked all of its nearly forty years, but from its secret depths emerged the most lovely celestial harmony. Many people are that way, with a world-worn exterior masking inner resonance. The poignancy of the notion moved me, and the 99-cent price tag seemed a killer steal.

After I got Happy home and gave it a scrub, I kept it on the table next to the sofa where I like to write, and at intervals when I required inspiration I'd rock it and swirl it, letting its soft tolling like distant temple bells imbue me with serenity. What a wonderful toy this must have been, imparting to a child the lesson that the more gently something is handled, the more its beauty will appear! The Happy Apple could have fallen from Buddha's bodhi tree.

But the serpent had entered the garden. Peace fosters the spirit of inquiry, and eventually Happy's deep delicate tones caused me to muse "what's inside this battered tchotke creating such an exquisite, angelic sound?"

Not wishing to expend effort that would destroy the object, I looked all over the Internet for an answer but found none, which astonished me. People are always tearing stuff apart, so I expected to find at least a few YouTubes or gleeful accounts of someone taking a sledgehammer to a Happy Apple, but no. The toy had existed long before the Internet, and had achieved a venerable prestige. The few YouTube videos that chanced to feature a Happy Apple tended to show closely-watched infants interacting with what was clearly considered a cherished family heirloom.

Still, Happy Apples aren't all that rare since they were produced in the many thousands during their brief time of flourishing, and I was relieved to find that they can still be readily acquired online, stem and leaves intact, for a nominal price. Reassured by their availability and unable to control my curiosity any longer, yesterday I took a compass saw and went to work, severing the fruit along the weld line in the middle.

Happy turned out to be a toughie despite its disarming smile. It's hefty, about the size of a small cantaloupe, so it wasn't easy to hold steady on its side. To add to the difficulty its plastic was as thick as harness leather, which meant I had to saw around the complete circumference before the halves finally came apart. As I worked, I frequently stopped and gave the Apple a shake to make sure I wasn't wrecking the mechanism within, and it always chimed reassuringly. As I got closer and closer to my goal, however, I began having trepidations. What if I accidentally cracked open a hidden chamber of mercury, spilling it everywhere? What if it for no reason at all the thing caught on fire? What if what lurked inside was really a malevolent alien being who'd been waiting nearly forty years for liberation? The chances were remote, but you never know. Worse than any of those possibilities, what if  I ended up destroying whatever caused the beautiful sound? I began to feel a bit like Eve must have when she handled her apple.

But none of those dire mischances occurred, and here's what I found. Click the image for a larger view.

The Happy Apple's core exposed.
 I'd never have guessed that the mechanism was so simple. I'd envisioned spheres within spheres, delicately balanced and calibrated, only too capable of falling apart beyond any recovery once the Apple's secret was unlocked. Instead, I found a little circle of eight metal rods in different lengths in the lower part, struck by a swinging metal disk suspended from the top section, very much like a fixed set of wind chimes. The components of this ingenious gong were of springy steel tough enough to withstand the wear of decades.

And there you have it, another of life's mysteries solved. While I regret sacrificing a vintage treasure, I take heart in knowing that my discovery may save countless other Apples in far better states of preservation from a similar fate.

Since my Apple's aesthetic appearance, if it can really be said to have had one, is now impaired, I plan to remove the mechanism and house it in something made of natural material like wood or bamboo or gourd. That way I'll be able to enjoy its lovely harmonies in a form rather more dignified and decorative than a plastic fruit with a goofy grin. Still, I'll always remember Happy.

CK

Postscript added April 28, 2015: This is one of my most popular blog posts, and I'm delighted it's attracted so much notice. Since I'm best known for my fiction writing, I hope you'll visit my website for free short stories and chapters of my novels. Thanks and happy reading!

News -- December 4, 2015: "At The Core Of The Happy Apple" is now available as an e-book at Smashwords, which distributes to Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and many other retailers (including Apple!).


40 comments:

  1. Robin Reed4:38 PM

    I never heard of this toy before now, but I am happy to know that the spirit of scientific inquiry lives on.

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  2. Anonymous7:46 PM

    Thank you for solving the happy apple mystery for me!

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  3. Jessica Green10:20 PM

    Thank you so much for finally revealing the mystery!! I've had my Happy since birth (mom even recorded it in my baby book) and I love his blissful harmonies and now I can rest easy knowing how they are made:)

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  4. Anonymous12:24 PM

    I've always wondered what was inside the loveliest chimes ever made, but could not bring myself to sacrifice one. Thanks for being brave. -- James S.

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  5. Anonymous10:48 PM

    I have also always wondered what is inside the Happy Apple and am really appreciative of this article. I have a Happy Apple somewhere from when I was born (during the period in which they were manufactured) and still remember clearly the chimes from when I was young.

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  6. Anonymous9:45 AM

    We have eight Happy Apples, one for each of the children to give to his/her children, one for us to have on hand and one which sounds messed up but we've been loathe to take the steps you took (also we couldn't figure out how to do it in a manner which would make it repairable).....Our little Happy probably has a broken rod, based on the information provided by your photo and by his sounds. Thank you for the information.

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  7. Now I must go find a Happy Apple for my very own. Purely for nostalgia sake, you understand. :)

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  8. Anonymous10:01 AM

    I have been wondering about this for a while now. Thank you for your sacrifice. However, I am a bit sad that it is no longer a mystery for me!

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  9. Anonymous10:35 AM

    Thank you for disemboweling your cherished childhood toy. My wife has one from her childhood, circa 1974, and I was tempted to vivisect it for the sake of mere curiosity. But we instead tried an internet search and ran across your website, which was very well written. My wife and I sat and read it together, laughing aloud several times and thoroughly amused. (Note: I would suggest perhaps putting some search terms like chimes, mechanism, toy on this post, especially as an alt tag on the image, as it took us a good five minutes to find it on the web, which meant that my spouse's childhood happiness was only about 30 seconds from a violent (yet softly chiming) demise.)

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  10. I'm touched by and very grateful for the kind comments, and I'll be adding search terms to make it more easy for other Happy Apple enthusiasts to locate my blog. Thanks so much!

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  11. Anonymous7:39 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for destroying yours and not mine. LOL Just playing. I found one in a thrift store and bought it today for my son. I remembered having one when I was a child. I noticed the date was '72 which was the year before I was born, so I thought, "What a perfect gift for my baby. 'Mommy had one when she was a kid too.' If he's ever in need of money, it'll make him a lot too because it's so old." ... only to see they aren't worth much. Makes me want to own twenty of them. I love these Happy Apples. Sad to know they aren't worth much, but so glad to have found one by coincidence today. I'm glad "I" have one again. I loved this toy. It's truly angelic, beautiful and peaceful sounds bring instant soothing to my soul. GO HAPPY APPLE...May you live on forever more.

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  12. Anonymous4:50 PM

    thank you so much for solving the mystery, but one can't help but wonder what now? Should have left some mystery in life but i have wondered for decades. i have one, it went from my oldest sibling to the youngest (me). And them from my oldest who is 9 all the way to my youngest, who is 15 months. I shall keep it in the family forever.

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  13. Anonymous8:29 PM

    Hey did you ever get a chance to mount the chime in a wooden enclosure? I would imagine the natural wood resonation would make it sound even better!

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    1. Finding a good replacement receptacle has been proving harder than I thought! The original red plastic shell seems to provide the best resonance. I'm going to try hiding my Apple inside one of those bottle gourds people use for birdhouses--they're readily available, thin-walled, and nice-looking. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calabash)

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    2. Anonymous10:52 AM

      My thinking too! I would love to take that mechanism and put it into a wooden housing of some kind. What a great story! thank you for solving the mystery!!!

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    3. Did you ever think about having someone make you a clear version? Maybe someone could 3d-print, or mold one. You could see and enjoy the mechanism now that it's not a mystery.

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  14. Thank You for helping us understand how it looks inside.
    Me and my granddaughter (6½ years old) taked about it. She loves it!
    She said it was a calming sound and if you are sad it makes you happy!
    Very good thought for a 6-year-old.
    MY father gave it to her father (my son) when he was newborn and I have kept it and will not give it away!
    It makes me happy too!

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  15. Anonymous3:26 PM

    A five year old asked what is inside to make that nice noise....thank you! I am certain you saved many Happy's from the saw blade!

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  16. hah! I found this post while looking up the going price for a Happy Apple (which is currently $50 for a used one on Amazon)! I have no intention of selling mine, mind you - it's little white scratches could possible be cleaned off, but tell a tale of many hours of play from when I was a little girl, and it has passed through all five of my children and will stay in the family. I will be sharing this post with my mother, though, who once tried painstakingly with a hammer to break one open, hoping to find out what made such a sound as it does, and never did solve the mystery! :)

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    1. Anonymous8:10 PM

      About three years ago, I found somebody who was selling not one, but three of them for $29 or best offer on eBay. I offered him $20, and he took it. I gave one away, my then 13-year-old daughter took one and has kept it in her room ever since, and I have one for my granddaughter to play with. It's definitely a cherished toy, and definitely cheaper on eBay than on Amazon!

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  17. Anonymous6:26 PM

    30 plus years ago, I happily purchased this marvelous toy for every expectant friend I had. Mainly because it was not only cute to look at and the sound was marvelous, but it was virtually indestructable. Like you, the mystery called to me. Finally, my sister-in-law, a brand new first time mom, realized their dog had chewed on the Happy Apple given to my nephew, and refused to give it back to him. (Think Lucy from Snoopy's "dog germs"). That was my chance. Picture two grown women, a hammer, a chisel, and concrete steps. Thirty minutes later, we were finally able to crack the Happy Apple and solve the mystery. Like you, we were amazed to see how simple it was. Now, the only mystery I face, is finding these wonderful toys each time a new grandchild is born. I believe the Happy Apple was discontinued because the ones they sold NEVER WORE OUT! If you can talk Fisher Price into resuming production, you would do the world a service!

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  18. I played with one of these a LONG time ago. (might have been a hand-me-down from my older brother)
    Never the less even as a child I tried my best to smash that thing on the ground to break it open... and all it ever did was jingle and smile at me.

    Thank you for putting my 30+ year curiosity to rest... I might buy one now on eBay just the hear it again. :-)

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  19. Thank you for solving this mystery for us, too. Another Happy Apple saved!

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  20. Hi there… As an experimental musician, I also deconstructed one and have used the guts to make other instruments. I have several and still use them to make folks smile. I also used two, played very =close to a friends ears to help him relax while he nhad cancer, it made him smile...

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  21. I, too, would like to thank you for saving my beloved Happy Apple. I found one in a thrift shop and thought...Wow! I had one of those when I was a kid, but...nah, I don't need it. Only to pine for it for months, at last go back to the store, and find that it had sold (for $8). So I bought one on the internet for $25. And I'm in love with it all over again. I was talking to my daughter about what was inside, and I thought, let's google it! And so we did. Thanks for the great info, and for having a banged up one you could destroy for the sake of science and curiosity!

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  22. Thank you for this post, which I just discovered. I've been looking for these gamelan sounding chimes to put them inside hand made toys, but have not had any luck, except for your post. My son had a stuffed Humpty Dumpty years ago, and the chimes were inside. One day the Humpty Dumpty took a bath and was ruined, but I save the chimes and tried to find a way to enclose them and use them. Lovely sound! Reminds me of Harmony Balls.

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  23. Another THANK YOU from another curious googling parent :)

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  24. Thank you for sharing this! I still have my circa 1973 Happy Apple and I shake it all the time for the beautiful sound. I am also an improvising musician in the jazz/new music realms, and have used my Happy Apple on several gigs and recordings (I used to bring it to every gig for my drummer to use whenever he saw it appropriate in an extended improvisation we were doing). It's such a great sound!

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  25. Anonymous5:59 PM

    I have 4 of these smiling inedibles. I was thinking about giving some away and trying to decide which. Do I keep the best looking or best sounding? I couldn't help but wonder why each one has it's own distinct sound. Your expose was fascinating, as well as the reactions to it. I don't know if production of the chimes was not so exact or if use and wear has affected the sound. The least scratched is also the one with mostly higher tones and little deep tone. Still trying to decide........

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  26. I found one today at my local Goodwill. I had no idea what it was, so when I picked it up and heard the chimes, I was enchanted. I found myself playing with it, walked around the store rolling it around in my hands in slightly hypnotized way as I browsed. It was $3.99. I had no need of it. I collect here and there, but nothing of this sort. I told myself I shouldn't buy it, I should put it back. I could not do it. The Happy Apple had cast its spell on me. I put it in the passenger side footwell of my car, and as I drove home, the Happy Apple rolled around and chimed as we turned corners and rolled over bumps and potholes. Not sure what I will do with it, probably wait until I find the right child to gift it to, but in the meantime I've got a new friend.

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  27. I have 1 I'm selling

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  28. Greg McNally10:07 AM

    I grew up in East Aurora, New York, which in the 50's was the corporate HQ & manufacturing home of Fisher Price Toys before it was bought by Mattel. My father's best friend was a man named Walter P. Doe, who was a toy designer for Fisher Price. As a kid, my father would often take me to visit Walt at his office in a building he referred to as the "Shangri La", which was where the toy designers worked. Walt was a prolific designer for Fisher Price, and among his creations was "Snoopy Sniffer", the dog pull toy with articulated legs that was a big hit for Fisher Price.

    Walt, who was a carpenter and a WWII Navy veteran, would often start crafting his creations out of balsa wood, carving them with a simple pocket knife. I have distinct memories of seeing him working on the Happy Apple, including the design of the toys' unique chime mechanism.

    Walt Doe passed away in 2001 at the age of 82. It's testament to the Happy Apple's unique design that the toy remains popular today, over 50 years after being crafted by a member of The Greatest Generation.

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  29. I was fortunate enough to find one of the long stem 1972 version of the Happy Apple at a thrift store!
    As soon as I spotted it I remembered the one I had as a child (of the late 70's/early 80's).
    I have a strange and wonderful hobby called circuit bending where one takes any electronic toy, open it and look around to see if one can attain different sounds that the original toy was never meant to make. Hence creating a noise instrument. It sounds quite technical however any skill level can take up this hobby without knowing much more than how to possible solder (that skill comes in quite handy!)...
    Anyhoo, as I have been indulging in this hobby for roughly 3 years now I've learn quite a few things, most importantly that if it has batteries and a speaker I can modify it! Otherwise I'm out of luck...
    The Happy Apple tugged SO hard at my heart strings that I HAD to figure out a way to include it as part of my "instruments" alas being an passive acoustic toy (one that I would prefer not to modify btw!) I decided that I COULD include it by attaching some surface microphones connected to an audio output.
    I looked online to be certain I wasn't about to commit some atrocious, near criminal act by sticking/gluing/taping (not sure yet...) the components to the seemingly priceless (to me at least) toy and came across this lovely article.

    I want to thank you SOOOO much for unveiling the mystery of the wonderful hidden sounds emanating from the core of this lovely/comical toy!

    If perchance you may still need help in rehousing the harmonious core of your Apple into a natural housing then please feel free to contact me as I have a background in music, noise and acoustics.

    PS. The first 40 years of childhood are the toughest!... Good thing we had these HAPPY APPLES! ^__^
    Cheers!

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  30. Hello! Second time here but this time I'm impelled to ask if you can help me since you've crossed through those Happy gates. My (short) stem is half popped off/out and I'm wondering if you have any advice on how to pop it back in? It's still hanging on, but it's also difficult (impossible?) to shove back in? I don't even know how it got half popped out!! Help!! Love my Happy Apple.

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    1. Caroline, my fellow Apple enthusiast, welcome back! I must admit I'm intrigued as to how the stem of your HA could have gotten loose. Before I began my dissection I tried pulling out the stem with a pair of pliers, but encountered so much resistance that I gave up, fearing that I might wreck the chime mechanism completely if I went any further. Perhaps you might be able to coax the stem back in with some light taps of a smallish mallet? I'm pretty sure the Apple could take it; it's the toughest toy I've ever encountered. If anyone reading this can advise further, please do, with my heartiest thanks!

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  31. I love this so much!! Not only have you answered a life long question, but the regard and respet in which you did it and wrote about it is just the most wonderful thing!!! Beautiful :) Thank you so much! Oh, and is there and update that shows what you built for it?

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    1. CMarie, I'm delighted you enjoyed my writing. :-) I haven't added an update because despite many attempts I still haven't found just the right container that will fit my Apple snugly and attractively without diminishing the sound. I don't want to remove the chime mechanism and mount it in another receptacle because the calibration is perfect as it is. I'm currently considering a close-fitting thin shell of painted papier-mache, having stumbled upon some instructions online. I'll post the results as soon as they're available!

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  32. Thank you so much for this enjoyable story and answering this enchanting mystery

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  33. Anonymous6:39 PM

    Thank you for posting this tribute to the Happy Apple. I discovered the Happy Apple as an adult when I went shopping for toys for my nephew and nieces in the early 1970s: all three received a Happy Apple when they were born.

    I had to buy one for myself because I was a teacher whose desk was a perfect place for an apple. I enjoyed watching the delight of my junior high students each time they picked up the Happy Apple. When some of my students later married and had children, I gifted their children with a Happy Apple.

    I remember that about the same time that the short stem Happy Apple was released, the sound of the chimes lost some of their clean, resonant sound. They were still captivating to babies, but not nearly as satisfying as the original version was to us older admirers.

    I just bought another Happy Apple on ebay (the long stem version, of course) to give to a former student from 2002 whose wife is expecting in November. I'm sure that Lyla will enjoy her Happy Apple!

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