Week of September 19, 2021

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 inside 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 phenomenally successful; over one billion Barbies have sold worldwide. If Barbie were a real woman, however, her unique proportions might cause some issues that you never see in the advertisements. Researchers report that Barbie would have to walk on all fours because those tiny ankles couldn’t support her weight, her thin neck would not hold that big head up, and that narrow waist only leaves space for half of a liver and a few inches of intestine.


G.I. Joe the was the first toy to call itself an “action figure” so that boys wouldn’t be discouraged from buying a self-proclaimed doll. Arriving in the 1964, the name was inspired by the 1945 movie “The Story of G.I. Joe” with Robert Mitchum. “G.I.” for Government Issue or General Issue was already a term for military-issued items used by soldiers, and was later applied to the soldiers themselves. “Joe” was long a slang term for ordinary battlefield soldiers. The size and material of G.I. Joe dolls changed a lot over the years, and their popularity waned during the Vietnam war, but the action figures remain one of the toy world’s most successful.


Matchbox cars were far from the first model car, but when they were created in 1952, their unique size was inspired by a rule at the school which one of the company partner’s daughter attended that no toys brought from home may be bigger than a matchbox. As it turned out, this size created big success and the plan was later replicated by Hot Wheels and others.


Silly Putty was invented by accident by an engineer researching substitutes for synthetic rubber during WWII. Although it had no obvious military use at the time, the silicone oil / boric acid combination proved a party hit for years until it was encountered by a hobby shop owner and marketing consultant, and became one of the fastest-selling toys of the 20th Century. (See Friday of Week of 8/15/21 post regarding another classic toy born from military research.)


In the mid-1950s, a young French electrician made some marks on a decal from a factory light switch plate which he was installing. When he peeled the translucent decal off, he realized the marks were visible on the other side, giving him the idea for a toy which took advantage of metal powder’s clingy electrostatic properties. This was the birth of the Etch-A-Sketch, which works by using the knob-controlled stylus to scrape away a thin layer of aluminum powder, and “draw” in this fashion.