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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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