On a rainy spring day some time in the last millennium, I stepped awkwardly across the threshold of a rambling farmhouse in Winchester, Virginia with my mother and sister dubious and in tow. The cluster of friendly, laughing college-age girls in the entryway confirmed the suspicion that had sunk its fangs into me the moment I had successfully convinced my mother to drive us out to see these strangers for their Ponypalooza: I did not belong here.
This was true, but for the opposite reason that normally plagued this particular hobby of mine: for once, I was too young. Usually the issue was that I was too old. Too old to have any interest in collecting, cataloging and taking care of toys that were developed for little children—a category which I miserably did not fit into at thirteen, just like I miserably did not fit into any clothes outside of flannel shirts and cargo pants.
Not that the judgement came from my parents. My father still collected the toy trains of his childhood, so there was no argument there. If anything he might have found my rediscovered fervor for the toys of my extreme youth far more affordable (and therefore desirable) than his own collecting hobby. And my mother didn’t cast aspersions on it either, though I think this came more from a sympathy for the shittiness of being 13 than out of any fellow collectors’ impulse. Had she been alive to see the Mari Kondo craze catch on, she would have approved—even though she spent her life surrounded by people who treasured their junk, she very much would have loved to be rid of it. But she didn’t question the ponies. Maybe because she saw the closeness they brought me and my drifting-toward-boys best friend? Maybe because it was the happiest I’d been since we moved to this part of the country I neither liked nor fit into? I don’t know. But as long as we earned the money ourselves, she’d patiently sit through the ebay bid-placing process on whatever lot of ponies we’d carefully researched, swooned over and set our hearts on. For months.
Outside of my immediate family the late nineties were less forgiving of a 13yo rediscovering the toys of her four-to-six-year-old self. Vintage wasn’t yet cool. Those flannel shirts and cargo pants? Moving past those into spaghetti straps and short shorts were what you were supposed to be aspiring toward. My aunt, who had four gen-xer children of her own, could make neither heads nor tails of my elder millennial self. Why wasn’t I trying to do anything with my hair? Why didn’t I like any music that had lyrics? Why wasn’t I a recognizable brand of uncool? I flinch still at the memory of the ecstatics I went into when I found a battered So-Soft Magic Star in a yard sale near her house, when my aunt had gone to such trouble to secure an elusive Princess Diana beanie baby for my birthday. That was a rare occasion when my mother pointed out that I ought to’ve shown something akin to that level of delight for this unlooked-for gift, and I will never live it down. I didn’t mean to hurt my aunt’s feelings, just…she was able to acquire that rare thing through networking. I acquired my rare thing through the hunt.
And it was a hunt! Ebay had just come into existence. There was no “buy now” option; you had to watch the auctions you had bids on like a hawk, and you had to be ready to pounce in the final seconds with a raise if someone one-upped you. You had to have reliable internet to make that kind of move–which meant kicking everyone else off the phone so your modem could connect and snag you your ponies in the eleventh hour. I didn’t come by this predatory collecting through my own investigations–the aforementioned best friend turned me on to it, when our summer afternoon reminiscing about childhood toys turned from research on the now sadly defunct Dream Valley (for a similar if not quite as Geocities experience, Ponyland Press appears to be similar in scope, if not as deep in its image pockets) to an actual search. While I was content to spend every weekend cruising the local yard sales on a quest for people’s childhoods put up for sale, Olga took the proactive step of actually seeking ponies out online. And thus our pony habit was born.
To be clear, there was, in fact, a My Little Pony collecting “scene”: and we were not it. In the late 90s, most of the people selling ponies were either parents purging their homes of their college-age kids’ crap, or those same college age kids selling the crap themselves online, to try and make a little pocket money. Most of the people buying the ponies were college-age, too: now making enough money of their own, they wanted to reclaim a bit of their childhoods, it seemed, and they were just that much more well off than us 13-year-olds to be able to afford it.
Blogs were on the horizon but hadn’t yet taken off, so most discussion happened on forums–most memorably, the My Little Pony Trading Post, lovingly and universally shortened to MLPTP. This, some googling assures me, is paradoxically still around, though noticeably less rainbow-on-black in its color scheme nowadays. Mostly we just stuck to the buy and sell pages, but if you wanted to wade into the forums for drama, there was plenty to be found. There was the intense–and I mean intense–schism over Hasbro’s late 90s attempt to resurrect the My Little Pony brand, with new, noticeably skinnier shapes for its ponies. Said shapes led ultimately to boards which expressly banned discussion on the ponies deemed by no small number of die-hard 80s MLP fans as “My Little Anorexic Horses.” (Hasbro’s recent and much more successful resurrection, of the Friendship is Magic variety, is a compromise between the chunky 1980s pony shape and the svelte, more flutter pony-esque failure of the late 90s–but this probably owes more to the anime style of the Friendship Is Magic tv show than to any desire to pacify 80s pony nerds from twenty years ago.)
And then there was the fanfiction. I distinctly remember the first piece of I-guess-technically-fanfiction I ever read: an incredibly long tale of the writer’s Baby Surprise going under her bed and into a magical land through some kind of portal, on a quest for her lost fellow toys after her owner had left for college. If this sounds pretty Toy Story 3 to you, just remember this lonely college girl wrote it in 1997 some 13 years prior. The writing was okay, but what struck me at the time was how this chemistry major missed her home and her childhood and her way back to it was writing this story in between cramming for exams and, I don’t know, setting things on fire or whatever you do as a chemistry major. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote stories to feel better about anything. She received such positive feedback on it that she bought herself another Baby Surprise on the My Little Pony Trading Post, to replace the one she had (contradictory to the star of her story) in fact lost.
I did not in fact write any pony fanfiction. Not that I can remember, anyway. But perusing the writing of all these women who were doing it not to make a career out of it but because it brought them closer to something they loved and missed–someone they loved and missed having been–certainly primed me for full-on fandom when Lord of the Rings and Web 2.0 coincided years later. It also honed my ability to fake an acute cultural identity which I lacked–namely that of someone roughly ten years older than I was.
Which brings us back to the Delaneys. Though referenced chiefly as a unit, “the Delaneys” were primarily a husband and wife team: the husband curated the pony collection at home (and added the vanity lighting to all the pony cabinets) while the wife hunted down huge pony collections online and then resold the extras on MLPTP. Since their collection was massive, and included scads of rare finds like all twelve of the birth month flower ponies obtained by mailing away Kellogg cereal box tops, or UK and French variants of ponies unobtainable in the US, this meant there were a lot of extras. The Delaneys were also extremely well-known as reliable and friendly in their transactions, so they were some of the few people I bought ponies from outside of eBay itself.
At some point, driven by I don’t know what impulse, they decided to invite the pony-collecting internet to their house. (Gee, can you tell the internet was still in its infancy?) And they did. And they called it Ponypalooza. Internet strangers drove up from all over to see the famed pony collection, and to buy and sell ponies, essentially in these people’s kitchen and living room. The Delaneys had a bunch of very small children, who ranged about the house tired or cranky like very small children do, utterly unmoved by their parents’ ponies and more than a little put out by this mass of strangers milling through their home.
And that’s…basically all we did. Mill around. There may have been some events planned but it was raining and that left a great deal of people crammed into this old farmhouse full of ponies oh and also the whole family trying to live there. Most of the sellers had only rare ponies on offer, and only for exorbitant prices I could in no way afford, but there was one girl selling manes and tails and banged-up versions of ponies, ideally for trying one’s artistic skills at designing a new pony and obliterating the previous one. That seemed like sacrilege to me (and also I lacked the skills), but I took pity on a tail-less Bowtie from 1983–from before I was even born–and bought both her and a replacement tail for her. I took her to college with me; she’s currently somewhere in my garage, separated from the rest of my collection by my pity.
The rest of my collection is currently being mauled by my two-year old. They are bright and plentiful and he loves them–especially the Apple Delight family set given to me by Olga one birthday; she was always way more on top of eBay and way more ready to trust MLPTP randos than I was. (Also, she had more money.)
To even find that image (as well as to check their names; it has been awhile since I had the whole MLP catalog memorized) I had to do some sleuthing that revealed that the Apple Delight father alone is worth $45. The same Apple Delight father my son bellows “daddddddd!” at before joyfully smashing his hooves across the nearest hard surface. And that doesn’t make me wince, honestly. They were toys and designed to be played with; my heart always melted for the ponies with scuff marks and chopped manes that bespoke years of loving play. Whereas Olga pursued mint condition ponies and, like the Delaneys, wanted them kept pristine. She didn’t have cabinets with vanity lighting for them, but only because she wanted a boyfriend and she feared that the ponies, if discovered, would throw a wrench in that endeavor.
But I also don’t wince because, as an actual member of the target demographic of Hasbro’s late-80s early-90s ponies, I only ever owned 16 of them. When I was thirteen that number ballooned to 147, as I compiled histories of the brand, traced the diaspora of ponies across the pond, and trawled through sales virtual and in person for pieces of other people’s pasts to claim as my own. I wanted so much to be one of these college girls capable both of moving their lives forward in whatever they were studying at school, but also of embracing the childhood they missed, and which I had so recently lost.
Being 13 sucks. You’re either too old or too young for everyone you want to be, to yourself and to everyone else.
But, as a no-longer-13-year-old, I don’t need the ponies anymore. I don’t need to try and turn back time. They can be my son’s now. They light him up more than they ever could me. I like watching him line them up and, well, knock them down. He can have them.
Except maybe for Bowtie. When I find her, she’s going on a shelf somewhere safe. Not because she’s valuable–Bowties are a dime a dozen; the Caterpies of the 1980s pony world. But because I plucked her from that reject pony bin and she deserves to sit out her retirement with tail intact. Loved. And repaired, but left as who she was. Because who she was was enough.