How Toys Changed After WWII


World War II produced countless innovations that would change American life for decades to come, from the rugged Jeep to mass-produced penicillin to the terrifying atomic bomb. But, ironically enough, few American industries were more deeply affected by the war than the toy industry.

Not only have designers and manufacturers of toys and games been able to take advantage of the latest scientific advances, such as inexpensive, colorful plastics; they also benefited from two other postwar trends. The baby boom – more than 76 million children born between 1946 and 1964 – offered them a record number of potential customers. And television, little more than a novelty before the war, soon made it possible to show the latest toys to millions of children at once. It’s no wonder that toy sales soared from $84 million in 1940 to $900 million in 1953 and billions in the early 1960s.

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Plastic: from the battlefield to the playroom

Some early forms of plastic, such as celluloid, have been around since the 19e century. But the 1930s and 1940s saw the introduction of many more. These plastics became particularly important during the war, in part because certain materials, such as silk and natural rubber, became difficult to obtain or impossible to produce in sufficient quantities to meet military needs. A 1943 experiment resulted in a bouncy substance that proved to be of little use to the war effort, but rose to post-war fame and fortune as Silly Putty.

But while plastics would revolutionize the toy industry, wary manufacturers didn’t take the leap right away, notes Nicolas Ricketts, curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. Parker Brothers, for example, “was afraid to change any details of Monopoly because it was and continued to be a cash cow for the company,” he says.

Also, toymakers needed time to retool in times of peace. Milton Bradley had reduced his game production during the war to manufacture parts for aircraft landing gear and machine guns. Lionel had gone from small trains to telegraph keys, compasses and other military essentials.

Before the late 1940s, however, plastics were beginning to appear on toy store shelves, often by adventurous entrepreneurs willing to play. Cootie’s game, in which players race to build colorful plastic bugs, was an instant hit in 1949 and remains popular nearly 75 years later. Its inventor, Herb Schaper, was, in his day job, a Minneapolis postman.

That same year, the Danish company Lego, founded by carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen to manufacture wooden toys, released its first plastic brick. The version that is ubiquitous today appeared in 1958.

Mr. Potato Head was also invented in 1949 by George Lerner, an American graphic designer, although it was not commercialized until 1952. At first it consisted of an assortment of plastic parts: eyes, nose, mouth , glasses, etc. .—but the children had to supply their own real potato to stick them on.

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With plastics, toy designers make 3D game boards

1960s family playing Mouse Trap, a pioneering 3D board game

Major board game manufacturers have taken their first cautious steps into the plastic world by replacing wooden checkers and other small game pieces with pieces made from the new materials. Then some toy designers began to see greater possibilities.

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In 1963, Ideal released the Mouse Trap Game, designed by Marvin Glass & Associates. It added larger plastic objects to the usual cardboard playing surface and is often considered the first three-dimensional board game. As Ricketts notes, “The plastic alone really made the Rube Goldberg look of Mouse Trap and its many imitators possible.” (Goldberg was a newspaper cartoonist famous for his comically elaborate drawings of contraptions for performing everyday tasks.)

Glass and his team of designers were at the forefront of toy innovation, quickly followed by other Goldbergian games that took full advantage of the possibilities of plastic. These included Crazy Clock (1964) and Fishbait (1965), both created, in part, by Dalia Verbickas, one of the few female game designers of the time.

The Glass company did not manufacture toys, but licensed them to major toy and game manufacturers. Among his most famous creations: Mr. Machine (Ideal, 1960), Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots (Marx, 1964) and Operation (Milton Bradley, 1965). None would have existed without plastic.

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Television targets children

July 1953: A child playing with a head of Mr Patate

July 1953: A child playing with a head of Mr. Potato Head, believed to be the first toy to be widely advertised on television. The original toy provided plastic parts that kids attached to real potatoes.

Plastic wasn’t solely responsible for the increase in toy sales in the 1950s and 1960s, of course. The postwar population explosion was another major factor, as was the rapid growth of television and television advertising. In 1946, only 8,000 American households had a television set; in 1960, more than 45 million did.

As television sets proliferated in American homes, advertisers realized they could now reach children directly. Manufacturers of toys and breakfast cereals have become particularly good at advertising to young consumers; many cereals advertised on television were even packaged with a toy or promised in exchange for a certain number of can lids.

Mr. Potato Head is credited as the first toy to be widely advertised on television, in the first commercial aimed specifically at children. That year, 1952, the manufacturer Hasbro reportedly sold over a million at 98 cents each.

Other toymakers will follow suit, with ads whose jingles and slogans still get stuck in baby boomers’ heads (whether they like it or not): “Everyone knows it’s Slinky!” », « You sank my battleship! and “Trouble, Trouble is the name of Kohner’s ‘Pop-O-Matic’ game.”

Create games for teenagers

A boy and girl play the game Twister, while other youths watch in a paneled living room, c.  1968.

A boy and girl play the game Twister, while other youths watch in a paneled living room, c. 1968.

As the first wave of baby boomers approached their teens, toy and game makers had no intention of abandoning them as consumers. Some far-sighted companies had already begun to recognize teenagers as a potentially lucrative demographic during the war, targeting bobby soxers and their male counterparts, notes Stuart Elliott, former New York Times advertising columnist.

In 1966, the year the oldest baby boomers turned 20, Milton Bradley released Twister. Rather than a conventional game board, it used a vinyl mat with large, strategically placed dots. The players themselves served as game pieces, tangling their bodies as plastic roulette dictated.

Perhaps more than any other game, Twister succeeded in exemplifying the three post-war trends: cheap plastic, generational appeal, and animated television commercials. Plus, it added a bit of sex – or at least the suggestion of it. In 1967 alone, Twister sold over 3 million copies.

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