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The Early Incarnations of 11 Beloved Toys

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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

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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

Super Rad Now

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

Ebay

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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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
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The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
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As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
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"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
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In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
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For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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