Easy-Bake Evolution: 50 Years of Cakes, Cookies, and Gender Politics
By Lisa Hix
I have a confession: My brother and I destroyed my Easy-Bake Oven. I had the 1981 Mini-Wave model, the boxy, yellow microwave style, which was, in my 7-year-old mind, the only kind of Easy-Bake there was. One day, my 4-year-old brother had a brilliant idea—to “cook” a green plastic steak from our 1972 Mattel Tuff Stuff Play Food set. After all, we should be able to cook a steak, right? It fit into the slot perfectly, and for some reason, I didn’t try to stop him. The plastic steak, of course, gave off a noxious odor as it melted inside the machine. Goodbye, Easy-Bake Oven. Goodbye, little round chocolate cakes we loved to bake and eat.
Todd Coopee, who published a book called Light Bulb Baking in fall 2013 to honor the toy’s 50th anniversary, says he’s heard countless stories like mine as he’s toured the country with his book. At his book-launch party, people filled out recipe cards with their anonymous Easy-Bake Oven memories.
“One person said that when he or she ran out of mixes,” Coopee told me on the phone from New York, “he or she would substitute mud and still try to serve the results to his or her younger brother and sister.”
The fact that the Easy-Bake Oven invokes so many stories is a testament to its staying power. It’s been a hit since Day One, when it made its debut in November 1963. Eventually, adult TV characters started referencing Easy-Bake Ovens on shows like “Friends,” “Fringe,” and “Queer as Folk.” In 2006, the Easy-Bake Oven was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, NY.
After seeing the Easy-Bake Oven in the hall of fame, Coopee, a toy collector who already had a dozen different Easy-Bakes, decided he would gather every model ever released for a 50-year retrospective book that offers a visual history of the toy. LightBulb Baking also delves into the history of the toy’s creators at Kenner Products, the cooking technology of the toy, how it fit into pop culture, and the gender-politics battles it inspired.
“I don’t think you can pinpoint one moment in time when the Easy-Bake Oven became an icon,” Coopee says. “After it had been around so many decades, it started to surface in pop culture, such as sitcoms on TV using it as part of the story. There’s just something satisfying about being able to mix and bake cakes on your own without your parents’ help. I think that’s why it’s remained popular for so many years.”
Working mini ovens go back to Victorian times. Child-size ovens from the late 1800s—which could have been toys or store displays—were made of steel or cast iron and used wood pellets or solid fuel for heat. (These days, collectors have to beware of reproductions.) As electric ovens replaced wood-burning ovens in the 1920s, the toy world adapted, too; model-train maker Lionel, for example, produced a line of electric toy ovens in the 1930s. In the 1950s, little fiberglass-insulated ovens with brand names like Little Lady, Little Chef, and Suzy Homemaker were coveted by kids playing house.
“While the Easy-Bake Oven wasn’t the first working toy oven, it was the first to use a light bulb as the heat source,” Coopee says. “It was also first to become a wildly popular trend, to the point everybody had to have one.”
Brothers Albert, Philip, and Joseph Steiner, who owned a Cincinnati company that made soap and other sundries, founded Kenner Products in 1947, when one of the brothers had an a-ha moment. The legend goes he saw a kid on the street playing with a standard bubble wand, and got a vision of a gun that shot bubbles, which turned into Kenner’s first toy, the Bubble-Matic Gun.
By the early 1960s, Kenner had become a leading toy manufacturer, with salesmen all over the United States. The executives at Kenner “had an operating principal to make toys that allowed kids to do the same things they saw adults do,” Coopee says. “For example, they made a lot of construction toys, like the Girder and Panel building sets. Mixing and baking a cake would be another example of that.
“Kenner also, at the risk of sounding cliché, really wanted their employees to think outside the box,” he continues. “They believed that anyone could come up with a great idea for a toy. So they would have these brainstorming meetings where anyone from the company could attend and pitch an idea. That’s how the Easy-Bake Oven came about.”
In this case, the “anyone” in question was a salesman named Norman Shapiro, who demonstrated toys in the flagship Macy’s store on Herald Square in New York City. Walking outside the store, he “had a stroke of inspiration when he saw a pretzel vendor on the street. His idea was to make a pretzel oven for kids. The Steiners loved his pitch, but according to my research, the thought of making a pretzel oven was quickly replaced with an oven that made cakes and cookies.”
At that point, electric toy ovens didn’t have the best track record for safety, so Kenner’s creative team had to consider how to overcome parents’ legitimate fears.
“Kenner’s other stroke of genius was to use incandescent light bulbs as the heating source,” Coopee says. “By using conventional light bulbs, something kids were around every day, they were able to convince parents the toy was safe—even though it got up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit inside the oven, which is a pretty standard baking temperature. Kenner wanted to call it the Safety-Bake Oven, but one of the regulatory bodies in charge of print and radio advertising told them, ‘No, you can’t do that, because it implies a safety track record you haven’t achieved yet.’”
In his obituaries, Kenner designer Ronald Howes, not Norman Shapiro, has been credited as the inventor of the Easy-Bake Oven. Coopee says the real story is complicated. “I’ve had the pleasure of talking to two of the sons of the Steiners, the founders of Kenner,” he says. “Through my research, I learned it was more of a group effort. The name on the patent of the first Easy-Bake Oven was James Kuhn, the vice president of Research & Development. Roland Howes was on his team, and from what I’m told, he was essential in the development of the mixes and mix sets.”
The Easy-Bake Oven debuted in November 1963, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. “The first Easy-Bake Oven didn’t look like much of an oven,” Coopee says. “It was this box that came in turquoise or pale yellow, and a handle on the top. It had a slot that you’d push the pan into, and then a window where you could watch the cake being baked. The cooling chamber on the side had this fake range built over it.”
But its strange appearance didn’t prevent it from becoming the must-have toy of the season. “They only had time to manufacture half a million of them before November, and they sold out immediately,” he says. “It was one of those Christmas toys that people would fight over in the store.”
Kenner made the Easy-Bake Oven its top advertising priority, placing ads with taglines like “just like Mom’s—bake your cake and eat it, too!” in women’s magazines and Archie comics. On television, Easy-Bake commercials appeared not only during Saturday morning cartoons, but also during prime-time programs like “I Love Lucy” and “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Just as quickly as it released the oven, Kenner put out 25 different mixes and mix sets that could be bought separately. Because they were packaged in aluminum foil laminated with polyethylene, the first cake mixes could last two years—a long time for a cake mix. But Coopee wouldn’t recommend you try them now. “If you go on eBay, you can find not only vintage Easy-Bake Ovens, but also vintage mixes. But they always say don’t try to use them.”
Many people who remember making and eating Easy-Bake Oven’s hockey-puck-shaped treats, about 3.5 inches in diameter, recall that they tasted bad. Coopee says that’s not exactly fair.
“You know, kids are not very patient, so they tended to push the cake out before it was done cooking,” he says. “If you hear stories of getting a gooey, goopy mess, that’s probably why. Ten or 15 minutes is a long time to wait when you’re a kid. But if you actually followed the instructions, the cakes would come out fine.”
The Easy-Bake Oven came out in a time when America was in love with technology, particularly appliances and other innovations that made day-to-day chores faster and easier. Thanks to electric freezer-refrigerators, frozen dinners could be heated and served on a TV tray; thanks to developments in food processing, cakes could be whipped up in a jiff with boxed mixes.
Coopee’s parents even owned a bakery, but they did not poo-poo this toy as a shortcut to true baking. Instead, it was a way for their kids to do what they did. “We were always around baking, so we wanted to have something we could do on our own,” Coopee says.
“We could mix these little cakes and cook them ourselves and give them to guests to eat, as we’d seen our parents do. Whether or not they thought our cakes were any good, I don’t know.”
Interestingly, Kenner did not discourage families from coming up with their own recipes for the oven. For the 40th anniversary of the Easy-Bake Oven in 2003, David Hoffman talked to top chefs, including Food TV’s Bobby Flay. He compiled their memories of playing with the toy as well as recipes for their own Easy-Bake creations—including jalapeño corn cakes, wild mushroom flan, and ham-and-spinach quiche—in a book called Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet.
“In the early Kenner models, the instructions said you could use the mixes or recipes from your own kitchen,” Coopee says. “Which was nice, if you’re a kid, and you didn’t have to beg or convince your parents to take you to the store and buy you another mix.”
That said, Kenner did tempt children with every kind of mix under the sun. Aside from a wide variety of cakes and cookies, over the years, Easy-Bake mixes offered ways to make your own candy bars, fudge, pecan brittle, pretzels, pizza—and even bubble gum.
“They tried all sorts of things—they even came up with a way you could pop popcorn in the Easy-Bake Oven,” Coopee says. “But they always went back to cookies and cakes. When you’re a kid, your parents might give you a piece of pizza for dinner. But they might not give you a cookie or cake, especially one or three you can make and eat when they’re not around.”
In 1967, four years after the Easy-Bake debuted, General Mills acquired Kenner Products, and immediately saw the cross-branding opportunity. The company’s Betty Crocker brand cake mixes were adapted for and sold with the Easy-Bake Oven: Now, kids could make 3.5-inch cakes in popular flavors like Angel Food, Devil’s Food, German Chocolate, Yellow, Butter Pecan, Strawberry, Rainbow Chip, and Lemon.
Twenty years later, Tonka Corporation bought Kenner Products, and then in 1991, Hasbro acquired Tonka. Hasbro also saw the Easy-Bake Oven as a marketing opportunity for other toys, characters, and brands they licensed or partnered with. Instead of making plain mini-cakes, in the early 1990s, kids could also decorate them.
“You could make a Scooby-Doo-themed cake or a pizza from Pizza Hut,” Coopee says. “You could make a cake like an Oreo cookie or a McDonald’s apple pie. They had a My Little Pony mix, which was basically a chocolate cake, but they had a little pony figure you could put on top of it. I guess they thought kids would be bored just mixing and baking a plain old chocolate cake, so they let you put Scooby-Doo on it, because kids like the characters they recognize from TV.”
The look of the Easy-Bake oven changed quite drastically over the years. “At first, it was all about the colors that were trendy in the kitchen,” Coopee says. “In the ’70s, they had the burnt orange, the avocado green, and the harvest gold. My family’s kitchen was done in harvest gold, so that’s the Easy-Bake Oven we had. In the late ’70s and ’80s, microwaves were all the rage, so the Easy-Bake Oven came to look more like a microwave. More recent Easy-Bake Ovens have less to do with the kitchen and more to do with what colors and designs would kids like, which is how they came to be pink and purple in the 1990s.”
Engineers at Kenner were also constantly attempting to improve the light-bulb cooking technology. “Originally, the Easy-Bake Oven used two 100-Watt incandescent light bulbs, one on top and one on bottom, so it would heat the cake evenly on both sides,” Coopee says. “An engineer there, Charles Cummings, figured out how to design the inside of the Easy-Bake Oven so it worked like a convection oven, and they only had to use one light bulb. Then, they could make the Easy-Bake Oven a lot smaller and it was easier to produce and ship. In the late ’70s, they came out with the Super Easy-Bake Oven, a larger version of the toy that came with two pans, a regular-size Easy-Bake cake pan and a larger one.”
Because the toy was rated as safe for children 8 and older, Kenner also hoped to find a way to market it to kids as young as 4. “Also in the ’70s, they came out with the Warm-Bake Oven, which used hot water,” Coopee says. “There was a tray your parents would fill up with hot water, and then you put the cake batter in this sealed container and slide it in the oven, dipping it into the water. The hot water would then cause the dough to rise. They came out with another version—the 3 Minute Cake Baker—that vibrated to help the dough rise. Who knows how well it worked.”
The questions about how gender roles influence play and how toys are marketed to boys and girls has come up repeatedly throughout Easy-Bake Oven’s history. When the product launched in 1963, American women were still largely expected to take on all the household chores, including cooking and baking. But Coopee says Kenner valued the bottom line more than upholding tradition.
“In the beginning, Kenner tried to market the Easy-Bake Oven as a toy for both girls and boys, which makes sense, if you think about it—if you could double your market, why not do it?” Coopee says. “The early ads often showed both boys and girls baking with the oven. Eventually, the Easy-Bake Oven came to be thought of as a girls’ toy. But Kenner was always looking for ways to market it to boys. When they came out with the popcorn popper, they showed a boy using it. When they released with the Queasy Bake Cookerator in 2002, that was marketed exclusively to boys.”
The Queasy Bake Cookerator offered disgusting-sounding recipes—Mud ’n’ Crud, Worms ’n’ Bugs, Dip ’n’ Drool Dog Bones, or Delicious Dirt—but they were actually just cake, cookie, and gelatin mixes. “They were hoping this would interest boys,” Coopee says. “It wasn’t a big success for them, but they tried.”
The following year, instead of going for gross-out humor, Hasbro tried a different approach: An oven that would let boys and girls make masculine, savory snacks. “In 2003, they came out with the Real Meal Oven, which was the first Easy-Bake Oven to use a heating element instead of a light bulb,” Coopee says. “That let kids make things like pizza, mac ’n’ cheese, nachos. It was much larger than the regular Easy-Bake Oven, and it basically worked like your typical toaster oven. Kenner and Hasbro had tried to sell things like pizza sets before, but this oven cooked them more effectively.”
By 2012, though, the only Easy-Bake Ovens on the market came in shades of purple and pink, and the commercials only showed girls playing with the toy. In December, McKenna Pope, a 13-year-old girl in Garfield, N.J., launched a petition on Change.org asking Hasbro to offer a gender-neutral version of the Easy-Bake Oven so that her 4-year-old brother, Gavyn, would feel comfortable asking for one for Christmas.
In her petition, Pope stated, “I want my brother to know that it’s not ‘wrong’ for him to want to be a chef, that it’s okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate. There are, as a matter of fact, a multitude of very talented and successful male culinary geniuses, i.e. Emeril, Gordon Ramsey, etc. Unfortunately, Hasbro has made going against the societal norm that girls are the ones in the kitchen even more difficult.”
Pope got support from many of those big-name male chefs, including Bobby Flay, Jose Andreas, Jeff Mahin, Joshua Whigham, and Manuel Trevino. She gathered 45,000 online signatures, as her story got picked up by CNN, “Time,” The Associated Press, MSNBC, “Good Morning America,” “The Washington Post,” and “The Los Angeles Times.” Hasbro responded by invited Pope to its headquarters, where the company revealed its plans for a new, silver-and-black gender-neutral Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven.
That said, if you search “Easy-Bake Oven” on Google today, the title of the top result, Hasbro’s page, is “Easy Bake | Cooking & Baking Games for Girls,” and the commercial shows girls with flowers in their hair and pink polka-dotted aprons dancing around a purple Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, and decorating pink-frosted cupcakes with sprinkles.
“Boys have always played with Easy-Bake Ovens,” Coopee says. “Since my book has been published, quite a few men have told me that they always wished they had one, or that they had one that they shared with their sisters and they always loved baking with it. For Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet, the author interviewed a bunch of chefs who remember playing with Easy-Bake Ovens as a kid, and nearly half of them are men.”
Another big change for the Easy-Bake Oven has been brought about by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which goes into effect this year. It requires all light bulbs on the market to be at least 25 percent more energy efficient for the amount of light they produce. This will spell the end of the standard 100-Watt light bulb, the long-time heat source for Easy-Bake.
Even earlier in the decade, Hasbro engineers were experimenting with alternative heat sources for the ovens. In 2003, the light-bulb-free Real Meal Oven sold alongside the traditional light-bulb Easy-Bake Oven.
“In early 2006, I went to the American International Toy Fair in New York City, and Hasbro was making a big deal of declaring it the end of the light-bulb cooking era,” Coopee says. “They were no longer going to use incandescent light bulbs. They debuted a smaller front-loading oven, with a heating element. It came with tongs that kids were supposed to use to pull the cakes out of the oven. But after the toy was released, Hasbro started to get reports of safety concerns.”
The new Easy-Bake Oven debuted in May 2006, and by February 2007, at least 29 parents had reported their children getting their fingers caught in the oven, and five of these incidents led to burns. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Hasbro announced a recall, which would allow parents who purchased the oven to receive a free retrofit safety kit.
Several months after the retrofit kits were issued, the reports of fingers getting caught numbered 249. Sixteen of those reports also documented second- and third-degree burns. One burn even led to a 5-year-old girl receiving a partial finger amputation. In April 2007, the CPSC and Hasbro asked customers to return all 985,000 units sold, just six months after the Easy-Bake Oven had been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
“For the retrofit, they issued this pink grill cover to put over the opening,” Coopee says. “I think if the oven had just come with a fixture like that already installed, that would have solved the problem. But when they sent that fix out it was already too late. After that, they went back to an early design that cooked with a light bulb.
“Finally, in 2011, Hasbro retired its last light-bulb cooking oven and issued a new Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven with a heating element,” Coopee says. The new toy, however, is priced at $49.99, $20 more than the previous light-bulb-cooking version, which went for $29.99. Still, Coopee says, “I would have been disappointed if the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs meant the end of this toy, so I’m glad Hasbro came up with a way to continue it.”
It’s good news for both little girls who want to make mud pies and little boys who want to become chefs. Just keep the fake plastic food away far, far away.
(To learn more about the history of the Easy-Bake Oven, read Todd Coopee’s book, “Light Bulb Baking.” To find unusual recipes for the toy, check out David Hoffman’s cookbook, “The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet.”)