In Honor of Black Friday, 10 Things You Might Not Know About Toys
Today is Black Friday, and throughout the land, consumers are attacking stores and malls and online retailers in search of goodies for their loved ones. The playtime cognoscenti at Toys “R” Us say the most popular presents for kids this year will include the Fischer Price Code-a-piller, Hatchimals and the Num Noms Lip Gloss Truck, whatever the hell that is. Also on their list? DreamWorks Troll dolls, which look exactly like the Troll dolls we played with half a century ago that now sell for, like, $80 apiece on eBay. Which got us wondering: Where did Troll dolls come from in the first place? Or Barbie dolls, or teddy bears, for that matter? Here, a chronological list of the origins of 10 great American toys.
The Teddy Bear
So soft, so cuddly—and with such a gruesome provenance. The Teddy Bear was born shortly after 1902, when then-president Teddy Roosevelt took a bear-hunting trip to Mississippi with some buds. The buds—they included renowned bear hunter Holt Collier—chased down an American black bear with the help of their hounds, cornered and clubbed him, and tied him to a willow tree. They then invited Roosevelt to join them and fire the fatal shot. Teddy announced that this simply wasn’t sporting and told them to put the poor thing out of its misery. After the incident became the subject of a political cartoon in the Washington Post, two separate toy companies, Steiff in Germany and what would become the Ideal Toy Company in Brooklyn, began marketing adorable stuffed bears. This set off a turn-of-the-century bear frenzy that saw Tin Pan Alley composer John Walton Bratton write “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and Seymour Eaton write the children’s book series The Roosevelt Bears.
The Erector Set
This metallic construction toy was first dreamed up by Yale medical student A.C. Gilbert on a train ride from New Haven to New York City on which he saw steel girders being raised for the electrification of a section of track. Gilbert was a magician who already had a line of magic tricks and magic sets in production through his Mysto Manufacturing Company, and he produced the first Erector set in 1913, introducing it at the New York Toy Fair. Marketed as “educational, instructive and amusing” and then as “the World’s Greatest Toy,” Erector sets were sold in wooden and, later, steel boxes. After Gilbert died in 1961, the company went into decline and declared bankruptcy in 1967. The name was sold to the Gabriel company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then to Ideal, then Tyco; it’s now owned by the French company Meccano. Legend has it the Erector set was the first toy with its own national marketing campaign. An Erector set was used to construct the prototype for the artificial heart at Yale School of Medicine in 1949.
Charles H. Pajeau, a stonemason in Evanston, Illinois, invented Tinkertoys after watching some kids play with sticks and thread spools. The heart of the set is a wooden spool with holes drilled through the center and every 45 degrees around the outside. With the accompanying wooden rods of varying lengths, the toys were designed around the Pythagorean triangle; each size rod is as long as the next-smallest rod times the square root of two. (Who knew?!) In 1998, Cornell University announced the development of a walking Tinkertoy robot. The rods were originally natural wood; in the 1950s, different lengths were assigned different colors. Sets were packaged in distinctive mailing tubes the size and shape of oatmeal boxes.
Lincoln Logs, sets of notched, interlinking redwood timbers, were invented by John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He came up with the idea for the toy in 1916 or 1917, while working with his father on the latter’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo; the foundation for the hotel was built with interlocking logs to protect it from earthquakes. Back in the U.S., John formed the Red Square Toy Company, patented his design, and started selling sets in 1918. The original sets, which also included chimneys, roofs, doors and windows, came with instructions for re-creating Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin as well as that featured in the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the 1970s, the sets switched over to plastic beams; purists revolted, and the company soon switched back to wood. Today Lincoln Logs, like Tinkertoys, are distributed by K’Nex.
Okay, okay; the “flying disc,” since the f-word is a registered trademark. Though origin myths for the Frisbee abound, the most popular theory claims the first one was a popcorn-tin lid that inventor Walter Frederick “Fred” Morrison was tossing back and forth on the beach in Santa Monica, California, with Lu Nay, the woman who’d become his wife, back in 1937. They soon discovered that cake pans flew better than the lids, and set up a small business, Flyin’ Cake Pans, selling their prototype. As a pilot in World War II, Morrison learned more about aerodynamics and designed a plastic disc, called the Whirlo-Way. The Morrisons sold the rights to an improved “Pluto Platter” model to Wham-O in 1957; Wham-O changed the name to “Frisbee” after it learned that students at Yale were calling the toy that, after the name of the company that supplied the university with pies. Or something like that.
This one’s got deep Philly roots. In 1942, a naval engineer named Richard T. James—he was a Westtown School and Penn State grad—was at work in Cramp’s Shipyard in Port Richmond, developing springs to stabilize marine instruments, when he accidentally knocked one off a shelf. It stepped gracefully down to a stack of books, to his desk, to a tabletop, and then to the floor. He went home and told his wife he had an idea for a toy, then spent the next year experimenting with different sizes and kinds of steel wire. Neighborhood kids gave the toy their approval, and James’s wife, Betty, gave it its name, pulled from a dictionary. The couple borrowed $500 to have 400 prototypes built, then in November 1945 convinced Gimbels to let them demonstrate the toys on an inclined plane in its Center City store. They sold all 400 Slinkys in an hour and a half. Richard later abandoned Betty and their six children, running off to Bolivia in 1960 with a Bible-translation group. Betty kept the company running until its acquisition in 1998; she was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2001 and died at HUP at age 90 in 2008.
Ole Kirk Christiansen was a carpenter in Bilund, Denmark, building houses and furniture. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, business dwindled, and he began to craft mini-models of his former work. These caught on as toys, and in 1934 he sponsored a contest to name his company, with a bottle of wine as the prize. But he’d already come up with the name Lego, a contraction of the Danish for “play well.” Ole Kirk’s son Godtfred joined the business, and post-World War II, the pair began exploring the uses of plastics for toys. In 1949, they began creating what they called “Automatic Binding Bricks,” based on a British model. Improvements to the locking ability of the blocks and the plastic used, along with expansion to North America, set off a worldwide craze. The first Legoland opened in Bilund in 1968; the following year, the bigger Duplo blocks for toddlers went on sale. Licensed characters—starting with Star Wars and Winnie the Pooh—were added in 1999. Warner Bros. released The Lego Movie in 2014. In 2015, Lego courted controversy by refusing a bulk order from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who had been using Legos to sculpt portraits of political activists. The company objected to use of the toys for political means.
Why are so many great toys Scandinavian? Maybe because of the long, cold winter nights. Anyway, back in 1959, an impoverished Danish fisherman named Thomas Dam hand-carved a wooden doll for his daughter as a Christmas gift. When her friends admired it, he carved dolls for them, too. They proved so popular that he bought a small factory and began manufacturing the dolls, first in wood, then in plastic, under the name Good Luck Trolls. (In Scandinavian folklore, trolls are ugly creatures that live in caves; in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, they’re big and strong but not very bright.) From 1963 to 1965, Dam’s troll dolls were wildly popular in the United States; these originals featured sheep hair and glass eyes. (A mistake in Dam’s copyright led to later, more cheaply made knockoffs.) They saw further waves of popularity in the early ’90s as “Battle Trolls” (marketed to boys) and the mid-aughts as Trollz (with an accompanying TV show). Dreamworks acquired the rights to the Dam troll in 2013 and released a computer-animated film starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake earlier this month. Its grisly plot revolves around the Bergens, morose creatures who only feel happy when they eat a Troll.
The Barbie Doll
Back in the 1950s, American businesswoman Ruth Handler noticed that her young daughter Barbara frequently turned her baby dolls into adult characters while playing. Handler got to wondering: Why weren’t there grown-up dolls? On a trip to Germany with her kids, she saw an adult-figured fashion doll, Bild Lilli, and bought three prototypes. Back home, she redesigned the doll and renamed it Barbie, after her daughter. Barbie debuted at New York’s American International Toy Fair in 1959, and a star was born. The first Barbie came in both blond and brunette versions and wore a black-and-white-striped one-piece bathing suit. Some 350,000 dolls were sold in the first year of production. The Mattel toy company claims that today, three Barbie dolls are sold every second, with more than a billion sold worldwide since their introduction. Early this year, the company announced the addition of new tall, curvy and petite body types to the line, which also has included such Barbie pals as Skipper, Midge, African-American friend Christie (launched in 1968), and, of course, Ken (named for Handler’s son. Don’t think about it too hard). In 2004, while estranged from Ken, Barbie had a fling with Australian surfer Blaine.
Fifty-year-old Joel Glickman was playing with straws at a boring wedding in 1990 when he conceived this connection/construction building set similar to Tinkertoys. He set up the K’Nex company with his brother and tried to interest major toy manufacturers in the idea. They passed, but Toys ‘R’ Us suggested he manufacture the sets himself. He and his brother did so, setting up shop in their dad’s plastics manufacturing plant in Hatfield, Montgomery County. K’Nex is committed to manufacturing its wares in the United States, having begun moving production back to Hatfield from China during the 2008-’09 recession. (The company also owns the Tinkertoy and Lincoln Logs brands.) Among the things that have been built from K’Nex: a model of the Sears Tower, a model of the space shuttle, and the Eiffle Tower.
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