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First Editions: The Origins of Famous Toys

23 June 2010 Things We Like 17,630 views No CommentPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

There are so many toys that have become timeless. Toys your parents played with; toys you played with; toys your own kids will play with. As I’m soon to become a dad myself, I got to thinking about those toys that have become ubiquitous — those toys that have spanned the generations to be enjoyed by different children in different eras.

Here are some of our most famous toys that have been around for decades, and look to stay around long after all of us are gone.

The First Matchbox Cars

Matchbox die-cast cars were introduced in 1953 by British toy company Lesney Products. Co-owner Jack Odell created the idea for the tiny cars because his daughter was only allowed to bring toys to school if they could fit in a matchbox. He decided to scale down one of their larger toys, the red and green road roller, and that became the #1 1A Diesel Road Roller — the first Matchbox car ever. A dump truck and a cement mixer would complete the first three cars in what would come to be known as the original “75 Series” of Matchbox cars. This site is a great resource for pictures and information on vintage Matchbox products.

Hot Wheels Sweet 16

Lesley’s Matchbox cars dominated the small die cast car market well into the 1960s, when Mattel decided to grab some of that die-cast money with its Hot Wheels line. Introduced in 1968, that original series of Hot Wheels cars has come to be known as the “Sweet 16.” They were all released at roughly the same time, but the first numbered car was #6205a – the Custom Cougar.

First-issue Barbie Doll

A Mattel executive’s wife, one Ruth Handler, noticed that all girls’ dolls looked like infants. There were no adult female dolls for kids to play with. When she brought this up to her husband, he and the rest of Mattel’s executives were unenthusiastic about the idea. I mean, she was just a woman; what the hell did she know about dolls? Am I right?

Anyway, on a trip to Europe, Mrs. Handler came across the German Bild Lili doll, which was an adult female doll based on a popular comic strip character. She bought three, brought them home to America and worked with Mattel engineer Jack Ryan to create the first Barbie doll, which was named after her daughter, Barbara.

Barbie was introduced at the 1959 Toy Fair in New York. Retailers were reluctant at first, but within a year the dolls were selling out of stores across America. Ken was introduced in 1961 (named after Barbara’s brother), and Skipper in 1964 (no idea where that name came from).

First Mr. Potato Head

In the late 1940s, George Lerner created a set of plastic face pieces that could be stuck into a variety of fruits and vegetables to make a “funny face man.” The idea was based on games he’d play with his sisters involving creating funny characters out of food. When Lerner shopped the “funny face” pieces around in 1950, it was rejected by nearly every company due to wartime food rationing making the act of playing with food seem wasteful and irresponsible. Lerner convinced a cereal company to buy the pieces and put them in the box as premiums.

Then, in 1951, textile manufacturers Hassenfield Brothers (which would later become Hasbro) saw the product, liked what they saw and decided to buy the license from Lerner as well as to pay the cereal company to stop production. The newly dubbed Mr. Potato Head debuted in May 1952 and was a rousing success. It was such a success that it became the first toy advertised on television, as well as the first toy that marketed directly to children as opposed to their parents.

At first, only the plastic face/hair/hands/feet pieces were included. Parents had to supply the potatoes for their new child’s toy. I guess rotting Mr. Potato Head corpses in kids’ rooms was a less than ideal situation, so Hasbro started including molded plastic potato bodies for the first time in 1964. Read more about Potato Head’s history here.

G.I. Joe Set 1

The original release of G.I. Joe action figures was a direct result of the popularity of Barbie. Hasbro reasoned that if girls loved to play with a female doll, then boys would love to play with a guy doll. However, since boys are awesome, they want to play with something badass — and dolls are the exact opposite of badass. So Hasbro coined the term “action figure” and released the original, four figure assortment of G.I .Joe “action figures” in 1964.

Each of those first four figures represented one branch of the military. The concept would change to the “G.I. Joe Adventure Team” in the 1970s in order to de-emphasize the military angle. (I guess mercenaries-for-hire is a more acceptable angle.) Then, in the mid 1980s, the line would be gloriously reborn as 3 3/4″ figures and dubbed “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero,” once again coming full circle and being all about the military, laser guns and blowing stuff up.

The First Comic Book: The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck

The first comic book known to be printed in America was “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” in 1842. It was a 40-page hardback, measuring about 8.5″ x 11″, and it was an American printing of a French comic, containing illustrated comic stories.

The “modern” format of comic books began with a comic called “Famous Funnies.” Eastern Color Group published “Famous Funnies: A Carnival of Comics” in 1933. This book was, for the most part, given away as a premium in department stores. Then, in 1934, Eastern Color Group would release Famous Funnies #1, which would contain some original comic strips and be sold through retail outlets for 10 cents. Its popularity sparked a boom that is now called the Platinum Age of Comics.

Pez Candies and Dispensers

Eduard Haas invented Pez in Vienna, Austria in 1927. The name comes from the first, middle and last letters in the German word for peppermint (Pfefferminz). Pez was originally marketed to smokers to freshen their breath, so it stands to reason that the first Pez dispenser in 1947 looked like a cigarette lighter. In 1948, the dispenser changed to the taller, plastic shape we are familiar with today, but they still had a head similar to a cigarette lighter.

In 1952, a Pez executive, Curtis Allina, came up with the idea of putting character heads on the Pez dispensers. Some of the first characters used were Popeye, Santa and several different Disney characters (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, etc).

Peck and Snyder Baseball Card

The earliest known American baseball card was distributed in 1869. It was known as the Peck & Snyder Cincinnati Red Stockings card, and it features a picture of America’s first baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. Peck & Snyder was a major baseball equipment manufacturer and this card was a way to advertise their business. On the back of the card was an advertisement for Peck & Snyder products.

But the Peck & Snyder card was just one card. The first official set of American baseball cards was released in 1886 by Old Judge cigarettes. The set features the famous players of the time in a sepia-toned print derived from a woodcutting. On the back of the cards were advertisements for Old Judge cigarettes.

Honestly, when I started to research this, I thought the infamous 1910 Honus Wagner card, by the American Tobacco Company, was the first baseball card. Apparently, I was wrong. And that never happens.

This piece originally appeared, in different form, in the Cavalcade of Awesome blog. Go read it, and learn what happens when you watch all four original “Karate Kid” movies in a single day.

Paxton Holley


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