The Early Incarnations of 11 Beloved Toys
Despite the prevalence of technology-based toys filling the hands of today’s children, plenty of classic amusements are still hanging on. Part of the continued popularity of toys that would otherwise be vintage relics—think Barbies, LEGO bricks, or even the ever-cooking E-Z Bake Oven—is their continued and constant evolution into something better. What, you didn’t really think your Mr. Potato Head looked like your dad’s, did you?
The very first Barbie doll is a reasonably well-known young lass, thanks to her striking black and white swimsuit and her cherry red lipstick. Barbie was originally conceived by Ruth Handler, who had long wanted to create a full-sized adult doll for her young daughter and found herself further inspired by the German doll Bild Lilli, as first acquired during a family trip. Handler and engineer Jack Ryan reconfigured the doll for kid-friendly play, renamed it Barbie after her daughter Barbara, and introduced it at the American International Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959. While the blonde version of the first Barbie might be the most recognizable, the inaugural doll was available as either a blonde or a brunette.
2. G.I. Joe
Like Barbie, the original G.I. Joe action figure (always “action figure,” never “doll,” at least that’s how they’ve been marketed since their creation) also came with some unexpected options. While we may know Joe as, well, just Joe these days, the first G.I. Joe line-up included representation for all four branches of the American armed forces. The first prototypes included "Rocky" (marine/soldier), "Skip" (sailor), and "Ace" (pilot), before being changed to the more general Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot, and Action Marine. The first official round of Joe action figures were billed as “America’s Moveable Fighting Man,” and the 12” figures first hit shelves in 1964.
3. Easy-Bake Oven
Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven (first designed and sold by Kenner Products) has long prided itself as a product bent on evolving with the times, and the little hotbox has gone through 11 changes in the 40 years it’s been in existence. The first Easy-Bake Oven hit shelves back in 1963, and the little turquoise number included a carrying handle (where exactly were kids toting their miniature working ovens back then?) and a stovetop style that the product retained for a couple more decades. The Easy-Bake Ovens today look far more like microwaves, but while that retro styling may be gone, at least they’re speedy and swift when it comes to cooking up small treats. The first Easy-Bake Oven line sold for $15.95 each (the equivalent of a jaw-dropping $121 today), and it sold over half a million products in its first year alone.
Chances are, you wouldn’t recognize the first incarnation of Monopoly thanks to the simple fact that it wasn’t too much fun—it wasn’t in color, and there were no tiny dogs or irons to push around the board. First created by the economist Lizzie Magie with the express purpose to illuminate that the classic rental structure only helped property owners while impoverishing tenants, the earliest version of Monopoly was called “The Landlord’s Game,” and it was as depressing as it sounds. Magie patented her idea in 1902, but boards weren’t made in any great number until 1906. The game continued to evolve, including the addition of recognizable street names still in use today and its eventual appropriation of it by Charles Darrow (who is still credited as the “inventor” of the game), until Parker Brothers finally bought it in 1935, developing it into the game we know today.
5. Pet Rock
The Pet Rock may be the definitive “toy” of the seventies, but it’s still around as both a good gag gift and a funny twist on the original (yes, you can buy USB storage that looks like a tiny Pet Rock). The first Pet Rock was created by ad exec Gary Dahl as a jokey rebuttal to his friends’ claims that regular pets were too darn hard to care for. Dahl’s joke soon turned into an actual operation—he used regular stones bought at a builder’s supply store, outfitted them in cute cardboard boxes, and even sold them with a 32 page training book called “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock.” As nutty as it sounds now, people went for it, and in a big way—Dahl eventually sold 1.5 million Pet Rocks.
6. Etch A Sketch
You may jokingly refer to the Etch A Sketch as your childhood computer screen, but that’s as close an explanation as we can offer for the '60s toy. Invented by Andre Cassagnes sometime in the 1950s (Cassagnes was French and the Etch A Sketch was sold in its native country as “L’Ecran Magique”), the basic aluminum powder-filled take on a traditional “plotter” was originally rejected by the Ohio Art Company at the 1959 International Toy Fair. However, the company reconsidered the toy and eventually started selling it in America during the 1960 holiday season. It soon became the most popular drawing toy on the market, thanks to both its inventiveness and ease of use. The Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998 and is still considered one of the most recognizable toys of the 20th century.
If you haven’t given much thought to LEGO since you were small, you might want to consider taking a look at the building section of your local toy store, because you will be amazed at the advancements in LEGO technology. The interlocking bricks now also include round pieces (and a whole bunch more). The history of LEGO is surprisingly deep. Ole Kirk Kristiansen first invented them way back in 1949. Kristiansen, a Danish man, named his company LEGO after the Danish words “leg godt,” which mean “play well." He was a carpenter by trade, so it was no surprise that he got into the building block game with his bricks—first called “Automatic Binding Bricks”—which always snapped together in such a way that they could easily be separated. The LEGO Company has steadily evolved its brick design over the years, but they’ve always maintained the ease of use.Estimates hold that 560 billion pieces have been sold.
8. Mr. Potato Head
For a toy originally conceived of as being actually made out of a fruit or vegetable, Mr. Potato Head has come a very long way. In the '50s, toy inventor George Lerner thought it was amusing to stick little face and body parts on fruits and vegetables, which explains why the first Mr. Potato Head didn’t even include a potato body—it was just parts that needed to be stuck into a real potato to make a funny face. First sold in 1952, the original Mr. Potato Head kit included hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, four noses, three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight felt pieces resembling facial hair. It cost 98 cents. Later that year, Mr. Potato Head became the very first toy to be advertised on television, leading to a toy boom that saw over a million kits sold in its first year of existence. The plastic potato body was added to the set in 1964, mainly because new government regulations limited how sharp the pieces could be, making it harder for them to pierce actual spuds.
9. Raggedy Ann and Andy
Created as a modern take on the rag doll by Johnny Gruelle back in 1915, Raggedy Ann became infinitely more popular in 1918 when she became the subject of the book Raggedy Ann Stories. In 1920, the world met her brother Andy with the introduction of Raggedy Andy Stories. Despite their cheery faces, the dolls were initially symbols of the anti-vaccination movement, as Gruelle’s daughter died shortly after she was vaccinated for smallpox.
10. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots
Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots haven’t changed too much over the years—even their colors have stayed basically the same since they were first manufactured in 1964—though new versions are a bit smaller. (The set above is from 1966.) The charm of the Robots remains intact, however, as they’ve always been manipulated by human hands for rockin’ and sockin’. The Robots even go by the same names as they did back in the sixties—the Red Rocker and the Blue Bomber. Sure, you can rock and sock on a computer screen, but isn’t it more fun to do it the traditional way?
John Spinello invented the battery-powered board game back in the early 1960s as a new spin on classic electrified wire loop games often seen at fairs and carnivals. The game is such an enduring hit that only one new piece has ever been added to it—back in 2004, Milton Bradley held a competition for the latest addition, and “brain freeze” won, putting a tiny ice cream cone inside the cranial cavity of good old “Cavity Sam.”
Update: Spinello didn't get rich off his creation. He sold the idea for $500 and never got any royalties. In 2014, when he was having some health problems, strangers on the Internet started raising money to help him out.