Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Toys, Circa 1950s

If you look at the toys that were popular back in the 1950s, they bore little resemblance to kids' toys today. Nothing was computerized, most toys did not need to be plugged in, and I-Pods were still a dream of little Stevie Wozniak (who later founded Apple). Toys were not only simpler and less expensive, but required imagination and physical dexterity to play with. If we could time travel back to the nifty fifties, *here are the items that might pop up on a kid's Santa list:

Mr. Potato Head—Did you know that the Mr. Potato Head toy originally only came with the face pieces? Children were actually supposed to use a real potato! Even so, the toy enjoyed incredible success. Released in 1952, Mr. Potato Head was the first toy ever advertised on television, which lead to profits topping $4 million—that’s $30 billion by today’s standards!

The Hula Hoop—Though it’s one of the defining objects of the 1950’s, the exact origins of the Hula Hoop are unknown. They were used in various forms in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Australia, but were reinvented by the toy company Wham-o in 1957. The design was switched to plastic, and the company sold over 100 million within a year.

Frisbee—The very next year, Wham-O Toys hit it big again with the Frisbee, although this toy’s history is better documented. The Frisbee flying disc started in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the Frisbie Pie Company delivered pies to several college campuses nearby. The students started tossing the empty pie tins around, and the Frisbee was born!

Silly Putty—Like a lot of great toys, Silly Putty was invented entirely by accident. The fortuitous mistake happened during WWII, as scientists developed a bouncing substance that would go on to become Silly Putty. Some got into the hands of toy store owner Ruth Fallgater, who marketed it in plastic eggs. The inexpensive toy became enormously popular worldwide and remains a toy classic.

Barbie Dolls—Of course, at the end of the fifties, the Barbie Doll came out, revolutionizing girls’ play time forever. Barbies became the highest selling fashion dolls in history within a year, and the dolls now sell more than two per second across the world.

—Board games were also quite popular in the fifties. The game’s big break happened when the president of Macy’s, Jack Strauss, played the game on vacation. When he returned and found that the game was not sold in his stores, he placed a large order, and Scrabble quickly received national attention.

View Master-- In this modern age of DVD players and the Internet, it is hard to believe that the View Master is still bedazzling youth. Small images on film circled a disc that was inserted into the binocular-like viewer, where they came to three-dimensional life.

Play-Doh—This squishy toy was actually invented as a wallpaper cleaner. The inventor’s sister, however, started letting her kindergarten students use it in crafts as an alternative to harder and messier clay. Play-Doh, now owned by Hasbro, has sold over 900 million pounds, and the exact formula remains a secret to this day.

Pick-Up sticks -- Even more low-tech than View Master, Pick-up sticks (or pick-a-stick) is a game of physical and mental skill in which sticks have to be removed from a pile without disturbing the remaining ones.

Slinky -- In 1943, a naval engineer named Richard James was trying to develop a meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. He was working with tension springs when one of them fell to the ground. It kept moving after it hit the ground and the concept for Slinky toys was conceived.

Cap Gun -- Cap guns were originally made of cast iron, and used rolls of caps that contained tiny gunpowder charges that fired when the hammer struck the charge, automatically advancing the roll of caps to the next shot. The popularity of Western heroes like the Lone Ranger helped boost the popularity of cap guns.

Match Box Cars -- In 1954, Jack Odell created the first Matchbox car of a Road Roller and put in it a matchbox so his daughter could bring it to school. Today, 100 million Matchbox cars are sold each year.

The toys that stick out in my mind as the favorites of my childhood include my Schwinn bike, my A.C. Gilbert Erector Set, and maybe my favorite of all, my Marx electric trains. If I could add up all the hours spent playing with just these three things, and tack them on to the end of my life, I'd live to be 100!

*Most information taken from an article in "Toy Reviews and News, July 2008


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joe del broccolo said...

How about those tops, skip ropes, skates, and hula hoops? All skills, that you learned on the streets, never got for Christmas, but always somehow owned!

Nice blog!

P.S. I took your advice, and am now cutting the pills in half!

Jim Pantaleno said...

My sister-in-law had a "fifties" themed Christmas party and handed out tops as favors. The young guys couldn't stop playing with them. Everything old is new again.

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