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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

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

Society Pages

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

HenryGeorge.org

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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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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