America's Most Popular Toys

Winston Churchill opined that "a joke is a very serious thing" but he'd be equally correct if he substituted "toy" for "joke." Americans take their toys very seriously, and the more popular the toy, the more passion, anger, and general strangeness it is capable of generating. Here's a look at the most intriguing and outrageous stories behind America's favorite playthings. [via parents]

Bear Attack

Toy crazes are nothing new. More than 100 years ago, the Teddy bear electrified the nation with all the force of Cabbage Patch Dolls, Beanie Babies, and Tickle Me Elmo. The story goes that Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a black bear cub captured by his companions during 1902 hunting trip. Soon afterwards, Brooklyn businessman Morris Michtom, inspired by political cartoons depicting the Hunter-in-Chief's mercy, created a stuffed rendition of "Teddy's Bear" and put it on sale the next year. By 1906, Teddy bears were all the rage, and even offered as top raffle prizes at high society cotillions. Alas, Michtom failed to obtain patent or trademark protection on his creation, and soon faced a flood of competition.

In 1907, the critter's popularity led a group of bear-stuffers at the Bruin Manufacturing Co. in New York walk off the job and demand higher wages. Unfortunately, according the New York Times, their work stoppage was short-lived due to the fact that they had neglected to form a "Teddy Bear Stuffers Union" before going on strike and were immediately replaced.

Ironically, the next big toy craze had its origins in a far less peaceful backstory. For the Christmas of 1917, one of the "must-haves" was a realistic toy machine gun inspired by the battles of World War I.


No Monopoly on Ideas

For decades, the received wisdom was that a down-on-his-luck salesman, Charles Darrow conceived Monopoly in 1933, the heart of the Great Depression.

Actually, the story behind America's favorite board game is a bit more complex. While Darrow did create the version of the game in use today, the actual invention can be traced back to 1903. In that year, Lizzie J. Maggie filed a patent application for The Landlord's Game in which players circumnavigate a game board, buying properties, paying rent to owners, and trying to avoid jail.

A close inspection of her game board reveals some stunning similarities to Darrow's game. For example, Maggie's game board included four Railroad stops at the midpoint of each side; players could also land on a "Lighting Franchise" or a "Water Franchise." Sound familiar?

Testimony in a 1970s trademark infringement suit revealed that Darrow had likely seen one or more versions of The Landlord Game prior to approaching Parker Brothers with his rendition. After initially rejecting the game as "too complicated," Parker Brothers bought the rights to Darrow's version of the game in 1935 and, later, to Maggie's as well, although the company continues offer sole credit Darrow.

Ironically, although today we see Monopoly as a celebration of business, Maggie viewed The Landlord's Game as an indictment of greedy capitalists

Credit: Jake Setlak

The Jig is Up

Monopoly wasn’t the first craze to hit Depression-era toy stores. That honor goes to the humble jigsaw puzzle. Invented in the late 1700s, jigsaw picture puzzles were originally hand-cut from thin sheets of wood. By the 1930s, development of mass-produced die cut cardboard puzzles put the cost within reach of almost everyone. Combine low cost with millions of idle hands and a fad was born.

By early 1933, cardboard puzzle sales zoomed to around 2.5 million per week. Jigsaw-puzzle parties replaced bridge parties. Addicts who couldn't afford to feed their habit with purchased puzzles found relief in rented ones. The coveted playthings were used as advertising giveaways and sales premiums.

As with all fads, the jigsaw craze soon faded. Despite a few comebacks, notably in the 1960s, the Depression continues to be regarded as the golden age of the jigsaw puzzle.


Slinking Along

Other than sticks and rocks, it's hard to imagine a simpler toy than the Slinky. Just a simple coil of spring steel. The origins of the toy are equally simple. As Navy engineer Richard James watched a spring scoot around on the deck of his ship it occurred to him that it might have potential as a toy of sorts. His patent, filed in 1946, covered the basic construction of the toy, including complex engineering formulas involving the "modulus of the material for shear" and the "polar moment of inertia."

But the James also predicted the properties that would make this classic toy so mesmerizing to millions of kids. One drawing in the patent shows the spring gliding from hand to hand as each side is raised and lowered. Another illustrates a Slinky stepping down a flight of stairs. The application even describes a motorized inclined treadmill whose speed could be adjusted to allow the toy to march in place endlessly.

The toy debuted in 1945 at Gimbel's department store in Philadelphia, where 400 hand-crafted Slinkys sold out in 90 minutes. Introduced at the American Toy Fair the following year, the simple walking spring was an immediate hit.

Much of the credit for the success of the Slinky goes to Betty James, Richard's wife. It was Betty who coined the name. And when Richard abandoned Betty in 1960 (he moved to Bolivia to join a religious cult), she took over the business and expanded the product line to include the equally classic Slinky Dog.

To date, more than 300 millions Slinkys have ambled down stairs in homes (and offices) around the world.


Hoop Dreams

If there's a golden age of toy crazes, the late 1950s has a solid claim to the title. And much of the credit for that distinction must go to Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin. As the founding partners of WHAM-O Manufacturing in 1948, the pair began by manufacturing sling-shots and other sporting goods. But it was the introduction of the Hula Hoop in the 1958 that secured their place in toy history. Though hoops had been playthings for millennia, WHAM-O rode a marketing juggernaut that propelled the toy into the popularity stratosphere.

Like the jigsaw puzzles of the 1930s, the Hula Hoop (which almost debuted as the Whoopee Hoop before a last-minute name change) zoomed in popularity faster than anyone could have predicted. In 1958 alone, WHAM-O produced 25 million. But like a Roman candle, the Hula Hoop craze sputtered as quickly as it had begun. “It was born in January and dead as a doornail in October,” Knerr told historian Tim Walsh.

But there's no need to cry for WHAM-O, which went on to market a string of toys that are burned into the consciousness of every American of a certain age, including Frisbee, Super Ball, Slip 'n' Slide, The Bubble Thing, and the Wheelie-Bar.

Living Doll

Envisioned and championed by Ruth Handler, Barbara Millicent Roberts (a.k.a. Barbie) was a radical departure in a world where baby dolls were the norm. With her curvaceous figure, endless occupations (well north of 100, anyway) and ever-expanding array of clothing, the 1959 debutant encouraged girls to imagine themselves as part of the adult world. So perhaps it's not surprising that Barbie has also been a magnet for adult-incited controversy.

Given Barbie's exaggerated proportions, it's not surprising that critics have claimed that the perennially single lady is too overtly sexual and that she encourages an unrealistic body image for young girls. What may have been a surprise, however, was the response to the 1992 introduction of "Teen Talk" Barbie. In addition phrases like "I love shopping" and "Will we ever have enough clothes?" some of the dolls made the unfortunate admission that "Math class is tough." Feminists responded that this statement played into one of the most limiting stereotypes applied to young girls.

Barbie's owner, Mattel, capitulated to the critics and removed the offending phrase. But not before an artistic collective/political action group, the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) pulled a prank that put them on the map.

The BLO bought a number of Teen Talk Barbies and "Talking Duke" GI Joe dolls, then switched their voice mechanisms and replaced them on store shelves. As a result, several little girls got to hear Barbie say "Vengeance is mine!" Presumably, a few young boys were surprised to hear GI Joe exclaim "Let's plan our dream wedding!

Source: Super Bomba

The Era of Scarcity

The year 1983 will be remembered as the year that toy fads turned ugly. That was the year that the adorable adoptables, Cabbage Patch Kids, were introduced to the mass market. Until then, the dolls were handmade and too expensive for most families to afford. But when Jimmy Carter's daughter Amy was spotted with one of the Kids in tow, the "one-of-a-kind" dolls were suddenly in the spotlight.

Toy maker Coleco licensed the rights to produce the dolls (or perhaps "put them up for adoption" would be the preferred phrase), but failed to anticipate just how hot the new Kids on the block would become that Christmas. As a result, the dolls sold out within hours of arriving in stores. Moms and dads lined up for hours waiting for stores to open. Some bribed store employees to set aside the dolls. And in a few instances, virtual riots broke out as customers vied for the prize.

Similar scenes would be repeated several times over the next two decades. Tickle Me Elmo set off similar firestorms when he debuted in 1996. A black market arose as parents announced they would pay as much as $1,500 for the animated cuddler.

Elmo's fire was doused by a run on Beanie Babies in 1997. Kids drove parents to the brink of insanity in their quest to collect every one of the original 77 characters. What made the Babies especially fad-worthy was their planned scarcity. The maker, Ty Inc., retired a number of Beanie Babies each year, making the quest all the more urgent.

Since the early 2000s, hot video game systems -- notably the Nintendo Wii -- have been the most reliable sources of parental panic. A given the investment and time needed to produce these electronic wonders, it's likely that manufactures will continue to err on the side of caution and feed the fears.

Source: ejk

World Wide Webkinz

The newest toy craze is a distinct hybrid of old and new, with roots running back to Teddy's Bear, and branches reaching to the internet.

Webkinz are large collection of small stuffed characters (mostly animals) that kids can adopt. The twist is that each critter come with a unique code number that can used to access the Webkinz web site. Once logged on, Webkinz owners have access to a large virtual world where they can play with (and care for) animated on-screen versions of their pets, invite friends with Webkinz to visit, and engage in games, quizzes, and, most of all, shop for goodies with the world's virtual "KinzCash."

Naturally, kids want to collect as many of the critters as they can, which leads to frequent shortages and desperate calls to stores. Some parents also worry that interest in Webkinz can border on obsession at times.

Of course, these are likely to be the same complaints that parents made when Teddy bears became the "must-have" toy back in the 1900s. Some things never change.

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