CLOSE
Original image

The Secrets Behind Your Favorite Toys

Original image

You know the toys. You've seen the commercials. But you definitely haven't heard these stories.* Listen up as game inventor Tim Moodie reveals the glorious, bizarre and scandalous back stories of 7 classic toys.

1. How the Slinky got stuck between a cult and a mid-life crisis

In 1943, Richard James, a naval engineer, invented the Slinky. A spring fell off of his workbench and began to "walk" across the floor. He figured he could make a toy out of it; his wife Betty agreed and she came up with the name Slinky. Introduced in 1945, Slinky sales soared (say that three times fast), but Richard James grew bored.


Despite his success, by 1960 Richard James was suffering from a serious mid-life crisis. But instead of falling for fast cars, dyed hair and liposuction, Richard James went a different route, and became involved with a Bolivian religious cult. He gave generously to the religious order and left his wife, six children and the company to move to Bolivia.

Stuck with the debts left by her husband and a company that desperately needed her leadership, Betty James took over as the head of James Industries. A marketing savant, Betty James was responsible for additions to the Slinky line including Slinky Jr., Plastic Slinky, Slinky Dog, Slinky Pets, Crazy Slinky Eyes and Neon Slinky. It was great for boys and girls around the world that Betty James didn't suffer a midlife crisis. In 2001, she was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, and perhaps even more laudably, her Slinky dog was forever immortalized in Disney's Toy Story movies.

2. Why the guy behind the Erector Set Saved Christmas

a.erectorsets.jpg

Because of the market pressures of World War I, the United States Council of National Defense was considering a ban on toy manufacturing. Amazingly, one man's impassioned speech successfully stopped that from happening.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was known as "Man Who Saved Christmas." (There's even a movie starring Jason Alexander in the title role.) But Gilbert was more than just a gifted orator, he was truly a renaissance man. He was an amateur magician, a trained doctor, an Olympic Gold Medallist (in the pole vault), a famous toy inventor and Co-Founder of the Toy Manufacturers of America. Most famously, however, he was the man behind the Erector Set.

Introduced in 1913 with the catchy name The Mysto Erector Structural Steel Builder, the toy was based on Gilbert's observation of how power line towers were constructed. The quickly retitled Erector Sets sold well and were limited only by a child's imagination as to what could be built. But "The Man Who Saved Christmas" (who also held over 150 patents) wasn't a one-trick pony. His other inventions included model trains, glass blowing kits (think about the liability today!), chemistry sets (one chemistry set was even designed specifically for girls) and in 1951 (during the cold war) he even introduced a miniature Atomic Energy Lab with three very low-level radioactive sources and a real working Geiger counter. Now there's a toy even a real patriot could love.

3. Why Lincoln Logs are the most deceptively named toys in the business

a.logs.jpg

Standing beside his father, Frank Lloyd Wright and watching the construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, John Lloyd Wright was inspired. Interlocking beams in the hotel's basement were designed to handle the little "earthquake problem" that the hotel could encounter. John Lloyd thought, "what if children had a toy version of those beams, shaped like notched tree trunks to build little log homes"?

The architect's son followed through on his inspiration and the John Lloyd Wright Company manufactured and sold Lincoln Logs from the Merchandise Mart in Chicago. The sets even came with instructions on how to build Uncle Tom's Cabin as well as Abe Lincoln's log cabin. Introduced in 1916, the Lincoln Log construction and figure sets came in two sizes available for $2 or $3 dollars.

But here's the strangest part: the naming of the toy wasn't a tribute to Honest Abe. It's a homage to his father. Here's the scoop: Frank Lloyd Wright was born Frank Lincoln Wright, but he legally changed his name when his parents split. So, Lloyd Jones was his mother's maiden name and Frank's name change was to honor her.In any case, whichever Lincoln the toy was honoring, we're pretty sure Honest Abe would have gotten a kick out of the little logs.

4. Captain Kangaroo saved Play-Doh

a.play.jpg

Back before it was Play-Doh, everyone's favorite squishy clay was actually a wallpaper cleaner used to clean soot off of walls. But when people switched from using coal burning furnaces to oil fueled ones in the "˜40s and "˜50s, demand for the product evaporated. Kutol, a manufacturing company in Cincinnati, was watching their sales dwindle when the son of the company's founder, Joe McVicker, started looking for ways to turn the business round.

His sister-in-law Kay Zufall suggested using the wallpaper cleaner as a child's craft item, and McVicker was willing to try anything. He formed a new division, Rainbow Crafts, and began selling the re-branded product as Play-Doh. Sales were okay, but then McVicker came up with a way to sell a whole lot more. He contacted Captain Kangaroo (A.K.A. Bob Keeshan) and offered him 2% of sales if the good Captain would feature Play-Doh on his show. He did. Ding Dong School and Romper Room soon followed suit, hawking the crafty compound to kiddies everywhere and Kutol made plenty of Doh (er, Dough) in the process.

While the company has changed hands a few times since (Rainbow Crafts was purchased by Kenner Toys and Kenner was purchased by Hasbro) that's hardly impeded sales. More than two billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold since 1955.

5. Etch-a-Sketch used to be played like an Atari

a.etch.jpg

Believe it or not, the original Etch-A-Sketch was operated with a joystick. It's true. The invention was the brainchild of Andre Cassagnes, a French electrician tinkering in his garage. Conceived in 1950, the drawing toy made use of a joystick, glass and aluminum powder. Dubbed the Telecran, the toy was renamed L'Ecran Magique, and made its debut at a European Toy Fair in 1959. Fascinated by the invention, American Henry Winzeler, founder and president of the Ohio Art Toy Company, licensed L'Ecran Magique and introduced it to America in 1960.

Amongst Winzeler's innovations were replacing the joystick with two white knobs in the left and right corners of the screen. The idea was to make the toy look like the hot new adult toy"¦television.

As for how the knobs work, the two Etch-A-Sketch handles control a stylus that's attached to strings. The stylus is designed to move up and down and left and right "etching" an image in the Aluminum powder that clings to the glass with static electricity. Amazingly, clever Etch-A-Sketch artists can maneuver the stylus to make what looks like curves and angles creating some spectacular pictures. In fact, the Ohio Art Etch-A-Sketch Gallery actually contains a "Hall of Fame."

6. Why Trivial Pursuit Almost Never Happened

a.tp.jpg

In 1979, Canadians Chris Haney and Scott Abbott (along with business partners Ed Werner and John Haney) decided to create a game that combined their love of all things trivia and their basic competitive nature. Their company, Horn-Abbott, funded the initial production run of 1,000 pieces and sold them to retailers for $15.00 in 1981. At the time, $15.00 was by far the most expensive wholesale price for a board game. But a downright bargain when you consider the first pieces cost $75.00 each to manufacture. To the retailer's surprise the game was a hit even at the heady price of $30.00 at retail.

Realizing that they lacked the funding to bring the game to its full potential, Horn-Abbott licensed Trivial Pursuit to Canadian game manufacturer Chieftain Products. Chieftain had a major hit in Canada in 1981 and contacted their American partner Selchow and Righter. Amazingly, Selchow and Righter analyzed the game and found that it was: a) too expensive to manufacture, b) it took over an hour to play, c) the best players had to have impressive knowledge of trivial subjects and d) they assumed adults didn't play board games. Selchow and Righter passed, but Chieftain was persistent and in 1982 the game was introduced to America at the New York Toy Fair.

Initial sales were worrisome. However, through a solid PR campaign and great word of mouth, sales skyrocketed. Sales peaked in 1984 at 20,000,000 games in North America alone. It was the best of times and the worst of times for Selchow and Righter because in 1986, facing huge debt brought on by an abundance of inventory, Selchow and Righter was sold to Coleco. In 1989, Coleco filed for bankruptcy and the rights to Trivial Pursuit were acquired by Parker Brothers. Today Chris Haney and Scott Abbott's little game has been made into over 30 "Editions." It's available in 26 countries, been translated into 17 different languages and has sold approximately 100,000,000 copies since its inception. Not bad for a game that almost wasn't.

7. How Mr. Potato Head became a political activist

a.potato.jpg

Two very special things about Mr. Potato Head: 1) he was the first toy to be advertised on television, and 2) he was the first toy that featured real produce. That's right the original toy came as a collection of eyes, ears, noses, a body and accessories that you'd "force" into a real potato. To be fair to Hasbro, Mr. Potato Head's creator, did include a styrofoam "potato" but it wasn't much fun.

In 1964 a molded plastic potato body became part of the toy. But back then, Mr. Potato Head also had friends including Carrots, Cucumbers, Oranges, Peppers and a love interest, Mrs. Potato Head. With Brother Spud and Sister Yam there was an entire Potato Head family, and all of the packaging carried the slogan "Lifelike Fruits Or Vegetables To Change Into Funny, Lovable Friends."

What's most amazing, however, is that Mr. Potato Head's appeal has garnered him many "spokespud" gigs. In the American Cancer Society's annual "Great American Smokeout" campaign he handed his pipe to then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and swore off the tobacco, he got up off the couch for the President's Council on Physical Fitness, and he even pitched in with the League of Women Voters for their "Get Out the Vote" initiative. Of course, he's been involved in plenty of straight marketing campaigns, too: in 1997, he shilled for Burger King's "Try the Fry" introduction of their new French fries. That said, our favorite thing about the spud is the sort of celebrity pull he has. After all, what other toy can claim they were voiced by Don Rickles?

Author Tim Moodie is a 25 year veteran of the toy industry and has worked on projects with Hasbro, Mattel, Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Pressman Toys, Ohio Art, Selchow and Righter, Chieftain Products, James Industries and many more. He's also one of the co-creators of the mental_floss board game, available here.

* Unless, of course, you read this story when it was originally posted in February 2008.

Original image
Radio Flyer
arrow
Pop Culture
Tiny Star Wars Fans Can Now Cruise Around in Their Very Own Landspeeders
Original image
Radio Flyer

Some kids collect Hot Wheels, while others own model lightsabers and dream of driving Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder through a galaxy far, far away. Soon, Mashable reports, these pint-sized Jedis-in-training can pilot their very own replicas of the fictional anti-gravity craft: an officially licensed, kid-sized Star Wars Landspeeder, coming in September from American toy company Radio Flyer.

The Landspeeder has an interactive dashboard with light-up buttons, and it plays sounds from the original Star Wars film. The two-seater doesn’t hover, exactly, but it can zoom across desert sands (or suburban sidewalks) at forward speeds of up to 5 mph, and go in reverse at 2 mph.

The vehicle's rechargeable battery allows for around five hours of drive time—just enough for tiny Star Wars fans to reenact their way through both the original 1977 movie and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. (Sorry, grown-up sci-fi nerds: The toy ride supports only up to 130 pounds, so you’ll have to settle for pretending your car is the Death Star.)

Radio Flyer’s Landspeeder will be sold at Toys “R” Us stores. It costs $500, and is available for pre-order online now.

Watch it in action below:

[h/t Mashable]

Original image
iStock
arrow
fun
11 Well-Drawn Facts About The Etch A Sketch
Original image
iStock

Even if you didn’t grow up to become an artist, chances are you honed your childhood drawing skills on an Etch A Sketch. Here are 11 nostalgia-inducing facts about the classic toy, in honor of National Etch A Sketch Day.

1. IT’S A PRODUCT OF FRANCE.

While the Etch A Sketch seems as American as apple pie, it’s actually a French invention. According to lore, an electrician named Andre Cassagnes was installing a light fixture in a factory during the 1950s. The factory produced an ornate embossed wall covering called Lincrusta. Aluminum powder used in the manufacturing process made its way onto a light-switch plate that Cassagnes was installing, and he noticed that when he made pencil marks on the plate’s translucent protective decal, they showed up on its other side. Turns out, Cassagnes’s pencil had raked a line through the metallic powder, displacing the particles that had clung to the decal thanks to an electrostatic charge. Observing this phenomenon inspired Cassagnes to create his own drawing toy using a plotter and aluminum powder.

2. CREDIT IS OFTEN GIVEN TO THE WRONG INVENTOR.

Cassagnes perfected his design and he soon won a prize in a French invention competition. However, he didn’t have enough money to patent it so he teamed up with an investor named Paul Chaze. Chaze’s accountant, Arthur Granjean, helped the duo receive patents for the Etch A Sketch in both France and America. Since Granjean filed and paid for the patents, he was mistakenly referred to as the toy’s inventor for years.

3. THE ETCH A SKETCH ORIGINALLY HAD A JOYSTICK.

This was present in Cassagnes’s original designs. He later re-designed the toy to have two knobs.

4. TOY MANUFACTURERS ORIGINALLY REJECTED THE ETCH A SKETCH.

The Etch A Sketch was showcased at the 1959 Nuremberg Toy Fair, but toy companies didn’t want to pay a steep fee for the rights. Eventually, Ohio Art—who is said to have also passed on the Etch A Sketch—reconsidered and acquired the invention.

5. IT ALSO HAD A DIFFERENT NAME.

The toy was originally marketed as the “Télécran" in France, but was later called the “L’Ecran Magique,” or Magic Screen. It was eventually re-named the Etch A Sketch by the Ohio Art Company.

6. IT WORKS AS A PLOTTER.

Although the Etch A Sketch’s inner workings might seem like a mystery, they’re actually pretty straightforward. The inside of the toy’s glass screen is covered with aluminum powder, which has tiny beads mixed in to keep it from clumping. A stylus is connected to a pulley system, which, in turn, is attached to the horizontal and vertical metal rods. These rods are affixed to two knobs. When you move the knobs, the stylus is dragged through the powder, creating a line. Not happy with your drawing? All you have to do is shake the toy, and the aluminum powder will re-coat the screen and erase the markings.

7. IT FOUND A MARKET VIA TELEVISION.

Production of the Etch A Sketch began on July 12, 1960. America soon caught wind of the toy thanks to a televised marketed campaign featuring a little girl named Pernella who hides underneath a basket with her Etch A Sketch because everyone wants to play with it. She eventually emerges and announces that her favorite toy “is magic!" The ads were such a hit that, come holiday season, Ohio Art was hard-pressed to fill orders.

8. IT’S A BEST-SELLER.

In 1998, the Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, cementing its place in history alongside inventions like the Slinky, the skateboard, and Silly Putty. In 2003, the Toy Industry Association ranked it as one of the 20th century’s hundred best toys. According to CNBC, more than 100 million Etch A Sketches have been sold since its introduction in 1960.

9. IT’S SOMETIMES TRANSFORMED INTO PERMANENT ART.

While Etch A Sketch drawings aren’t meant to be permanent, some people use the toy to create professional works of art. One particular artist, Nicole Falzone, has been referred to as the “Monet of the Magic Screen” for her detailed Etch A Sketch portraits of celebrities like Jim Carrey, Stevie Wonder, and Bill Gates. The secret to creating long-lasting drawings, she says, is to drill holes in the back of the casing and drain the Etch A Sketch of its aluminum powder. That way, the lines won’t be erased. Other notable Etch A Sketchers include George Vlosich, who drew an Etch A Sketch portrait of President Barack Obama prior to his inauguration, and Christoph Brown, who refers to himself as the “World’s Fastest Etch A Sketch Artist."

10. IT’S A POP CULTURE—AND POLITICAL—PHENOMENON.

Over the decades, the Etch A Sketch leapt from children’s toy boxes onto TV and movie screens across the world. Pixar’s Toy Story franchise features an Etch A Sketch named “Etch” who’s described by Woody as having the “fastest knobs in the West.” In the first season finale of the AMC series Breaking Bad, protaganist Walter White uses the aluminum powder inside several Etch A Sketches to create thermite. He then uses the corrosive substance to melt the lock off a door.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom compared Romney's politics to playing with an Etch A Sketch. “You hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again,” he said. Thanks to Fehrnstrom’s comment, Etch A Sketch sales rose by 30 percent. Etch A Sketch responded by releasing limited-edition election versions of the toy in red and blue. Each came with a sticker depicting a donkey and an elephant playing tug-of-war on the White House lawn

11. IT’S BEEN MANUFACTURED IN RED, PINK, SILVER, AND BLUE.

The Etch A Sketch is known for its iconic red frame. However, if you purchased one in 1971, it might have came in “Cool Blue” or “Hot Pink.” For the toy’s 25th anniversary in 1985, Ohio Art released a silver model with bejeweled knobs and a hand-carved signature (the flashy toy reportedly cost a cool $3,750).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios