The Secrets Behind Your Favorite Toys

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
arrow
Pop Culture
11 Collectible Facts About Funko
Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Since 1998, vinyl figure factory Funko has been making it extremely simple to gift the pop culture fan in your life with a small-scale representation of their favorite movie, TV show, or video game. Engineered for maximum cuteness, their Pop! toys adorn million of desks and have inspired a devout following. If you’ve ever wondered about the larger story behind those button eyes and block-shaped heads, check out some facts about Funko’s history, its massive Washington headquarters that's open to fans, and why Tom Cruise may have shot down a chance at plastic immortality.

1. IT STARTED WITH BOB’S BIG BOY.

A Bob's Big Boy bobblehead package
Amazon

Your familiarity with the Bob’s Big Boy burger franchise may depend on your age and geographical location. The chain’s mascot—a large, pompadour-sporting hamburger server—has become a nostalgic touchstone for many. One of Bob’s fans, Snohomish, Washington native and T-shirt designer Mike Becker, went in search of a collectible but found the vintage figurines on eBay too pricey. Becker realized he could simply buy the Bob’s license and produce his own bobblehead figures, which is exactly what he started doing in 1998. While Becker’s mom wasn’t enthused—she told her son no one was going to want the figure—the Big Boy helped launch Becker's toy venture, which he dubbed Funko.

2. AUSTIN POWERS PUT THEM ON THE MAP.

A Wacky Wobbler bobblehead of the Austin Powers character Fat Bastard
Amazon

Though Bob’s Big Boy did well, Funko wasn’t a success story out of the gate. Retailers leaving Becker with unpaid invoices cut into profits, and scores of unsold inventory were stacked in his garage. Looking to expand his bobblehead line, Becker put in a cold call to New Line Cinema to see if they had any properties available for license. They did: A sequel to 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was due in 1999, so Becker made a deal for $2500 to produce bobbleheads of Powers and some of the supporting cast. Funko shipped 100,000 of the toys, cementing them as a viable player in the collectibles category.

3. THEY TURNED DOWN A LOT OF BOBBLEHEADS.

A bobblehead of a Major League Baseball player
Amazon

As Funko continued to grow, licensors started seeking out Becker. Some were surprised he had the temerity to turn them down. Major League Baseball teams wanted to license bobbles to hand out during games, but Becker shied away from athletes and their penchant for troublemaking. He preferred to stick with fictional characters and food mascots. “I know Betty Boop isn’t going to get a DUI,” he said. Funko also vetoed offers from Disney—they were very strict in approving designs—as well as from adult film stars.

4. FANS HATED THE POPS! AT FIRST.

A Funko Pop! of Skeletor poses with his staff
House of Geekdom, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Having grown tired of the demanding work schedule of his modestly-staffed company, Becker stepped down from Funko in 2005; golfing partner Brian Mariotti took over. In 2009, Mariotti agreed to work with DC Comics on a line of “cute” plush dolls of popular superheroes like Batman and Superman. But designers within Funko decided their anime-style look was a better fit for vinyl. The resulting Pop! line debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con to a very tepid response. Funko fans were used to the bobblehead approach and kept their distance from the four-inch figurines. Licenses like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead eventually brought in new fans, and the Pop! figures went from a company pariah to their most successful line.

5. SOME POPS! GO FOR FOUR FIGURES.

A Funko Pop! of Loki from 'The Avengers'
Funko

Like any collectible, supply and demand can force aftermarket prices on Funko Pops! to climb. A Loki figure from 2012’s The Avengers that was available only at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con routinely sells for over $1000. So does Headless Ned Stark, a gore-caked variant of the doomed Game of Thrones character. A glow-in-the-dark Green Lantern limited to just 240 figures was released in 2010; that one will set you back over $1500.

6. TOM CRUISE MAY HAVE SHOT DOWN A POP!

A Funko Pop! figure of Tom Cruise as Nick Morton from 'The Mummy'
Funko

When Universal was aiming to create a monstrous cinematic universe with 2017’s The Mummy, the studio struck a deal with Funko to create a line of Pops! based on the film. In addition to two versions of the title character, Funko also designed a Nick Morton, the character played by Tom Cruise in the film. The mummies escaped, but the Cruise figure—his first Pop!—never saw the light of day. No official reason was disclosed, but some speculated that the actor rarely allows his likeness to be used on merchandising and may have intervened.

7. THEY HANDLE BUSINESS FOR OTHER TOY COMPANIES.

A Funko Dorbz figure of He-Man
Funko

Funko’s streamlined approach to toymaking has impressed companies that might be considered rivals. With a design able to go from paper to shelves in as little as 70 days and sporting a distinctive face attractive to collectors, some brands like Hasbro and Mattel have licensed out their characters for the Pop! treatment. Transformers and Masters of the Universe are among the properties doing brisk business.

8. THERE’S A SCIENCE TO THE CUTENESS.

A Funko Pop! of Vault Boy
Tom Crouse, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Most Funko figures provoke an “Aww” reaction from people, and that’s purely by design. Funko art director Sean Wilkinson has said that putting the nose just below the line of the eyes results in a more endearing expression. Characters that appear generic can also be individualized by focusing on their hairline or using accessories. The otherwise nondescript Joey from Friends, for example, gets an identity boost by being packaged with his pet duck.

9. THEY MAKE CEREAL NOW.

A Funko Pop! figure of Beetlejuice
Funko

Eager to explore new corners of pop culture, Funko is getting into the breakfast cereal game. Boxes of edible puffed corn are due to hit comic specialty shops this June based on movies like Beetlejuice, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gremlins, and Stephen King’s It. True to their overly-sweetened influences, many of the cereals will turn the milk a distinctively gross color: Freddy Krueger’s is blood red. The boxes will also come with their own mini-Pop! figure.

10. THEIR WASHINGTON HEADQUARTERS IS A FAN’S PARADISE.

A look inside the Funko gift shop in Everett, Washington
Funko

Part business tower and part tourist destination, Funko’s home base in Everett, Washington is a collector’s paradise. The 17,000-square-foot ground-floor store has oversized Pop! figures, custom toys, and themed areas based on popular licenses like Star Wars and Harry Potter. Some of the nods are less stylized: There’s a full-scale Batmobile based on the 1960s TV series that’s screen-accurate and even sports a replica Adam West in the driver’s seat. (Yes, you can take a photo next to him.) Funko staffers also host free workshops on weekends for people in Everett who want to learn more about art, sculpting, and illustration.

11. THERE’S ONE FIGURE THAT HAS ELUDED THEM.

A blank Funko Pop! figure is pictured
Funko

Funko Pops! number in the thousands and span virtually every recognizable license in entertainment, but there’s still one figure the company hasn’t been able to realize. According to vice president of creative Ben Butcher, a Pop! of Bruce Willis as the title character in the 1991 action-comedy Hudson Hawk is still on top of his wish list. Apparently, the rest of the company needs convincing.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
arrow
fun
Build Your Own Harry Potter Characters With LEGO's New BrickHeadz Set

Harry Potter is looking pretty square these days. In a testament to the enduring appeal of the boy—and the franchise—who lived, LEGO has launched a line of Harry Potter BrickHeadz.

The gang’s all here in this latest collection, which was recently revealed during the toymaker’s Fall 2018 preview in New York City. Other highlights of that show included LEGO renderings of characters from Star Wars, Incredibles 2, and several Disney films, according to Inside The Magic.

The Harry Potter BrickHeadz collection will be released in July and includes figurines of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and even Hedwig. Some will be sold individually, while others come as a set.

A Ron Weasley figurine
LEGO

A Hermione figurine
LEGO

A Dumbledore figurine
LEGO

Harry Potter fans can also look forward to a four-story, 878-piece LEGO model of the Hogwarts Great Hall, which will be available for purchase August 1. Sets depicting the Whomping Willow, Hogwarts Express, and a quidditch match will hit shelves that same day.

[h/t Inside The Magic]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios