World War II spawned countless innovations that changed American life for decades to come—from the rugged Jeep, to mass-produced penicillin, to the terrifying atomic bomb. But, ironically, the war affected some US industries more than the toy business.
Not only were toy and game designers and makers able to take advantage of the latest scientific advances, such as colorful and cheap plastics; They also benefited from two other postwar trends. The baby boom – more than 76 million children born between 1946 and 1964 – offered them a record number of potential customers. And television, little more than a pre-war novelty, soon made it possible to expose the latest sport to millions of children at once. No wonder toy sales soared from $84 million in 1940 to $900 million by 1953 and into the billions by the early 1960s.
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Plastics: From the Battlefield to the Playroom
Some early forms of plastic, such as celluloid, date from the 19Th century but many more were introduced in the 1930s and 40s. These plastics became especially important during the war, as some materials, such as silk and natural rubber, became difficult to obtain or impossible to produce in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the military. A 1943 experiment resulted in a bouncy substance that was of little use to the war effort but achieved postwar fame and fortune as Silly Putty.
But while plastics would revolutionize the toy industry, wary manufacturers didn’t jump right in, notes Nicholas Ricketts, curator of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Parker Brothers, for example, were “afraid to change Any Monopoly details because it was and remains a cash cow for the firm,” he says.
Additionally, toymakers needed time to rework for peacetime. Milton Bradley had reduced game production during the war to produce aircraft landing gear and machine gun parts. Lionel had switched from toy trains to telegraph keys, compasses and other military essentials.
Before the end of the 1940s, however, plastic began to appear on toy store shelves, often due to adventurous entrepreneurs willing to take a gamble. The Game of Cooties, in which players race to create colorful plastic bugs, was an instant hit in 1949 and remains popular nearly 75 years later. Its inventor, Herb Scheper, was a Minneapolis mailman at his day job.
That same year, Lego, a Danish company founded by carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen to make wooden toys, released its first plastic brick. The version that is ubiquitous today came out in 1958.
Mr. Potato Head was also invented in 1949 by George Lerner, an American graphic designer, although it did not hit the market until 1952. Initially it consisted of plastic pieces – eyes, nose, mouth, glasses etc. .—but the children had to supply their own real potato to stick in it.
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With plastic, toy designers make game boards 3-D
Major board game makers took their first cautious steps into the world of plastics, replacing wooden pawns and other small toys with items made from new materials. Then some toy designers saw great possibilities.
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In 1963, Ideal released a mouse trap game designed by Marvin Glass & Associates. It added large plastic objects to the usual cardboard playing surface and is often credited as the first three-dimensional board game. As Ricketts notes, “Plastic alone made possible the Rube Goldberg aspect of the mouse trap and its many imitations.” (Goldberg was a newspaper cartoonist famous for his drawings of ridiculously elaborate contraptions to perform everyday tasks.)
Glass and his team of designers innovated the toy business, soon followed by other Goldbergian games that took full advantage of the possibilities of plastic. These include Crazy Clock (1964) and Fishbait (1965), both created by Dalia Verbickas, one of the rare female game designers of the era.
The Glass Company did not manufacture the toys, but licensed them to major toy and game makers. Among his most famous productions: Mr. Machine (Ideal, 1960), Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots (Marx, 1964), and Operation (Milton Bradley, 1965). Nothing exists without plastic.
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TV targets children
Of course, plastics weren’t entirely responsible for the boom in toy sales in the 1950s and ’60s. The post-war population explosion was another major factor, as was the rapid growth of television and TV advertising. In 1946, only 8,000 US households owned television sets; By 1960, more than 45 million.
As TV spread into American homes, advertisers realized they could now reach children directly. Makers of toys and breakfast cereals became particularly adept at advertising to young consumers; Many cereals advertised on television were even packaged with toys or offered a promise in exchange for multiple box tops.
Mr. Potato Head is credited with being the first toy to be widely advertised on TV, particularly in the first commercial aimed at children. That year, 1952, maker Hasbro sold more than a million of them at 98 cents each.
Other toy makers would follow suit, with ads whose jingles and taglines are still stuck in the heads of baby boomers today (whether they like it or not): “Everybody knows it’s a Slinky!,” “You sunk my battleship!” and “Trouble, Trouble, is the name of Kohner’s ‘Pop-O-Matic’ game.”
Making games for teenagers
As the first wave of baby boomers approached adolescence, toy and game makers had no intention of abandoning them as consumers. Some far-sighted companies had begun to identify teenagers as a potentially profitable demographic during the war, targeting bobby socks and their male equivalents in advertising, says Stuart Elliott, former The New York Times Advertising columnist.
In 1966, the year the oldest baby turned 20, Milton Bradley released Twister. Instead of a traditional playing board, it used a vinyl mat with large, strategically placed polka dots. Players themselves cut pieces of the game, stuck in their bodies, as told by a plastic spinner.
Perhaps more than any other game, Twister managed to exemplify all three postwar trends: cheap plastic, generational appeal, and live TV advertising. Plus, it added a bit of sex—or at least a hint of it. In 1967 alone, 3 million copies of Twister were sold.