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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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.

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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]

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