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“Mighty Dolls” Turn Children’s Toys Into Inspirational Action Figures

Store-bought dolls these days have a certain sameness to them. Despite variations in hairstyle or shade of lipstick, choosing between Barbies on the shelf can be a process that comes down to such insignificant considerations as which one's shoes are trendiest. Based on a personal belief that toys can have significant impact on a child’s self-image, artist Wendy Tsao made it her mission to take those off-the-shelf dolls—in this case, figures from the controversial Bratz brand—and turn them into positive symbols of female inspiration and empowerment, rather than just “Girls with a Passion for Fashion.” The end result is a series of “Mighty Dolls”—playthings with something to be proud of.

Tsao didn't originally set out to design a line of role models with movable limbs. Inspired by the work of Sonja Singh, who had earlier released a series of doll "make-unders," Tsao simply wanted to play with the process herself to see what she could do with the mass-produced figurines. An earlier post on her website features her first set of "refurbished" dolls, scrubbed of their heavy makeup to better resemble the young girls who might want to play with them. These earlier dolls come with everyday names like Abby, Carina, and Emma, and each has her own mini-biography penned by Tsao.

Abby, for example, gets in trouble for reading under the covers when she should be sleeping, and Bella wants to study dolphins when she grows up. Even in Tsao's first foray into repainted dolls, she demonstrated a latent desire to show them not only as relatable, but admirable.

It wasn't a far leap, then, from Tsao's real-world dolls to her "Mighty Dolls," modeled after real women made famous by their various accomplishments. A post on Tsao’s website features an international cast of respected women, from Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar to Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, each with her own distinctive outfit and accessories. The J. K. Rowling doll features a knit scarf in Gryffindor’s signature colors, and Jane Goodall is shown with a cuddly primate posed by her feet. There are certainly no complaints to be made about sacrificing style for substance here. By Tsao’s account, these are “real-life people who are heroes too, with inspiring stories of courage, intelligence, strength, and uniqueness,” well suited to raise the tone of playtime. Her repainted, re-costumed dolls mimic the features of these grown heroines, but Tsao strives to portray even the older women as young girls, to reflect the dolls’ target audience (the exception being Malala, a heroine nearly young enough to still have dolls of her own).

A mother herself, Tsao says she would be thrilled to have her child play with these dolls and “have conversations about them,” taking into consideration not just their appearances, but their accomplishments as well.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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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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Bob Ross’s Happy Little Menagerie Is Getting the Funko Treatment, Too
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Back in August, the pop culture-loving toy fiends at Funko introduced a happy little Pop! Vinyl figurine of beloved painter/television icon Bob Ross, decked out in his trademark jeans and button-down shirt with a painter’s palette in his hand and his legendary perm (which he hated) atop his tiny little vinyl head. This Joy of Painting-themed addition to the Funko lineup proved to be an instant hit, so the company added a couple of additional toys to its roster—this time incorporating members of Ross’s happy little menagerie of pets, who were almost as integral to the long-running series as the painter himself.


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If you’re looking to score one of these toys before Christmas, it’s going to have to be a limited edition one—and it’s going to cost you. In collaboration with Target, Funko paired Ross with his favorite pocket squirrel, Pea Pod, which will set you back about $40. For just a few dollars more, you can opt to have the happy accident-prone painter come with Hoot the owl.


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On Friday, December 8, the company will release a Funko two-pack that includes Ross with a paintbrush and Ross with an adorable little raccoon.


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If you’d prefer to save a few dollars, and are willing to wait out the holiday season, you can pre-order Ross with just the raccoon for delivery around December 29.

So many happy little options, so little time.

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