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The Early Incarnations of 11 Beloved Toys

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TheStrong.com

Despite the prevalence of technology-based toys filling the hands of today’s children, plenty of classic amusements are still hanging on. Part of the continued popularity of toys that would otherwise be vintage relics—think Barbies, LEGO bricks, or even the ever-cooking E-Z Bake Oven—is their continued and constant evolution into something better. What, you didn’t really think your Mr. Potato Head looked like your dad’s, did you?

1. Barbie

The Atlantic

The very first Barbie doll is a reasonably well-known young lass, thanks to her striking black and white swimsuit and her cherry red lipstick. Barbie was originally conceived by Ruth Handler, who had long wanted to create a full-sized adult doll for her young daughter and found herself further inspired by the German doll Bild Lilli, as first acquired during a family trip. Handler and engineer Jack Ryan reconfigured the doll for kid-friendly play, renamed it Barbie after her daughter Barbara, and introduced it at the American International Toy Fair in New York City on March 9, 1959. While the blonde version of the first Barbie might be the most recognizable, the inaugural doll was available as either a blonde or a brunette.

2. G.I. Joe

Toy History

Like Barbie, the original G.I. Joe action figure (always “action figure,” never “doll,” at least that’s how they’ve been marketed since their creation) also came with some unexpected options. While we may know Joe as, well, just Joe these days, the first G.I. Joe line-up included representation for all four branches of the American armed forces. The first prototypes included "Rocky" (marine/soldier), "Skip" (sailor), and "Ace" (pilot), before being changed to the more general Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot, and Action Marine. The first official round of Joe action figures were billed as “America’s Moveable Fighting Man,” and the 12” figures first hit shelves in 1964.

3. Easy-Bake Oven

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Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Oven (first designed and sold by Kenner Products) has long prided itself as a product bent on evolving with the times, and the little hotbox has gone through 11 changes in the 40 years it’s been in existence. The first Easy-Bake Oven hit shelves back in 1963, and the little turquoise number included a carrying handle (where exactly were kids toting their miniature working ovens back then?) and a stovetop style that the product retained for a couple more decades. The Easy-Bake Ovens today look far more like microwaves, but while that retro styling may be gone, at least they’re speedy and swift when it comes to cooking up small treats. The first Easy-Bake Oven line sold for $15.95 each (the equivalent of a jaw-dropping $121 today), and it sold over half a million products in its first year alone.

4. Monopoly

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Chances are, you wouldn’t recognize the first incarnation of Monopoly thanks to the simple fact that it wasn’t too much fun—it wasn’t in color, and there were no tiny dogs or irons to push around the board. First created by the economist Lizzie Magie with the express purpose to illuminate that the classic rental structure only helped property owners while impoverishing tenants, the earliest version of Monopoly was called “The Landlord’s Game,” and it was as depressing as it sounds. Magie patented her idea in 1902, but boards weren’t made in any great number until 1906. The game continued to evolve, including the addition of recognizable street names still in use today and its eventual appropriation of it by Charles Darrow (who is still credited as the “inventor” of the game), until Parker Brothers finally bought it in 1935, developing it into the game we know today.

5. Pet Rock

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The Pet Rock may be the definitive “toy” of the seventies, but it’s still around as both a good gag gift and a funny twist on the original (yes, you can buy USB storage that looks like a tiny Pet Rock). The first Pet Rock was created by ad exec Gary Dahl as a jokey rebuttal to his friends’ claims that regular pets were too darn hard to care for. Dahl’s joke soon turned into an actual operation—he used regular stones bought at a builder’s supply store, outfitted them in cute cardboard boxes, and even sold them with a 32 page training book called “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock.” As nutty as it sounds now, people went for it, and in a big way—Dahl eventually sold 1.5 million Pet Rocks.

6. Etch A Sketch

The Strong

You may jokingly refer to the Etch A Sketch as your childhood computer screen, but that’s as close an explanation as we can offer for the '60s toy. Invented by Andre Cassagnes sometime in the 1950s (Cassagnes was French and the Etch A Sketch was sold in its native country as “L’Ecran Magique”), the basic aluminum powder-filled take on a traditional “plotter” was originally rejected by the Ohio Art Company at the 1959 International Toy Fair. However, the company reconsidered the toy and eventually started selling it in America during the 1960 holiday season. It soon became the most popular drawing toy on the market, thanks to both its inventiveness and ease of use. The Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998 and is still considered one of the most recognizable toys of the 20th century.

7. LEGO

The Brick Blogger

If you haven’t given much thought to LEGO since you were small, you might want to consider taking a look at the building section of your local toy store, because you will be amazed at the advancements in LEGO technology. The interlocking bricks now also include round pieces (and a whole bunch more). The history of LEGO is surprisingly deep. Ole Kirk Kristiansen first invented them way back in 1949. Kristiansen, a Danish man, named his company LEGO after the Danish words “leg godt,” which mean “play well." He was a carpenter by trade, so it was no surprise that he got into the building block game with his bricks—first called “Automatic Binding Bricks”—which always snapped together in such a way that they could easily be separated. The LEGO Company has steadily evolved its brick design over the years, but they’ve always maintained the ease of use.Estimates hold that 560 billion pieces have been sold.

8. Mr. Potato Head

Blipee

For a toy originally conceived of as being actually made out of a fruit or vegetable, Mr. Potato Head has come a very long way. In the '50s, toy inventor George Lerner thought it was amusing to stick little face and body parts on fruits and vegetables, which explains why the first Mr. Potato Head didn’t even include a potato body—it was just parts that needed to be stuck into a real potato to make a funny face. First sold in 1952, the original Mr. Potato Head kit included hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, four noses, three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight felt pieces resembling facial hair. It cost 98 cents. Later that year, Mr. Potato Head became the very first toy to be advertised on television, leading to a toy boom that saw over a million kits sold in its first year of existence. The plastic potato body was added to the set in 1964, mainly because new government regulations limited how sharp the pieces could be, making it harder for them to pierce actual spuds.

9. Raggedy Ann and Andy

Doll Diaries

Created as a modern take on the rag doll by Johnny Gruelle back in 1915, Raggedy Ann became infinitely more popular in 1918 when she became the subject of the book Raggedy Ann Stories. In 1920, the world met her brother Andy with the introduction of Raggedy Andy Stories. Despite their cheery faces, the dolls were initially symbols of the anti-vaccination movement, as Gruelle’s daughter died shortly after she was vaccinated for smallpox.

10. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots

The Old Robots

Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots haven’t changed too much over the years—even their colors have stayed basically the same since they were first manufactured in 1964—though new versions are a bit smaller. (The set above is from 1966.) The charm of the Robots remains intact, however, as they’ve always been manipulated by human hands for rockin’ and sockin’. The Robots even go by the same names as they did back in the sixties—the Red Rocker and the Blue Bomber. Sure, you can rock and sock on a computer screen, but isn’t it more fun to do it the traditional way?

11. Operation

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John Spinello invented the battery-powered board game back in the early 1960s as a new spin on classic electrified wire loop games often seen at fairs and carnivals. The game is such an enduring hit that only one new piece has ever been added to it—back in 2004, Milton Bradley held a competition for the latest addition, and “brain freeze” won, putting a tiny ice cream cone inside the cranial cavity of good old “Cavity Sam.”

Update: Spinello didn't get rich off his creation. He sold the idea for $500 and never got any royalties. In 2014, when he was having some health problems, strangers on the Internet started raising money to help him out.

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History
Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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Wikipedia/Public Domain

On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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entertainment
The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

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When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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