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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

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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
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9 Scandals that Rocked the Figure Skating World
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG, AFP/Getty Images

Don't let the ornate costumes and beautiful choreography fool you, figure skaters are no strangers to scandal. Here are nine notable ones.

1. TONYA AND NANCY.

Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding
Pascal Rondeau, ALLSPORT/Getty Images

In 1994, a little club-and-run thrust the sport of figure skating into the spotlight. The assault on reigning national champion Nancy Kerrigan (and her subsequent anguished cries) at the 1994 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships in Detroit was heard round the world, as were the allegations that her main rival, Tonya Harding, may have been behind it all.

The story goes a little something like this: As America's sweetheart (Kerrigan) is preparing to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team bound for Lillehammer, Norway, she gets clubbed in the knee outside the locker room after practice. Kerrigan is forced to withdraw from competition and Harding gets the gold. Details soon emerge that Harding's ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, was behind the attack (he hired a hitman). Harding denies any knowledge or involvement, but tanks at the Olympics the following month. She then pleads guilty to hindering prosecution of Gillooly and his co-conspirators, bodyguard Shawn Eckhart and hitman Shane Stant. And then she's banned from figure skating for life.

Questions about Harding's guilt remain two decades later, and the event is still a topic of conversation today. Recently, both an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary and the Oscar-nominated film I, Tonya revisited the saga, proving we can't get enough of a little figure skating scandal.

2. HAND-PICKED FOR GOLD.

Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner at the podium
Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

Usually it's the top three medalists at the U.S. Nationals that compete for America at the Winter Olympics every four years. But in 2014, gold medalist Gracie Gold (no pun intended), silver medalist Polina Edmunds, and ... "pewter" medalist Ashley Wagner were destined for Sochi.

What about the bronze medalist, you ask? Mirai Nagasu, despite out-skating Wagner by a landslide in Boston and despite being the only skater with prior Olympic experience (she placed fourth at Vancouver in 2010) had to watch it all on television. The decision by the country's governing body of figure skating (United States Figure Skating Association, or USFS) deeply divided the skating community as to whether it was the right choice to pass over Nagasu in favor of Wagner, who hadn't skated so great, and it put a global spotlight on the selection process.

In reality, the athletes that we send to the Olympics are not chosen solely on their performance at Nationals—it's one of many criteria taken into consideration, including performance in international competition over the previous year, difficulty of each skater's technical elements, and, to some degree, their marketability to a world audience. This has happened before to other skaters—most notably Michelle Kwan was relegated to being an alternate in 1994 after Nancy Kerrigan was granted a medical bye after the leg-clubbing heard round the world. Nagasu had the right to appeal the decision, and was encouraged to do so by mobs of angry skating fans, but she elected not to.

3. SALT LAKE CITY, 2002.

Pairs skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada and Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia perform in the figure skating exhibition during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games at the Salt Lake Ice Center in Salt Lake City, Utah
Brian Bahr, Getty Images

Objectively, this scandal rocked the skating world the hardest, because the end result was a shattering of the competitive sport's very structure. When Canadian pairs team Jamie Sale and David Pelletier found themselves in second place after a flawless freeskate at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, something wasn't right. The Russian team of Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze placed first, despite a technically flawed performance.

An investigation into the result revealed that judges had conspired to fix the results of the pairs and dance events—a French judge admitted to being pressured to vote for the Russian pair in exchange for a boost for the French dance team (who won that event). In the end, both pairs teams were awarded a gold medal, and the entire system of judging figure skating competition was thrown out and rebuilt.

4. AGENT OF STYLE.

Jackson Haines was an American figure skater in the mid-1800s who had some crazy ideas about the sport. He had this absolutely ludicrous notion of skating to music (music!), waltzing on ice, as well as incorporating balletic movements, athletic jumps, and spins into competition. His brand new style of skating was in complete contrast to the rigid, traditional, and formal (read: awkward) standard of tracing figure-eights into the ice. Needless to say, it was not well received by the skating world in America, so he was forced to take his talents to the Old World.

His new “international style” did eventually catch on around the globe, and Haines is now hailed as the father of modern figure skating. He also invented the sit spin, a technical element now required in almost every level and discipline of the sport.

5. LADIES LAST.

In 1902, competitive figure skating was a gentlemen's pursuit. Ladies simply didn't compete by themselves on the world stage (though they did compete in pairs events). But a British skater named Madge Syers flouted that standard, entering the World Figure Skating Championships in 1902. She ruffled a lot of feathers, but was ultimately allowed to compete and beat the pants off every man save one, earning the silver medal.

Her actions sparked a controversy that spurred the International Skating Union to create a separate competitive world event for women in 1906. Madge went on to win that twice, and became Olympic champion at the 1908 summer games [PDF] in London—the first “winter” Olympics weren't held until 1924 in France, several years after Madge died in 1917.

6. AGENT OF STYLE, PART 2.

A picture of Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie
Keystone/Getty Images

Norwegian skater Sonja Henie was the darling of the figure skating world in the first half of the 20th century. The flirtatious blonde was a three-time Olympic champion, a movie star, and the role model of countless aspiring skaters. She brought sexy back to skating—or rather, introduced it. She was the first skater to wear scandalously short skirts and white skates. Prior to her bold fashion choices, ladies wore black skates and long, conservative skirts. During WWII, a fabric shortage hiked up the skirts even further than Henie's typical length, and the ladies of figure skating have never looked back.

7. TOO SEXY FOR HER SKATES.

Katarina Witt displaying her gold medal
DANIEL JANIN, AFP/Getty Images

A buxom young beauty from the former Democratic German Republic dominated ladies figure skating in the mid- to late 1980s. A two-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated female skaters in history, Katarina Witt was just too sexy for her shirt—she tended to wear scandalously revealing costumes (one of which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction during a show), and was criticized for attempting to flirt with the judges to earn higher scores.

The ISU put the kibosh on the controversial outfits soon afterward, inserting a rule that all competitive female skaters “must not give the effect of excessive nudity inappropriate for an athletic sport.” The outrage forced Witt to add some fabric to her competitive outfits in the late '80s. But 10 years later she took it all off, posing naked for a 1998 issue of Playboy.

8. MORE COSTUME CONTROVERSY.

For the 2010 competitive year, the ISU's annual theme for the original dance segment (since defunct and replaced by the “short dance”) was “country/folk.” That meant competitors had to create a routine that explored some aspect of it, in both music and costume as well as in maneuvers. The top Russian pair chose to emulate Aboriginal tribal dancing in their program, decked in full bodysuits adorned with their interpretation of Aboriginal body paint (and a loincloth).

Their debut performance at the European Championships drew heavy criticism from Aboriginal groups in both Australia and Canada, who were greatly offended by the inaccuracy of the costumes and the routine. The Russian pair, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, were quick to dial down the costumes and dial up the accuracy in time for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the judges were not impressed. They ended up with the bronze, ending decades of Russian dominance in the discipline. (With the glaring exception of 2002, of course.)

9. IN MEMORIAM.

While not a scandal, this event bears mentioning because it has rocked the figure skating world arguably more than anything else. In February of 1961, the American figure skating team boarded a flight to Belgium from New York, en route to the World Championships in Prague. The plane went down mysteriously (cause still questioned today) as it tried to land in Brussels, killing all 72 passengers. America's top skaters and coaches had been aboard, including nine-time U.S. Champion and Olympic bronze medalist-turned-coach Maribel Vinson-Owen and her daughter Laurence Owen, a 16-year-old who had been heavily favored to win the ladies event that year.

The ISU canceled the competition upon the news of the crash and the United States lost its long-held dominance in the sport for almost a decade. The United States Figure Skating Association (USFS) soon after established a memorial fund that helped support the skating careers of competitors in need of financial assistance, including future Olympic champions like Scott Hamilton and Peggy Fleming.

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