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A Brief History of Fisher-Price Little People

Chances are, you've played with Fisher-Price's Little People toys at some point. The simple, round figures were a staple of toy boxes throughout the 1970s and '80s, and have become one of the longest-running toy lines in American history. With over 50 years on the market, the story behind these little folks is filled with fun and fond memories, sure to bring out the kid in all of us.

The Play Family Tree

Little People has its roots in the early 1950s, where barrel-bodied figures with spherical heads were seen as the drivers in pull-along toy cars. But these characters were attached to the vehicles, so they were never the main focus of play. All that changed when Fisher-Price introduced the Safety Bus in 1959. Similar to its predecessors, the toy was a plastic school bus with the driver permanently attached. However, it also came with six child passengers who could be removed from their seats. Now, instead of just pulling a toy car behind them, children could make the characters act out pretend scenarios and let their imaginations run wild.

The success of the Safety Bus inspired Fisher-Price to release more toys with removable figures, including the Snorky Fire Engine (1960), the Nifty Station Wagon (1960), the Amusement Park (1963), and the Lacing Shoe (1965), which was the first toy to feature the “Fisher-Price Play Family” name. (“Play Family” was the actual name for the toys throughout most of their history. The name “Little People” was just a nickname used by fans and wasn't officially trademarked by Fisher-Price until 1985.)

Big Changes

While most of us think of the iconic “peg” style of Little People, with the abrupt taper at the waistline, it wasn't until 1965 that this design was finalized. Before that, the figures' bodies were straight cylinders, then square, then triangular, and one playset even had teardrop-shaped People. The peg style was the standard for decades, but then came the release of the 1986 best-seller Toys That Kill, a book warning parents about dangerous toy recalls. Over the years, there had been reports of kids choking on Little People figures, but only after the toys had come apart—which was a rare occurrence without some form of tampering. If the book had merely mentioned the toy line, the public reaction might not have been that bad. But because three Little People were prominently featured on the cover, the figures became the spherical face of toy recalls. The controversy spelled the end of the peg design, but there's no question it had a good run—from 1965 until 1990, about 800,000,000 Little People had been sold.

To ease the minds of concerned parents, Fisher-Price went back to the drawing board and released the “Chunky” Little People, as collectors call them, in 1991. The Chunky form was essentially the same as the peg body, but wider and shorter to make the parts impossible to swallow. But sales dropped sharply, as older kids felt the design catered too much to their little brothers and sisters, putting Little People into the very unpopular “baby toy” category for many youngsters.

The Chunky style never really caught on, so, in 1997, Little People underwent yet another redesign. The figures were now molded plastic and featured greater detail on the face, hair, and clothes. They also had additional attributes that changed the look of Little People forever—arms and hands. With a new look came a new direction for the toy line, as a handful of figures were given names and personalities so they could become identifiable characters. This brand anchor helped Little People break out into a claymation TV show, books, live performances, and even video games. Some child advocates were dismayed by this new aspect of the toys, saying that one of the greatest strengths of Little People over the years was that kids could invent their own characters with the fairly generic figures. However, parents and kids still flock to the toys, the DVDs, the books, the live show shopping mall tour, keeping the brand very popular today.  

The Lucky Seven

Many vintage Little People have names. The seven main figures that made up the basic Play Family line included, Mom, Dad, boys Pee Wee and Butch, girls Patty and Penny, and everyone's favorite, Lucky the dog. Of course kids never used these names; they just substituted in whatever they liked. At various times, Fisher-Price had named the dog Snoopy or Fido, but when they found out that kids were calling him Lucky instead, they decided not to fight it any longer and just made that his official name.

Playsets Pack in the Fun

The key to Little People's success has always been the playset. For one price, kids got figures, accessories, a vehicle, and a building they could use as the basis for their tiny adventures. The Play Family Farm was introduced in 1968, the first “Play and Carry” set where all the pieces could be stored inside the main building and carried by the plastic handle on the roof. This $9.99 set (about $60 today) also marked the debut of the ingenious and infamous “Moo-ooo door,” a mechanism that sounded like lowing cattle when you opened the barn door.

During the Little People heyday of the 1970s and '80s, Fisher-Price released many playsets, including the Play Family House (1969), the Action Garage with a real, working elevator for cars (1970), the School (1971), the Airport (1972), the cowboys-and-Indians-inspired Western Town (1982), a Fire Station (1982), and plenty more, which have been released and re-released over the years with occasional design tweaks to keep them fresh. The Farm, however, has been their most successful playset, selling more than 16.5 million units since 1968. It's still produced today, and the modern set features, in addition to the "Moo-ooo door," the sounds of a horse, sheep and chicken too.

One of the most popular Little People playsets, Sesame Street, debuted in 1975, becoming the first licensed toy in the lineup. The playset was a recreation of the show's urban locations and included characters like Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, and the only three vintage Little People that were based on real people, Mr. Hooper (Will Lee), Gordon (Roscoe Orman), and Susan (Loretta Long). The set was an instant hit, so Fisher-Price released another, the Sesame Street Clubhouse, in 1977. The Clubhouse was an original environment designed solely for the toy line and never appeared on the actual show. But kids didn't seem to mind because the set featured plenty of cool stuff, like trap doors, slides, and a moving sidewalk. This set included Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, the Count, Grover, and Roosevelt Franklin. To add to the Muppet cast, Fisher-Price sold packs of Sesame Street figures separately that included Prairie Dawn, Herry Monster, Sherlock Hemlock, and Mr. Snuffleupagus. The Sesame Street line was only produced for four years, ending in 1979, but it was long enough to make a lasting impression on a generation of kids.

It was 15 years after the Sesame Street set debuted that Fisher-Price partnered with McDonald's to release their next licensed playset. In 1990, just before the peg body type was redesigned, a Mickey D's restaurant set was packaged with Little People versions of Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar.  When the figure design changed to the Chunky body a year later, the McDonald's set changed with it. And when the Chunky sales dropped, so did the sales of the McDonald's set, meaning it was only on the market for a couple of years before it was discontinued.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Of course with great prosperity comes those who want a piece of the pie. During the Little People's heyday, many companies produced characters that were at the very least inspired by the Little People design. PlaySkool, for example, released a series of playsets and figures called “Familiar Places,” which were about the same size as Little People, but whose bodies and heads were square. Toy manufacturer Illco went so far as to make Disney and Peanuts figures that were so similar to the peg design, they could actually fit into Little People furniture and cars.

DIY Little People

For some crafty fans, just because Fisher-Price never released Little People in the form of some of their favorite characters, that hasn't stopped them from making their own. With a little paint, some modeling clay, and a whole lot of love, fans have modified Little People to look like the cast of The Lord of the Rings, the Muppets, Indiana Jones, and such non-kiddie fare as The X-Files. One of the more unusual Little People bootleggers is musician and pop culture geek, Suckadelic. Through his website, fans can buy limited edition Little People made to look like characters from Star Wars, G.I. Joe, the shark from Jaws, as well as Suckadelic's own unusual creations.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Bob Ross’s Happy Little Menagerie Is Getting the Funko Treatment, Too
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Back in August, the pop culture-loving toy fiends at Funko introduced a happy little Pop! Vinyl figurine of beloved painter/television icon Bob Ross, decked out in his trademark jeans and button-down shirt with a painter’s palette in his hand and his legendary perm (which he hated) atop his tiny little vinyl head. This Joy of Painting-themed addition to the Funko lineup proved to be an instant hit, so the company added a couple of additional toys to its roster—this time incorporating members of Ross’s happy little menagerie of pets, who were almost as integral to the long-running series as the painter himself.


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If you’re looking to score one of these toys before Christmas, it’s going to have to be a limited edition one—and it’s going to cost you. In collaboration with Target, Funko paired Ross with his favorite pocket squirrel, Pea Pod, which will set you back about $40. For just a few dollars more, you can opt to have the happy accident-prone painter come with Hoot the owl.


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On Friday, December 8, the company will release a Funko two-pack that includes Ross with a paintbrush and Ross with an adorable little raccoon.


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If you’d prefer to save a few dollars, and are willing to wait out the holiday season, you can pre-order Ross with just the raccoon for delivery around December 29.

So many happy little options, so little time.

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