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Toy History

Amazing stories on how toys developed

Toys have always been a part of history. Toys reflect society, culture, family traditions, history, innovations, observations and much more. Everyone likes to know more about the toys they love—who the inventor was and other tidbits about the time, and other interesting facts.

You will enjoy these tidbits of information about toys, toy inventors, toy company origins and more provided by The Toy Manufacturers Association and others.


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"Betcha Didn't Know..."...that behind every toy, there's a story as entertaining as the toy itself! These tales include how some toys were invented, how others got their names, how some famous companies began, and fun facts to enjoy and share. All new anecdotes are preceded by a *. So let's see how much you know about the toy industry!

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* Paul Cleveland of WPF Toys experienced an unusual occurence which led him to create his new line of alien toys. Cleveland was raised in New Mexico near Roswell, the reported site of a 1953 alien spacecraft crash. One night in 1955 the then 10-year-old Cleveland had gone outside to finish his chores. When he walked back into the house it was bedlam. His worried parents demanded to know why he had run away. The boy was confused and said he just finished his chores, but his parents replied that he had been gone for over three hours! Soon after the incident he began to grow and in four years he was close to seven feet tall. The events of that strange night were soon forgotten...until 1997. Cleveland, now a successful toy industry executive, was in a product development meeting when he broke out into a cold sweat and felt a strange prickling sensation. He was watching a video spoofing of the Roswell Alien autopsy and suddenly images of aliens flashed across his mind. He immediately began to draw what he saw in his head, a series of alien creatures. And so, ALIEN ANATOMY, ACTION ALIENS and ALIEN INVASION, a new line of toys, was developed. (WPF Toys & Games, Inc.)

*  Say these words out loud until you hear yourself saying, "A play on words!" At age 15, while riding on a bus with his baseball team, Terry White started saying word puzzles like these to a friend. The response was so hilarious that he knew he had come up with a great idea for a game. Terry's game remained undeveloped for 15 years, until the day he saw a game inventor on television. Inspired, Terry rekindled his idea. With a pregnant wife, he went against the odds and quit his job selling industrial equipment to pursue his dream full-time. In 1994, he contacted Tim Walsh of Patch Products, a game company in Wisconsin. MAD GAB became a Patch game and an instant hit. (Patch Products)

* When Tim Walsh of Patch Products went to help out in his wife's classroom, little did he know that he would come home with a new idea for an educational game. At the school, Tim spotted a dictionary and started thumbing through the pages. He then read out loud, "The nut of an oak tree." Instantly one of the students blurted out, "oak nut," and another said, "acorn!" Seeing the children's enthusiasm, Tim read several more definitions, and the whole class had a blast trying to beat the other students to the answer. This inspired Tim, who had already created the board game, TriBond. He said the easiest part in making this game would be giving it a name -- he knew what to call it as soon as the kids started blurting out answers. Thus the popular game BLURT was invented. (Patch Products)

VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS. While Eleanor Abbott of San Diego, California was recuperating from polio in the 1940s, she occupied herself with devising games and activities for youngsters who had polio. One of her inventions was called "Candy Land." Her young friends liked the game so much, she submitted it to Milton Bradley Company where it was immediately accepted. Since then, CANDY LAND has been recognized internationally as a "child's first game." (Milton Bradley Company)

*  COOTIE celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Herb Schaper, a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office, whittled the first COOTIE out of wood in 1948. In the first years, Schaper built, by hand, 40,000 wooden COOTIE games. Three years later, more than 1,200,000 were produced with the aid of machinery. By 1978, COOTIES 30th birthday, more than 30 million COOTIE games had entertained children worldwide. Milton Bradley acquired COOTIE and other Schaper classics in 1987. (Milton Bradley Co.)

* IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE? Pressman Toy Corporation, the country's third largest game company, celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1997. The New York City-based, family-owned business was founded in 1922 when, in an effort to ease children's fears of visiting a doctor, Jack Pressman introduced the first toy Doctor Bag. Even with this interesting start, Pressman's core business was -- and remains today -- classic games. In its 75 years, the company estimates that it has sold over 25 million checker sets and 15 million sets of chess and Chinese checkers. (Pressman Toy Corporation)

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* REALLY HOT WHEELS. This year marks the 30th anniversary of HOT WHEELS. The success story startswith one man's idea to speed up the industry. In 1967 Elliot Handler, one of the original founders of Mattel, decided to add axles and working wheels to the static wheel diecast model cars of the times. What was developed was a prototype gravity-powered car that could run at a record-breaking scale speed of 300 mph downhill. The secret to such high performance racing action was low-friction wheels made of styrene which were hung on torsion bars and soon to be patented by Mattel. Handler took one look at this new, ultra-fast car, and exclaimed -- "Wow, those are hot wheels" -- thus, also naming the new product. (Mattel, Inc.)

* OUT OF AFRICA. As a child Leslie Scott, creator of JENGA, the second best selling game in the world, lived in Africa and for some years Swahili was her first language. This is how she came up with the name for her game. JENGA is a Swahili word, meaning "to build." (Milton Bradley Company)

It is generally agreed that John Spilsbury, a London engraver and mapmaker, produced the first jigsaw puzzle around 1760. Spilsbury mounted one of his maps on a sheet of hardwood and cut around the borders of the countries using a fine-bladed marquetry saw. The end product was an educational pastime, designed as an aid in teaching British children their geography. The idea caught on and, until about 1820, jigsaw puzzles remained primarily educational tools. In 1880, with the introduction of the treadle saw, what had previously been known as dissections (not a word with particularly enjoyable connotations in our own time) came to be known as jigsaw puzzles, although they were actually cut by a fretsaw, not a true jigsaw. Towards the end of the century plywood came to be used. With illustrations glued or painted on the front of the wood, pencil tracings of where to cut were made on the back. These pencil tracings can still be found on some of these older puzzles. Cardboard puzzles were first introduced in the late 1800's, and were primarily used for children's puzzles. It was not until the 20th century that cardboard puzzles came to be die-cut, a process whereby thin strips of metal with sharpened edges - rather like a giant cookie-cutter - are twisted into intricate patterns and fastened to a plate. Source:

* THE K'NEX CHALLENGE. In a recent K'NEX Website contest, K'NEX challenged kids to determine the number of red K'NEX Rods they would need, laid out end-to-end, to equal one mile. Several kids took the challenge quite literally, but found they'd never accumulate enough rods to get the answer. So using their math skills, they measured and calculated and several hundred kids entered the contest with extremely close answers -- very heartening news for parents and educators. K'NEX is not only a fun way to build but also a fun way to learn. More and more schools are adopting the "K'NEX in the Classroom" teaching program. For those who think they can do as well as the kids, onE red K'NEX Rod is 5.112 inches long. (K'NEX Industries, Inc.)

* AN EASY CATCH. The KOOSH ball is celebrating its 11th anniversary this year. KOOSH has entertained people of all ages with its amazing versatility and tactile feel, but was actually invented to teach young children how to catch. In 1987, engineer Scott Stillinger found that his kids' small hands couldn't easily grasp balls during a game of "catch," so he tied rubber bands together to make a small, catchable ball that was easy for small fingers to hold onto. What to name the unusual toy? Listening to the "koosh" sound the ball made as it landed in his hand, the inventor realized this was the perfect name and the KOOSH Ball was born! How many rubbery strands does it take to create the energy-absorbent, porcupine-look of a KOOSH Ball? The answer -- approximately 5,000 fibers go into each ball! (OddzOn Products)

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* SILVER ANNIVERSARY BELLS. LEGO Systems, Inc. celebrates its 25th anniversary in 1998. For 25 years, LEGO has been building kids' imaginations in the United States. The LEGO System of Play has grown from 108 elements in 1973 to an assortment numbering more than 2,000 pieces. While the LEGO collection unveiled at the 1973 Toy Fair featured 19 sets, the LEGO Showroom at the 1998 Fair showcase
d 178 construction toys. (LEGO Systems)

* 80 YEARS YOUNG. LINCOLN LOGS will celebrate its 82nd birthday this year! They were designed and developed in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, son of one of America's most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. The younger Wright conceived his idea for LINCOLN LOGS when he was traveling with his father in Tokyo and became inspired by the construction techniques used in the foundation of the earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel, which his father designed. (Playskool - Division of Hasbro, Inc.)

A LEGEND LIVES ON. MADAME ALEXANDER dolls were the creation of Beatrice Alexander Behrman, the daughter of Russian immigrants. Mrs. Behrman, whose father operated New York's first doll "hospital," started making dolls in 1923, and her creations soon became famous for their molded heads and limbs, lifelike eyes, rooted hair and elaborate costumes. Mrs. Behrman sold the company to several New York investors in 1988, two years before she died at age 95. But America's first and only remaining doll manufacturer has not compromised her high standard of quality and unique craftsmanship. Today, most of the company's manufacturing is still done in Harlem, New York, and more than 500,000 dolls a year are sold. (Alexander Doll Company)

MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR BAIL. In the early 1920s, R.A. Watkins, the owner of a small printing plant in Illinois, was approached by a man who wanted to sell him the rights to a homemade device made of waxed cardboard and tissue, on which messages could be printed and then easily erased by lifting up the tissue. Watkins wanted to sleep on it, and told the man to return the next day. In the middle of the night, Watkins's phone rang and it was the man calling from jail. The man said that if Watkins would bail him out, he could have the device. Watkins agreed and went on to acquire a U.S. patent and rights, as well as the international rights for the device, which he called MAGIC SLATE. (Golden Books Publishing)

POCKET-SIZED WHEELS. The original Matchbox car series was created in 1952 by Jack Odell when he cast a small brass prototype of a Road Roller and put it in a matchbox-size container so his daughter could take it with her to school. More than 40 years later, the Matchbox brand is still known to collectors and kids alike for its quality, vehicle diversity and affordability. In many places MATCHBOX cars are still sold for under $1 and each year more than 100 million of them are sold. (Mattel, Inc.)

Also see:
Matchbox Road Museum (Newfield, New Jersey)

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The MAGIC PENNY MAGNET KIT was developed as a result of a chance event by Professor Robin Wilson of Brunel University, together with Professor Patrick Riley of University College, London. It all started in September, 1992, when Professor Wilson stepped outside his home for a breath of fresh air and noticed a magnetic key box lying on the ground with a coin stuck on it. Knowing that copper is not magnetic, he contacted the Royal Mint in London who informed him that, since 1992, British 1p and 2p coins were being manufactured from steel to cut costs. British pennies nowadays are only thinly coated with copper to prevent rusting. This revelation set off a flurry of investigations and activity, resulting in the development of this exciting new magnet kit. (Dowling Magnets)

* FLYING TUNES. Antonio Pasin, founder of the 80-year-old company RADIO FLYER, gave his toy wagons names that were intended to capture the spirit of the times. For the wagon that has become an icon, he chose the word Radio, because at that time everyone was fascinated by radio, the new wireless invention, and Flyer, which gave a nod to the wonder of flight. (Radio Flyer, Inc.)

Raggedy Ann, the floppy cloth doll with reddish yarn hair, a candy heart and red-striped legs is a symbol of wholesomeness and simpler times. Johnny Gruelle created Raggedy Ann in 1915 to entertain his sick daughter. Raggedy Andy, the doll's brother, was born in 1920. Ann and Andy have starred in numerous books, comics, cartoons, movies and even a musical. Raggedy Ann was especially popular during the Depression and World War II because she reminded people of times gone by. Visit the

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL. This year SLINKY celebrates its 53rd anniversary! The idea for one of the most famous toys in history was inspired by a meter for testing horsepower on battleships. A torsion spring used in a testing meter fell from the desk of marine engineer Richard James and tumbled end-over-end across the floor. James took it home to his wife Betty and said, "I think I can make a toy out of this." This he did by devising a steel formula that allowed the spring to "walk." Betty went through the dictionary for a fitting name for the toy and found it in SLINKY, which was defined as "stealthy, sleek and sinuous." In 1945, as Christmas neared, Gimbel's department store agreed to provide counter space for 400 SLINKYs. Richard James was there to demonstrate the toy to a crowd of shoppers and within 90 minutes all 400 SLINKYs were sold. (James Industries)

* PUTTY IN YOUR HANDS. More than 230 million eggs of SILLY PUTTY have been sold since 1950 -- that's more than 3,000 tons! Over the years, SILLY PUTTY has been put to some unusual uses: The astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission carried SILLY PUTTY into space with them to alleviate boredom and to help fasten down tools during the weightless period. Many athletes including baseball, football and tennis players, use SILLY PUTTY to strengthen their grip and SILLY PUTTY is recommended by many therapists as an ideal stress reliever because of the calming effect it can have on your nerves. (Binney & Smith, Inc.)

* LOUD AND CLEAR. The SUPERSONIC EAR has had some unusual uses as reported by some very satisfied consumers. The SUPERSONIC EAR was once used to determine if a cat had fallen into a well. When the faint "meow" was picked up by the directional microphone, Tabby's presence was confirmed, and she was plucked from the well in one piece. One gentleman used the SUPERSONIC EAR to locate a family of skunks that had taken up residence under his floorboards. Rather than tear apart the entire floor, this clever man used the SUPERSONIC EAR to locate the exact position of the skunks, saving him time, money and a lot of hard labor! (Wild Planet Toys)

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THEODORE ROOSEVELT'S NAMESAKE. Legend has it that on a hunting trip in November 1902, President Roosevelt refused to shoot a captured bear, which had been tied up by the President's party for him, calling it "unsportsman-like" to shoot a defenseless animal. The incident became immortalized in newspaper accounts and political cartoons across the country. At about the same time, Morris Michtom was displaying two toy bears in his shop's store window. After reading accounts of the President's hunting trip, he decided to write to Roosevelt and ask his permission to name the new toys "Teddy's Bears." Permission was granted and the stuffed toys were an overwhelming success. By 1907, the demand for the teddy bear was so brisk that Michtom moved his store and founded the Ideal Toy & Novelty Company. Meanwhile, in Germany, Margarete Steiff introduced her new stuffed bear creation at the 1903 Leipzig Toy Fair. An American buyer noticed the bear and ordered several thousand. According to the Steiff Company, their teddies were used as table decorations at the wedding of President Roosevelt's daughter, Alice. ("The Teddy Bear Catalog," by Peggy & Alan Bialosky) and (Steiff, USA L.P.)

DREAMS DO COME TRUE. Imperial Toy Corporation founder Fred Kort is a Holocaust survivor who escaped from the notorious Treblinka death camp, one of only nine people in the world known to have survived. He started his career at General Electric and then as an engineer at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. After decades of learning about the toy industry, he was finally able to accomplish his lifelong dream of building his own toy company in 1969. He formed the Imperial Toy Corporation by first launching just one product: high bouncing balls called "Teeny Bouncers." Today, Imperial's product line features more than 800 year-round and seasonal items which are sold in over fifty foreign countries. (Imperial Toy Corporation)

MODELED TO A "T"! The diecast toy car business made its debut in 1906 when the Dowst Brothers Company of Chicago made a miniature Model T Ford. The early vehicles were called TOOTSIETOYS, named after one of the Dowst Brothers' granddaughters, "Toots." Today, Strombecker, the maker of TOOTSIETOYS, produces over 40 million cars per year. (Strombecker Corporation)

* EVERYBODY'S PLAYING. TRIVIAL PURSUIT celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. Since 1982, it has made its way into more than 50 percent of all homes in this country. More than 30 million TRIVIAL PURSUIT games have been sold worldwide in 18 languages and 32 countries. (Parker Brothers)

LET'S DO THE TWIST. TWISTER, the first game ever invented that required people to use their bodies as playing pieces, has been played by an estimated 65 million people around the world. TWISTER actually grew out of a project that inventor Reyn Guyer was working on for his father's design company. While trying to develop a promotion for Johnson's shoe polish, it occurred to Guyer that a polka dot paper mat he'd just created might better serve as a game...and TWISTER was born. (Milton Bradley Company)

GAME FOR A CRUISE? YAHTZEE was invented in 1956 by a Canadian couple aboard their yacht. When friends were invited aboard, they were taught how to play their "Yacht Game." Eventually they approached Edwin S. Lowe, who made his fortune selling Bingo games in the 1920s, and asked him to print up a few games as gifts. Lowe liked the game so much he offered to buy all the rights. The couple was not interested in receiving royalties, and they signed away their rights in exchange for a few copies of the game. Lowe changed the name of the game to YAHTZEE and enjoyed great success with this classic dice game. Milton Bradley acquired the E.S. Lowe Company and the YAHTZEE game in 1973. (Milton Bradley Company)

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