Many of America’s favorite toys were introduced during the post-World War II era and gained popularity among the baby boom generation. At Christmastime, children enthralled by TV commercials asked Santa Claus for a Barbie doll, Etch A Sketch, G.I. Joe or Tonka Truck. Here are some interesting facts about the most popular playthings of the 1950s and ’60s. Each has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, which is part of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y.
Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel Toy Co., introduced the most popular fashion doll of all time in 1959. Handler got the idea for Barbie after noticing her daughter, Barbara, dressing adult paper dolls in cutout clothing. She based Barbie, an all-American blonde, pony-tailed beauty, on a redesign of a sultry German comic book character. Barbie debuted at the American International Toy Fair in New York City and originally cost $3. Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, was introduced in 1961.
Etch A Sketch
In the mid-1950s, French electrician André Cassagnes conceived the idea of a drawing toy with a joystick, glass screen and aluminum powder. Originally called the Magic Screen, Etch A Sketch became a commercial hit in 1960 when it was mass-produced and marketed by The Ohio Art Co. of Bryan, Ohio. With its twin dials and erasable screen, the toy allowed children—and adults—to sketch to their hearts’ content, obliterate their creations with a shake of the plastic console, and start a new drawing without ever putting pen to paper.
Children have played with versions of the yo-yo since ancient times, but the toy didn’t become an American marvel until a national TV advertising campaign by Duncan Toys Co. in the 1960s. Donald F. Duncan bought rights to the plaything-on-a-string from Pedro Flores, a San Monica, Calif., entrepreneur who began making wooden yo-yos in the 1920s in the tradition of his Filipino forefathers. Yo-yo means “come-come” in a native Philippine language.
The flying disc known as the Frisbee originated as pie tins used by the Frisbie Pie Co. of Bridgeport, Conn. The tins were tossed for sport by college students who yelled “Frisbie” to warn passersby of errant metal plates. In 1948, former World War II pilots Walter Frederick Morrison and his partner Warren Franscioni of California created a plastic version of the Frisbie that was more aerodynamic than metal pie plates. Capitalizing on the UFO craze, Morrison dubbed the plastic disc “The Flyin’ Saucer,” and later “Pluto Platter.” Wham-O bought rights to the toy and in 1958 trademarked the name Frisbee.
The substance known as Play-Doh began as wallpaper cleaner. Joe McVicker of Kutol Chemicals in Cincinnati discovered the non-toxic product and in 1955 recommended it to his sister-in-law, a nursery school teacher who had complained how difficult it was for her young pupils to shape modeling clay. McVicker and his brother, Noah, formed Rainbow Crafts Co. the following year and began manufacturing 1.5-pound cans of the reusable, off-white modeling compound. Since then, more than 2 billions cans of Play-Doh have been sold in a rainbow of colors.
Mr. Potato Head
George Lerner of New York City invented Mr. Potato Head in 1949 by designing three-dimensional plastic face parts—eyes, ears, noses and mouths—that allowed children to make amusing playmates by pushing the sharp-pronged parts into fruits and vegetables. Originally, Lerner sold the toy to a cereal company that planned to use the plastic pieces as prizes in cereal boxes. The spud-headed fellow didn’t triumph, however, until Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro bought Lerner’s idea and Mr. Potato Head became the first toy ever advertised on television in 1952.
Six Minnesota teachers founded the Mound Metalcraft Co. in 1946 to manufacture garden tools. The business partners purchased a competitor the following year and, in the process, inherited a failed attempt to market metal construction toys. Using their knowledge of sheet metal, the entrepreneurial educators designed and manufactured a steam shovel, crane and dump truck and gave the toys a bold name, Tonka, which means “great” in the Sioux Indian language. Boys immediately loved playing with the heavy-duty dirt-moving equipment, and they still do, though many of today’s models are a combination of steel and durable plastic.
In 1943, Richard James, a naval engineer, was experimenting with springs to keep sensitive ship equipment steady at sea when one of the metal coils fell to the ground and kept moving across the floor. James took his inspirational spring to his wife, Betty, who scoured the dictionary looking for an appropriate name for the acrobatic plaything. She came across the Swedish word slinky, which means “stealthy, sleek and sinuous.” Slinky debuted at Gimbel’s Department Store in Philadelphia in 1945 and sold for $1 each. Since 1961, the toy, which contains 80 feet of coiled wire, has been manufactured in Hollidaysburg, Pa., on the original equipment designed by Richard James.
America’s first working toy oven was introduced by Kenner Products in 1963. The original turquoise-colored, range-style oven had a carrying handle and allowed future homemakers to bake gooey miniature cakes with heat from a 60-watt light bulb. In its first year, more than 500,000 of the ovens were sold for $15.95 apiece. Kenner, now a division of Hasbro Inc., since has sold 23 million of the popular toy ovens. The company recalled nearly 1 million Easy-Bake Ovens last year following reports of children getting their hands and fingers stuck in the ovens.
G.I. Joe has undergone dozens of incarnations—as a soldier, sailor, pilot, astronaut, superhero and adventurer—since Hasbro introduced the original action figure in 1964. At the time, most parents thought boys shouldn’t play with dolls. Many boys, however, had to have the articulated, 11.5-inch-tall toy soldier known as “America’s Movable Fighting Man.” The name G.I. Joe was borrowed from The Story of G.I. Joe, a 1945 hit movie about an American army unit in World War II, and the toy was inspired in part by the 1963 TV show The Lieutenant.
The most popular board game in history began in 1904 as The Landlord’s Game, created by Elizabeth Magie of Brentwood, Md., to illustrate the social injustices of slumlords and corporate monopolies. However, the game that allows players to get “rich” by buying properties with phony money didn’t gain widespread popularity until the Great Depression. In the 1930s, Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman in Germantown, Pa., modified Magie’s game, renamed it Monopoly and sold 5,000 copies to a Philadelphia department store. Since Parker Brothers bought rights to the game in 1935, more than 200 million have been sold in 80 countries and 26 languages.
This article was originally published Dec 23, 2007 in the print edition of American Profile.