February 21, 2020

Toy Stories

“Lego” is short for “leg godt” or “play well” in Danish, though it was later happily realized that Lego also means “I put together” in Latin. When started by a master carpenter in the 1930s, the Danish company mostly made wooden products, but after getting into plastic building toys, it patented in 1958 the familiar stud-and-tube coupling system behind all Legos ever since. The company is still run by the founder’s descendants, and kids worldwide spend about 5 billion annual hours playing with Legos.

Plah-Doh was born from the decline of coal furnaces. In the late 19th and early 20th century, coal heated most American homes. Come spring, however, these homes had a layer of unsightly soot on interior walls, and homeowners used flour-based puddies to roll against the walls and pull the soot off. Then, when furnaces increasingly burned oil or gas after WWII and water-washable vinyl wallpaper appeared, a Cincinnati family business that manufactured the soot-cleaning puddies fell into trouble. A sister-in-law who ran a children’s nursery read an article about molding inexpensive Christmas tree ornaments out of wallpaper cleaner, and she found that her nursery kids loved sculpting with the family’s poorly-selling product. The puddy was reformulated for this purpose, named “Play-Doh” (which beat out the original “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound”) and sold in one-gallon containers all over town. It exploded in popularity after being featured on “Captain Kangaroo,” and soon became a staple children’s product worldwide.

The original inspiration for Barbie was a stiletto pump-wearing busty blonde plastic doll version of a popular German comic strip character Lilli, an uninhibited “saucy high-end call girl.” During a 1956 visit to Switzerland, these popular dolls struck the fancy of 15-year old Barbara Handler, whose parents happened to be the founders of Mattel toys. She and her mom took some dolls home, and three years later Mattel introduced a less-risque American version named after daughter Barbara (the doll’s full name: Barbara Millicent Roberts from the fictional town of Willows, Wisconsin). The doll has proven extremely successful; over one billion Barbies have sold worldwide. If Barbie were a real woman, however, her unique proportions might cause some issues you don’t see in her commercials. Researchers report that she would have to walk on all fours because those tiny ankles couldn’t support her weight, her thin neck wouldn’t hold that big head up, and that narrow waist only leaves space for half of a liver and a few inches of intestine.