The Toys That Made Us

Suggested by Brad Nelson • The minds behind history’s most iconic toy franchises discuss the rise (and sometimes fall) of their billion-dollar creations. Even if you never played with Barbie dolls, the story behind them, and other toys, is fascinating. • Suggest a video • (283 views)

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49 Responses to The Toys That Made Us

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I have to tell you, it was gratifying to find this series after having been baited into wasting three minutes watching Bright because of a positive review at NRO. Oh, my goodness. It takes only three minute to tell you that this is the typical junk being thrown out to vulgar yutes.

    And it wasn’t the gratuitous cussing in the first three minutes that turned me off, per se. I’ve watched, and generally loved, the series Deadwood in which every other word is a swear word. But that is a series (at least in season one) that has good characters and good (if sometimes horrifying) stories.

    But just a peep into this and it was easy to see that Bright is stuff geared toward idiots with no taste. And, don’t get me wrong, I like stuff like Men In Black. I don’t mind bad language, per se, or even far-fetched, slightly juvenile content. But Netflix recently raised their rates so that they could spend 90 million on this junk? Oh, goodness.

    So with that extremely bad taste left in my mouth (and I can never, ever trust another word about movies written by Kyle Smith), there was another new series featured by Netflix on what passes as their home page inside their TV app. It is called The Toys That Made Us. The first episode is a fascinating look at the merchandising and creation of the toys for the Star Wars franchise.

    If you’ve ever played with a toy or collected any, this series will appeal to you. I can’t get over how well done this documentary is. It helps that the key players they interview are so full of mirth and personality. The interviews are never dull.

    The first show is all about Star Wars toys. The second is about Barbie. The third is He-man (Masters of the Universe). The fourth (as yet unwatched by me) is about G.I. Joe.

    I never played with either Barbie or the Masters of the Universe action figures, although I was vaguely aware that the latter existed. But this might be the most fascinating one of all. Mattel was in a downturn and looking for something to compete with the Star Wars action figures. The story behind why they declined to produce toys for Lucasfilm (as did all the other major toy makers) is not fully explored. But they did decline and Kenner (at the time a small midwest company) accepted.

    So Mattel was looking for something to boost sales and compete with the Star Wars action figures. And basically they just created the whole Masters of the Universe thing out of whole cloth based on hands-on market research with kids. The marketing guru they hired (or who already worked at Mattel) noticed that kids stressed the idea of power when playing with their toys. They picked up on the fact that kids got tired of their parents and teachers always telling them what to do and wanted some kind of control and power.

    And so Mattel very self-consciously created the Masters of the Universe world of toys. And the designers and marketing guys are very upfront and funny when talking about the brainwashing job they did on kids to get them to buy these toys. One of the guys relates a trip he made to Toys R Us (or some major toy store) to check out the first displays of the He-Man/Masters of the Universe action figures. He saw a mother and her young son. The son said he wanted each one of the action figures. When his mother said no, the kid threw himself on the ground and threw a tantrum. The Mattel guy said that she then did buy the kid the action figures he wanted. The Mattel guy knew they had a hit on their hands when he saw this and was on cloud nine.

    Anyway, except for a few minor cuss words here and there, this is something the whole family can watch. I recommend it wholeheartedly. And if you do happen to make it through the first three minutes of Bright, let me know. I mean, there’s just no way the whole thing could be as stupid as what I saw in just three minutes. It must get better.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I read part of the review on Bright and it sounds like a rehash of “Alien Nation” which starred James Caan. As I don’t subscribe to Netflix, I will not be able to review the movie for ST. OK, I admit I wouldn’t watch it even if I did subscribe to Netflix.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I don’t have the stomach to watch it only to be outraged by its stupidity as a means to then write about it. That can be a fun and humorous project. But there’s only so much stupid I can expose myself to. I have to carefully ration the time. So I’m hoping someone else will watch it and report back.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I played with Lincoln Logs when they were made out of wood and Tonka Toys when they were made from metal. I also had the Lone Ranger and Silver and Roy Rodgers and Trigger figures made by Hartland Toys. Later, I did have a neat plastic medieval castle with miniature knights and footmen.

    I was a bit too old for G.I. Joe, but didn’t like him/it in any case.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I certainly remember playing with Lincoln logs, and also matchbook cars and plastic dinosaurs.

    • Gibblet says:

      My brother and I would build Lincoln Log western towns down our hallway. It was even more fun when he got his Lionel Train set one Christmas and we added a train station to our little town. Later, after he grew up, I moved on to Lego houses. Then when I grew up, I got to develop land and build real houses on my own. It was so much fun – like playing with full-scale toys! My sisters had Barbies. I could never figure out why they preferred those over Lincoln Logs and Tonka Trucks!

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I don’t think I ever had enough Lincoln logs to build more than a single house. A cousin had a similar problem when he got some plastic road parts that could be used to build complex roadways — if you had enough, which he didn’t.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I don’t think I ever had enough Lincoln logs to build more than a single house

          Over time, I lost so many logs that I don’t think I could even make a house. I would sometimes use the remaining logs, along with other bits of old building blocks/etc. to construct a make-shift fort from which cowboys would fight Indians.

          I don’t recall ever having Lego blocks.

        • Gibblet says:

          My Dad worked over 80 hours a week in his grocery store, so anything that kept my brother and I occupied probably found favor with my Mom. Beyond the original new set of Lincoln Logs we got for Christmas, I think she must have found more Lincoln Log sets at garage sales or the Salvation Army. Our log town always included a store with our little sign on the roof identifying it as “Jerry’s Market”. It was our attempt to feel a connection with Dad.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            I remember in first grade they had us designing or building (this was nearly 60 years ago) some sort of grocery. I called mine the Golden Star, which my father rather liked — we were then living in Galveston in the Lone Star state, and his next assignment was the Army language school at Monterey in the Golden state. But I have no idea why I named it that.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            We liked making catapults using the lincoln logs. It was comprised of one of the green roof slats stuck on the fulcrum of a one of the small pieces such as these. The roof slats were flexible so you could give most anything a good fling. It would have been typical for each of us to set up little plastic army men in and around a structure made of Lincoln Logs and catapult stuff at each other’s camps. Last man standing wins. I hope Jerry’s Market was built of stern stuff.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              A friend and I back in grade school days had a paper war game. We’d draw up fortifications with an embrasure for a cannon, and then grab the tip of pencil (so we didn’t have real control) and send it from a live embrasure against the other side. If it went through the embrasure, or hit some other figure, it was a kill.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Train sets are not action figures. These are serious toys. And they are toys that certainly teach you to treat toys well. It usually takes a lot of work and maintenance to keep them going. And, as you note, they can teach useful habits and skills that can be transferred into the real world. This is basically the old-fashioned notion of a toy. It’s meant to be useful, not just a time-waster.

        My older brother had some kind of electric train set and I played with it too when I could get a word in edgewise which was rare. But little brothers soon learn to look quietly over shoulders if they are go get quality-time with the cool stuff, especially if they don’t own it or control it.

        And I can guran-damn-tee you that I could have done a better job conducting that Amtrack train. And I sure as heck would have been far more comfortable with you running the thing than whatever affirmative-action bozo was running it.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Apparently I played with trains as a little kid, but so long ago I don’t remember it. I do recall that there was a song I called the train song due to mental link that was formed then. The song itself had nothing do with trains.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I’ll have to see if my brother saved some of the old tracks and cars. If so, I’ll take a photo. I don’t remember what scale it was, but it was a fairly typical scale at the time…not one of the smaller ones, for example.

        • Gibblet says:

          “And I can guran-damn-tee you that I could have done a better job conducting that Amtrack train,”

          I can’t imagine how anyone could do worse. And certainly, you or I could come up with some low cost safeguards to remind the guy to slow down. And it doesn’t need to cost millions…..an egg timer could have helped!

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, they did have apparently have a speed limit sign, but they suspect the engineer was distracted at the wrong moment. (Casey Jones was going rather fast in his accident– the train had been late when they assigned him to finish the trip, probably because he was good for getting the train “on the advertised”, and in fact had nearly caught up with the time when he ran into a train that was on loop too small for it.)

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            LOL. No doubt a 99 cent egg timer could have saved many lives and much property damage.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I didn’t have any G.I. Joes. The only G.I. Joe I saw growing up as a kid was one owned by my cousin. When my younger brother and I got a chance to play with him, typically we would tie a string around his neck and hang him from the back deck. (The action figure, not my cousin.)

      There’s just something about playing with dolls (or action figures) that had no appeal for me. What in Sam Hill am I going to do with a Luke Skywalker “action” figure?

      And, mind you, as kids we were not short on creative play. In fact, we rarely used a toy for its intended purpose, Legos and Lincoln Logs excepted because those were inherently open-ended toys.

      I did lie about never having played with Barbies before. My niece, when she was about 8 years old, was staying over at our house with my sister, perhaps visiting for Christmas. She had some kind of Barbie airport set. And she still laughs (now…not then) about the time my younger brother and I played with her and the set for a while. Instead of recreating play-talk about what tropical island we were off to (or whatever young girls did with such toys), we instead basically recreated one of the Airport disaster films. She got very pissed off at the time that we boys would not play right with the Barbies but she does laugh about it now.

      My brother does a lot of eBay sales of collectables, so while watching the He-Man segment of this series, he grabbed a bag of Masters of the Universe action figures that he had in a bag somewhere in the back. These actually are pretty cool action figures. I can imagine myself playing with them, but they came out in the mid-to-late 80’s, far too late to ever appear on my radar, although I was vaguely aware that there was a TV program which, as you see in this series, is pretty low-brow. But the figures themselves are pretty ballsy.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        I remember the ads for GI Joe, but it came out after I was no longer playing with such toys. I don’t recall ever seeing one in person. Particularly when playing with toy soldiers (the little plastic ones), we sometimes improvised military uses for other toys.

  4. Steve Lancaster says:

    When I was about 5 I got a Roy Rogers gun belt and twin cap guns. I wore them every Saturday when Roy and Dale struggled with the bad guys. When I was 9 my father gave me a single shot 22, and part of the fantasy of childhood passed with the possession of a real weapon. At 13 I got an M1 and “Today I am a man” took on real meaning. My father, the old Gunny, taught me to shoot, field strip and clean the weapon. My fingers are not as nimble, but I believe I could still do it blindfolded.

    I suppose childhood ended earlier for me than others but I don’t harbor regrets. Childhood has been extended too far in the last 50 years.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I had some sort of cap gun, but I don’t know what brand. We also had bullwhip from our time in Texas, which was no toy but sometimes used as one. I learned how to shoot a rifle in Boy Scouts, and basic archery in PE at Fort Campbell High School, but I never did either enough to be any good.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Archery is definitely a man toy, although man-hating feminists have turned it into a symbol of man-killing via stupid (and I did find the movie insipidly stupid) movies such as “The Hunger Games.” I took an archery class in college. It was a lot of fun. And a lot of safety concerns. Standing on the line with a bunch of other doofuses who don’t know what they’re doing has its hazards. But usually the only hazard was scraping the bowstring across your wrist. It takes a lot of strength just to even attempt to do archery.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          We had archery for 6 weeks. There was a leather strap to protect the arm from the bowstring coming back.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I vaguely remember the leather strap. And I remember perhaps getting rid of it because it was more bother than it was worth.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              We all got bows and arrows one year for Christmas. The main thing I recall was the bowstring stinging my inner forearm and wrist, and one kid shooting me with my own bow and arrow as I went to fetch arrows from a cardboard target I had set up. I bled like a stuck pig.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                I therefore think shooting bows and arrows should not be a group sport. One 4th of July my brother’s friends had set up an archery course on his property. Real bows and real arrows and real children using them. These were above-average children, all of them with parents who weren’t liberal flakes. Still, I was one of the supervisors and it is a natural instinct to go after your arrow before others have finished shooting. Even then, there’s no guarantee when you put out a call to drop your bows so that the arrows could be retrieved that some numbskull, caught in his enthusiasm (an understandable enthusiasm), wouldn’t make a stuck pig out of you.

                We had no casualties that day other than a few lost arrows shot above the target and irretrievably into the backing Sherwood Forest.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Even then, there’s no guarantee when you put out a call to drop your bows so that the arrows could be retrieved that some numbskull, caught in his enthusiasm (an understandable enthusiasm), wouldn’t make a stuck pig out of you.

                It was a numbskull who shot me. I was practicing by myself in my yard when the kid came by to watch. As I went to retrieve my arrows, he picked up an arrow which I had not shot as the arrow had been broken and was only about 2/3rds the length of a standard arrow. As a result there was no metal tip so I didn’t get killed. The idiot/thug hit me in the opening of my ear.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                As I recall, they had one target at school, so there was only one person shooting at a time. I don’t recall how they handled picking up the arrows from (hopefully) the target. But no one was ever hurt by an arrow. It helped that we had an instructor to tell us when to shoot.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                King Henry’s men
                Whooped the French mass
                But never did he meet
                Mr. Kung’s numbskull ass

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                He certainly was an ass.

                You can bet I didn’t practice archery in my front yard after that.

            • Gibblet says:

              Brad, I took archery about 1979 or 80….maybe we were in the same class?! Do you remember a vivacious young brunette who could shoot bullseyes both right and left handed, and was required to wear a leather chest protector so as not to become nippless?

              • Timothy Lane says:

                The Amazons were said to cut off one breast so that it wouldn’t interfere with shooting their arrows.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Love the leather chest protector. I’m sure you looked quite good in it. And it sounds as if it was…err…practical as well.

                I took archery as a required “sports” credit at Olympic College. Still, it was a lot of fun. Glad I did it. Not sure how taking archery had squat to do with getting an AA.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’ll have to query my older brother about those toys. I don’t know if he had the Roy Rogers gun belt, but he typically had stuff just like that.

      An M1 at 13. I have a nephew who definitely would envy you. And he’s pretty much ready for a weapon of that type if he had a good place to shoot it. His grandpa (ex Navy…used to captain a nuclear submarine) has a good collection of weaponry, and whenever my nephew visits him, they both shoot a variety of guns on his backyard shooting range. But in the city or rural neighborhood, that’s not quite possible without getting SWAT teams knocking down your door.

      We live in the age of extended childhood. That’s just the way it is. Aspects of it are good (or at least entertaining). But it seems to be going much too far these days. But it is what it is. I do believe there are proper “man’s toys,” guns being primary. And power tools. And (I would say) electronics. Interestingly, modern video games seem to have one foot in forever-juvenilism and another foot in traditional guy stuff. Most video games that guys play are about shooting things.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        At age 7 Spartan boys left home and spent, for all intents, the rest of their lives in military training. I don’t recommend anything so extreme, but in an age when when adolescents are expected to fight the wars it makes some sense. Additionally, the organization of these adolescents into disciplined groups I believe contributed to social harmony.

        There used to be a time when disruptive 16 year olds were given a choice, prison or the military, sadly even the army does not want them anymore. I does make one wonder if doing away with the draft was a good idea. The thugs of Antifa might have second thoughts.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I will not go into the many horrible aspects of Spartan society, but will simply point out that Hitler considered Sparta the first National Socialist State. That being said, the study of Sparta is fascinating.

          It is true that many believe a draft would go a long way to putting a little discipline in today’s yutes. But in a time when military law appears to be so lax as to let someone like Bergdahl walk away with a slap on the wrist, I wonder if the military could be tough enough to handle all the thugs and misfits they would receive via a draft.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I will not go into the many horrible aspects of Spartan society

            Someone else did: 8 Reasons It Wasn’t Easy Being Spartan.

            You make a good point, one which I have had for a while: There’s no reason to believe that the existing bureaucracy is in any way traditional or conservative. Progressives and beta-males have long been filling these posts until “Spartan” treatment would likely be viewed as making the men piss standing up.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their commands, we lie.” We made a stop at Thermopylae once while going to Thessaloniki, but I don’t recall any signs there. It’s not as narrow as it was back then.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Seven-years-old might be a little young for military service. And yet it shows you what men, and even boys, are capable of — for good or bad, I suppose.

          Who am I, a mere white person, to say what is appropriate for Spartans? It would be cultural imperialism to do so. Still, we could use a little of that Spartan spirit. Men are becoming pliable and complacent Elois. We are becoming the helots-for-sport for the femi-nazis and such to hunt and destroy at their whim. Real men are trophies for them. It would stand for men to regain their fighting spirit along with being transformed into good men and not simply an undisciplined and vulgar rabble.

          I believe that Antifa (and much more) is fed by undisciplined boys. A rabble. Rudderless despite their supposed high ideals. Who really knows what they want or believe? How much is just frustration about being marginalized by the femi-nazis and such? As I’ve long noted, I think many people have a sense that they are under siege but don’t know who the enemy really is. These alienated people with ingrained grievances can be easy for other group, with different purposes, to use and control.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            Seven-years-old might be a little young for military service. And yet it shows you what men, and even boys, are capable of

            We moderns have forgotten how difficult life was, not so long ago. I would have to double-check, but I believe most people in ancient Greece died before they were forty years old. As a result, childhood ended much earlier than it does in our time. Mankind had no other choice, but to grow up fast.

            I believe Steve’s comment,

            At 13 I got an M1 and “Today I am a man” took on real meaning.

            alludes to this. I am guessing he received his M1 as a Bar Mitzvah gift; a Bar Mitzvah being the ancient Jewish celebration signifying the point in time when a boy moves from childhood to manhood. What we used to call a rite of passage. Few today, would consider a thirteen year old to be an adult. That being said, perhaps it would be a good thing if society expected more adult behavior from teenagers.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              KFZ, yes it was, although my father quit facing east when he was very young.

              Brad has a good point about life expectancy not only in archaic Greece but up until the 18th century. How many of our grandparents going back generations were married and raising families before they were 20? Legal marriage was in the early teens and many young women died in childbirth. In part, I believe because their bodies were not developed enough for the rigors of birth.

              Henry II of England married Eleanor before he was even out of his teens and by 21 was King of England and half of what is today France.

              I won’t judge Sparta by todays standards. Slavery, and autocratic rule were the standard of the time. Sparta was no worse than most and better than a few.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                I won’t judge Sparta by todays standards. Slavery, and autocratic rule were the standard of the time. Sparta was no worse than most and better than a few.

                I agree that none of our ancient forebears should be judged according to present standards. That is how the left confuses a lot of unknowledgeable people.

                In the end Sparta, simply could not maintain their system. They could not produce enough children to keep up with the number of deaths they suffered.

                Henry II of England married Eleanor before he was even out of his teens and by 21 was King of England and half of what is today France.

                I think people might sometimes wonder at the foolish things done by historical figures, but given their youth, which most of us don’t know about, it is not surprising that many famous people were undone by raw emotion.

                People think of Romeo and Juliet as being young, but I would guess few would know that a girl in Juliet’s position would have been about 12 or 13 years old.

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      My brothers and I had toy guns going back to the Davy Crockett days. Coon skin hats were also popular. I remember receiving some toy pistol which made a sound which was supposed to be a ricochet when one pulled the trigger. We had many cap-pistols which worked, or didn’t, depending on the state of the paper caps. I also recall Mattel guns which actually shot little plastic bullets. They were a lot of fun.

      As to actual weapons, all us boys received .22 rifles fairly young. I got a Marlin semi-automatic .22 rifle when I was 12 or 13. My brothers got similar rifles and also got 20 gauge Ithica shotguns when they were 14 or 15. I remember they were beautiful with etchings on the metal body and the first iridescent sights I had ever seen. These where orange-green depending on the angle one from which they were viewed.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I was reminded just now by my little brother that I did, indeed, play with G.I. Joes. My cousin had outgrown his and gave them to my little brother. And/or my little brother had received as a gift some of his own.

    And along with my brother’s G.I. Joe he had a cool G.I. Joe plastic green Jeep. It had wheels, retractable wind shield, but nothing was electronic. Gravity or a good push powered the thing.

    And my brother reminded me how we used to play with this action figure. We would put G.I. Joe in the driver’s seat of the Jeep and then push the Jeep down from the stop of the stairs. Then we would triage the situation at the bottom after he had come to a stop, taking note of how G.I. Joe was laying in relation to the Jeep. If he had been thrown clear, it was very possible his injuries were only minor. But sometimes the full weight of the Jeep might be lying on his head and we’d pronounce him dead at the scene.

  6. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    They saved the best for last, at least regarding season one. The spotlight is on G.I. Joe. It’s the story of the toy, and the people behind the making of the toy, that is interesting. Despite the really dopey theme song, this is one of the better-made documentaries. It’s full of fun facts, tells a story, and is peppered with humorous reminiscences. This is just fun to watch as a good documentary, however you feel about toys. And certainly regarding G.I. Joe, I had little experience with it, so that particular toy means squat to me, and yet this last episode in season one is probably the best.

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