Who Were Fisher and Price?

Last week’s post on the Fisher-Price Little People garage got us wondering: Who the heck were these guys, Fisher and Price?

So we dug around and discovered that the original founders of the toy company back in 1930 consisted of, yes, businessmen Herman Fisher and Irving Price, but also a children's book author and illustrator named Margaret Evans Price (yes, married to Irving, so there were actually two Prices), and a toy store owner named Helen Schelle. While the businessmen were instrumental in launching the company, it was actually the two women who collaborated on most of the company’s early, successful products, like Dr. Doodle, the duck push-pull toy pictured above that was based on a character from her children's books. Also, a lot of the early success of the company can be attributed to the fact that Helen Schelle had a lot of great connections in the incipient toy industry.

FP Queen Buzzy Bee, 1959

Still, the company is named after Herman Fisher and Irving Price, so let’s find out a little more about them.

Herman Fisher

Fisher hailed from Pennsylvania and went to Penn State. In fact, if you’ve ever spent any time on the Penn State campus, you may have seen The Fisher Plaza, which was named after him after he donated a nice chunk of change. Before founding Fisher-Price, he worked as Vice President and General Manager of All Fair, Inc., a toy and game manufacturer. When Fisher and a group of investors (including Price) unsuccessfully tried to buy All Fair Inc., they decided to start their own company instead. Here's something else interesting about Fisher: he's credited with coining the term “preschool toys” in 1934.

FP Humpty Dumpty, 1957

Irving Price

The most interesting thing I could dig up about Irving Price is that his middle name was Lanouette. Seriously, had he not married into the wealthy Evans family of New York, we may have never heard of the man. His wife Margaret was not only rich and a sort-of well-known children’s author, but her cousin Charles Evans Hughes was the 11th Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. A couple other facts about Irving: He had a fairly long career as an executive with Woolworth before retiring young and getting himself elected Mayor of East Aurora, New York! But it was really his cash that helped start Fisher-Price, and for that, the world will be forever grateful.

FP Sports Car, 1959

FP Perky Pot, 1958

FP Play Family Farm, 1968

FP Play Family Sesame Street, 1975

FP Little People McDonald's Restaurant, 1990

Have a favorite Fisher-Price toy? Let us know in the comments below!

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Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
'Eat Lead!': When Activists Hacked Talking Barbie
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

With his familiar green fatigues and grenade clipped to his chest, G.I. Joe platoon leader Duke appeared carved from granite, not plastic. The 12-inch action figure was part of Hasbro’s Hall of Fame series, a premium-format figure released in 1993. Press his chest and the military specialist’s voice box would be activated, allowing Duke to shout a series of commands or threats.

But for a number of boys who unwrapped him on Christmas Day 1993, Duke appeared to be in no mood for conflict. When pressed to speak, he would instead exclaim, “Let’s go shopping!”

At the same time, parents who had gifted their children with Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie—which was also equipped with a voice chip—were equally confused. Instead of talking about clothes or Corvettes, the Barbies sounded like they had been gargling gravel. “Eat lead, Cobra!” shouted one. “Vengeance is mine!”

Families were not amused: The dolls weren't cheap—each had a $40 to $50 price tag. After examining the box for any signs of tampering, some parents came across a small leaflet that helped explain the toys’ out-of-character speeches. A group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization was taking responsibility for the switch. The goal of their stunt was to reframe the conversation over gender roles in America.

 
 

Since she first hit shelves in 1959, Barbie has transcended her boxed-in identity as mere toy store inventory to become an avatar for girls looking for a role model. (At one point, the doll received 20,000 fan letters a week.) The size of her waist, her job skills, her Malibu beach house—all of it has been commandeered by social anthropologists looking to see whether her influence is enriching young girls' lives or offering dispiriting, stereotyped notions of femininity.

That debate took a turn for the worse in 1992, when Mattel released a teenaged variation of the doll that exclaimed “math class is tough!” Women’s groups were outraged, believing that Barbie was falling victim to harmful tropes that put a ceiling on both her intellect and that of her pre-teen consumers.

Though the phrase was just one of 270 the doll could utter at random—others included “I love school, don’t you?”—it received the brunt of media attention, including demands to recall the dolls. (Mattel apologized, but did not pull the dolls off shelves.)

The debate over whether Barbie had social responsibilities caught the attention of Igor Vamos, a student of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Vamos was intrigued by the idea of “cultural jamming,” a kind of analog hacking that upended conventional ideas to create controversy. If Barbie taught passivity and sexism with her complaints of math being hard, then perhaps she should be given a different script.

Vamos bought several dozen Teen Talk Barbies and Talking Duke figures from toy stores in California and New York. He and several other “operatives” dismantled the toys, performing a crude surgery that allowed them to switch the voice boxes buried in their bodies. Volunteers would use a knife to cut into the dolls' plastic skin, then modify the transistor of the Joe’s voice chip so it would fit into Barbie’s comparatively slimmer torso.

A screenshot of a G.I. Joe Talking Duke figure

21solo, YouTube

After repackaging the dolls, the team “shop-dropped,” surreptitiously restocking them on toy shelves in Albany, San Diego, and Walnut Creek, California. Each box had a piece of paper encouraging disgruntled parents to reach out to the media after discovering the toys weren’t gender-conforming. To speed things along, they also told friends to buy the dolls and make the calls. Then they waited.

Within weeks, adults confused by their child’s new toys did exactly what the B.L.O. suggested, telling local news affiliates that their Barbie was shouting attack commands and informing kids that “dead men tell no lies.” Duke, meanwhile, rebuffed war strategy, preferring to “plan our dream wedding.”

The ensuing media coverage is exactly what Vamos was hoping for. Calling the toys' gender roles “stone-aged,” the B.L.O. claimed responsibility, stayed anonymous, and hoped it would cause consumers to rethink the propagation of violence by male toys and the relatively vacuous ambitions of Barbie.

"Obviously, our goal is to get media attention,” a B.L.O. spokesperson told The New York Times. “We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism."

Vamos even supervised production of a video that used Barbie to spell out their mission. “They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes,” the toy said. “Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.”

 
 

While most considered the act harmless—the toys could, after all, be exchanged for an unadulterated version—not everyone believed the B.L.O.’s mission played fair. "I've got a very strong negative feeling about terrorist acts against children, no matter how noble the motives," Joanne Oppenheim, a toy industry advocate, told the Times. “It's a cheap shot, and it's unfair to the kids.” Others protested the general idea of product tampering.

Mattel and Hasbro were less rattled. Wayne Charness, then-vice president of Hasbro, called it “kind of ridiculous,” while Mattel refrained from commenting. Though the B.L.O. claimed to have tampered with hundreds of toys in 43 different states, the truth was that Vamos and his team had performed surgery on roughly 120 toys. But the media perpetuated the story, making it seem as though the stunt was pervasive.

The story died down after the holidays. The tampered toys were either returned or bought and discarded. Vamos kept his role in the stunt largely under wraps until years later, when he became a part of The Yes Men, a social disruption performance group, under the alias Mike Bonanno. Vamos is now a professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Was the stunt effective? Anecdotally, maybe. Media outlets like Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal profiled kids and parents who had been affected by the switch, including 7-year-old Zach, the recipient of a Barbie-possessed Duke. Asked if he wanted to return the toy, Zach said no: “He’s teaching me not to fight.”

Were kids really influenced by the toys to rethink gender portrayals, or were they yet another example of the B.L.O. manipulating the media by using an undercover operative to articulate their message? If Barbie knows, she isn't talking. 

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Mohammed Baroon, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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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