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A Brief History of Toys
Archaeological evidence suggests ancient toys were the same kind of playthings that children use today. Centuries ago Roman, Babylonian, Greek and Egyptian children had balls, rattles, dolls, animals, hoops, kites, marbles, stilts and tops. Some had traditional games like dominoes and checkers.
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an estimated 2000 year old Egyptian rattle shaped like a cow with some stones inside in its collection. A baker kneading bread figure, a crocodile snapping its jaws and a dog with moving tail and jaw have also been found from this era. The World's oldest board game is believed to be The Royal Game of Ur, which was played in Babylon for over 5000 years. The traditional board game Mancala may date back to as far as 3000 BC.
Archaeology really helps to identify timelines and locations. For example clay tops were found in the ancient city of Ur dating from 3500 BC (Ur is modern day Muqayyar, 187 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq). Ceramic spinners made of terra cotta were found at Troy (Turkey) 3000 BC. Carved wood whip tops discovered in Egypt are aged between 2000-1400 BC. In China, whip tops were found dating from 1250 BC. Fired clay tops were found from Thebes in Greece dated at around 1250 BC. Greek pottery, from around 500 BC, is decorated with scenes of men and women playing with both whip and twirler top varieties. While many would have been made out of wood, it appears that ceramic tops could have been votive and used to honour the gods. Some may have also been a sign of affluence and were sometimes put in tombs as to be taken into the afterlife. Roman tops from 27 BC were found made of bone.
Many early toy-like objects (dolls and animals) were closely related to religious beliefs and it can be difficult to tell the differences between these and those for children's play. One of the oldest official and clearly identified toys were found on a site of a 3300 year old temple in Iran. They are small pull along figures of a lion and a porcupine carved in limestone mounted on wheeled platforms and pulled along by a string. Another early discovery is a crude doll with movable arms and legs, which kneads bread or grinds corn when a string is pulled. The traditional Yo-Yo is believed to be the second oldest toy in known history. Some toy historians believe the yo-yo was originally used for hunting purposes.
Pre 16th century American native children played with cornhusk dolls, small bows and arrows and leather balls stuffed with feathers. In 1585 the members of the Roanoke Expedition took dolls in Elizabethan dress for children they expected to find in the new country. The oldest surviving doll in the United States is called Letitia Penn after the daughter of William Penn, who brought the doll from Europe to Pennsylvania in 1699. In 1658 Jan Amos Komensky, a Czech educator wrote the first picture book for children and it was realized that illiteracy was a disadvantage in an expanding world and growing concern with education was felt. In the 1700’s a freer intellectual atmosphere was felt. Parents began to think in terms of their children's happiness as well as their moral wellbeing. This new attitude was reflected in an expanding toy trade and toy shops began to appear. The USA president Benjamin Franklin wrote about a toy store in Boston in 1713 where, for a few coppers, he was able to buy a whistle. In 1785 an advertisement in the Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia had dolls, drums and toy harps for sale.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution changed the character of toys due to being able to manufacture them in larger quantities. Wooden toys, straw and stone were rapidly displaced by iron and tinplate. Children could get manufactured toys at reasonable prices instead of having to make their own, a growing trend that accelerated factory production and distribution. Toys also became more and more sophisticated and by the end of the 19th century construction toys were appearing. Then by the early twentieth century electric trains and powered mechanical toys became very popular. Production was hampered during wars and sometimes ceased altogether as a result of shortages of both materials and labour. World Wars 1 and 2 were memorably disruptive, with many toy manufacturers converting all production to materials for war. Following World War 2 production gradually changed. Space toys with plastic parts such as robots and rockets became popular. Most of these were made in Japan. Electrical and battery operated toys have gradually come to replace those animated by spring-driven motors. The growth of television and video games has also affected pastimes and traditional games. But the longing of some parents and children for more conventional toys has led to a resurgence of the wooden toy and stuffed toy industries. Today's toy industry remains a blend of the revolutionary and traditional toys in many ways changed, but in other ways much the same as it was fifty or a hundred years ago.
A Timeline of Toy History
6000 B.C. - An ancestor of chess begins to be played. It evolves from an Indian game called Chaturanga. In the 15th Century, modern chess pieces were finally standardized. The queen and bishop pieces acquired the powers they hold today.
4000 B.C. - A Babylonian board game was probably an ancestor of chess and checkers.
3000 B.C. - First game resembling backgammon is played in Ancient Samaria. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans had played games similar to backgammon for thousands of years. Stone marbles are first used in Egypt. Glass marbles were popularized in the United States in the 1800s. 2000 B.C. - Egyptians begin to play a game that resembles modern-day checkers. Egyptians made dolls from string, fabric and paper. - The first iron skates are used in Scandinavia.
1000 B.C. - Kites appear in China. They have probably been flown since before recorded history. Stone yo-yos ( Duncan) begin to be used in Greece.
969 - Playing cards begin to be used in Asia.
1759 - Joseph Merlin introduces roller skates.
1800s - Playgrounds begin to appear in American cities. The idea stemmed from the efforts of city reformers who were searching for more healthful play options for children in urban areas, where parks and yards were scarce. The playgrounds started off as “sand gardens,” inspired by those seen by an American social worker while visiting Berlin. Financed by local businesses, city playgrounds soon included swings and seesaws.
1840 - The first American doll maker is granted a patent and dolls begin to be mass-produced in America for the first time.
1843 - Salem, Massachusetts native S.B. Ives develops “The Mansion of Happiness,” the first board game in the United States.
1867 - A westernized version of the Indian game Parcheesi (Milton Bradley) is introduced in England under the name “Ludo.” Parcheesi remains the oldest continually marketed American toy that dates back to 300 A.D.
1879 - Alphabet Blocks (Uncle Goose) become favorites and help children learn their alphabet the old-fashioned way.
Margarete Steiff notices a pattern in a magazine for a toy elephant and makes a few to give as gifts. She went on to sew a bear, a poodle and a donkey. Margarete’s stuffed animals proved so popular that she was able to turn her hobby into a business. Since then, Steiff bears, with their jointed arms and legs and trademark metal button in their left ear, have been treasured the world over.
1884 - The wooden Figure-8 Train Sets (BRIO) are introduced. More than 3.5 million trains, cars, and trucks come off BRIO’s assembly line, the largest wooden toy manufacturer in the world.
Three young brothers begin making high-quality wooden toys in Osby, Sweden and the BRIO Corporation gets its name from the Brothers Ivarson of Osby. Peter Reynolds began distributing BRIO toys in the United States in 1977. BRIO makes good toys that are safe and durable and encourage open-ended play.
1886 - The first BB gun is created. Made for children, it scares many parents because it is actually a working gun that can cause injury. The BB gun is a descendant of the cap gun, which was invented soon after the Civil War, when some shotgun manufacturers converted their factories to make toys. Penny pistols and other authentic looking toy guns also began to appear in the 1880s.
1887 - The speaking doll, which had first been invented by Johann Maezel in 1820, is improved when Thomas Edison combines his phonograph technology with a doll, allowing it to speak.
Late 1880s - Mah Jongg was named for a Chinese word meaning “sparrow,” originates in the Ningbo area of China. Games like Mah Jongg had been played as long ago as 1800.
1889 - The Flexible Flyer sled (Flexible Flyer) is introduced. It is a wonderful sled, largely due to its extraordinary craftsmanship. The sled handles superbly as it glides down the hill, due to its patented steering bar.
1890 - Australian native Lawrence Hargrave invents the first three-dimensional kite.
1898 - Gund introduces the first mass-produced musical toys and soft toys.
1900 - At just 22 years old, Joshua Lionel Cowen creates a battery-powered train engine as an “animated advertisement” for products in a store’s display window. To his surprise, customers are more interested in purchasing his toy train, than the merchandise in the display. Lionel Trains (Lionel) began.
1902 - In America, toy bears begin to be called “Teddy Bears” after President Theodore Roosevelt. In only a few years, Teddy Bear-mania sweeps the world and by 1915, large-scale toy bear manufacturing is in full swing.
1903 - Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith produce the first box of Crayola crayons. (Binney & Smith)
1913 - Former Olympian (Gold, Pole Vault, 1908) and medical doctor A.C. Gilbert invents the Erector Set, (BRIO) a motorized toy made of steel parts. Children use the parts to build models of everything from ferris wheels to skyscrapers.
1914 - Charles Pajeau develops a toy similar to the Erector Set, but designed for younger children, called Tinker Toys (Playskool). Watching children poke sticks into the holes of thread spools inspired Pajeau.
Eagle Rubber starts to manufacture rubber toy balloons. Children like to play with this item for a couple of reasons. The hopping itself is a fun way for children to improve balance and coordination while developing their gross motor skills.
1915 - Johnny Gruelle, a newspaper cartoonist, begins to sell Raggedy Ann dolls based on one he had made for his daughter, Marcella. Visit the Johnny Gruelle Reggedy Ann & Andy Museum
1916 - John Lloyd Wright, the son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright invents Lincoln Logs (Playskool), interlocking toy logs children use to build imaginative structures. Wright was inspired by the way that his father designed the earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan.
Louis Marx was a young man with visions of mass marketing and mass production. He ventured out to begin a toy company. Joined by his brother David a couple of years later, Louis Marx & Company grew to become the world’s largest manufacturer of toys in the middle of the century. It has evolved into a “classic” toy staple of the 1990’s.
1922 - Jack Pressman creates a play doctor’s bag when his children are afraid to visit the doctor. His company becomes the largest manufacturer of classic games, selling more than 25 million checker sets and 15 million chess and Chinese checker sets to date.
1924 - His wife, Daphne, and his young son, Christopher Robin, inspired A.A. Milne to write the poems and stories of Winnie the Pooh (Applause).
1927 - A tough, durable kind of plastic, polystyrene is invented. Although the first plastic, celluloid, was invented in the 1860s, polystyrene is the first type strong enough to really suit toy making.
1928 - Walt Disney creates the Mickey Mouse (Disney) character. Two years later, Charlotte Clark began making stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls, and Disney merchandising was born.
1929 - The yo-yo ( Duncan) is popularized in the United States after entrepreneur Donald Duncan sees the toy being demonstrated in Los Angeles. Duncan buys a small yo-yo company for $25,000 and 30 years later, sales of Duncan yo-yos reach $25 million dollars.
1930 - Stacking Rings (Fisher-Price) is introduced and remains a classic toy today. The five brightly colored rings on a stack allow babies to place them in any order they wish. There are many different combinations that help improve baby’s eye-hand coordination.
1931 - Alfred M. Butts, an unemployed architect from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., invents a word game called the Criss Cross Game. In 1948, Butts sells rights to the game to entrepreneur James Brunot who trademarks the game under the name Scrabble (Hasbro).
1932 - Ole Christiansen, a Danish toy maker begins to manufacture toy blocks with a new twist. Christiansen creates a plastic brick that can be locked together in different configurations. The Lego, (Lego) which comes from the Danish word meaning “play well,” was born. The continuing popularity of the Lego brick probably stems from its ability to stimulate a child’s imagination- just six bricks fit together in 102,981,500 different ways.
1934 - Hasbro is introduced as a fun and easy way to bring friends and family together. The object of the game is to be the first player to get all four of the pawns in your starting color into that color’s home. The newest edition on CD-ROM, produced by Hasbro Interactive, has pawns that slip and slide around the board, taunting and teasing the other pawns along the way.
1935 - Monopoly (Parker Brothers) is introduced with its real estate based on Atlantic City’s street names. During the first year on the market, Monopoly was the best-selling game in America. And over its sixty-five-year history, an estimated five hundred million people have played the game.
1939 - William Gruber, a piano tuner from Portland, Oregon, has the idea of mass-producing color 3-D images in a viewer. Introduced before television becomes widespread, View Master (Tyco) is an immediate hit.
Early 1940s - Affordable, detailed model airplanes begin to be mass-produced. Originally designed to help manufacturers sell airplanes to the military, they begin to make practical toys with the introduction of plastic. Before plastic, models were made with balsa wood provided in kits. Otherwise, consumers had to cut their own wood pieces to fit a provided pattern.
1942 - Little Golden Books (Golden Books) delights children and parents of all ages.
1943 - While searching for a suspension device to ease rough sailing on battleships, navy engineer Richard James discovers that a torsion spring will “walk” end over end when knocked over. James brought the discovery home to his wife, who named the new toy “Slinky.” If stretched end to end, the Slinky toys sold since 1945 would wrap around the world 126 times. Slinky’s (James Industries) are still made in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, on the same eight machines that James began with over 50 years ago.
Chutes and Ladders (Milton Bradley) are developed, based upon an old game called Snakes and Ladders that European settlers brought with them to America.
1948 - Arthur “Spud” Melin founded Wham-O with partner Richard Kerr to market slingshots and other projectile-firing sporting goods by mail. In 1956 the company branched out into more peaceful playthings with the introduction of the Frisbee and two years after that struck gold with the original Hula Hoop. Melin died on June 28 2002.
1949 - While recovering from polio, Eleanor Abbott devises imaginary games, among them the famous Candyland (Milton Bradley). She sells the game to Milton Bradley, where it remains a perennial top-seller for the preschool set.
Silly Putty (Binney & Smith) is introduced. Silly Putty was a byproduct of a search to find a synthetic substitute for rubber. James Wright, a chemical engineer for General Electric, came up with the flesh-colored silicone compound that bounced when rolled into a ball and stretched like rubber.
1950 - With the introduction of the Safety School Bus, Little People (Fisher-Price) as we know and love them today are born.
1951 - Two art students discover that vinyl sticks to semi gloss paint. From this discovery, Colorforms (Colorforms) is born.
1952 - Banking on the idea that children like to play with their food, Mr. Potato Head (Hasbro) is introduced. Mr. Potato Head is the first toy advertised on television. First year sales of the toy are $4 million!
Edward Haas brings the Pez mint dispenser to the United States. It was initially unsuccessful, but gained popularity after Haas changed the original lighter-like design by adding a cartoon head and replacing the mints with fruit-flavored candy.
Jack Odell creates the original Matchbox (Mattel) car when he makes a small brass model of a Road Roller and puts it into a matchbox so that his daughter could bring it to school. Today, 100 million Matchbox cars are sold each year.
1956 - Yahtzee was invented by a Canadian couple (name unknown) who in 1956 approached Mr. Edwin S. Lowe, the man who made a fortune selling Bingo games. Lowe liked the game, offered to buy the rights and changed the name of the game to Yahtzee. The Milton Bradley Company acquired the E.S. Lowe Company and the Yahtzee game.
Play-Doh (Playskool) enters the market as wallpaper cleaner. Non-toxic and less messy than regular modeling clay, it is soon recognized that the cleaner makes an excellent toy. The innovative product made Joe Clicker a millionaire before his 27th birthday. To date, 700 million pounds of Play-Doh have been sold.
At a Fourth of July family barbecue, Milton Levine dreams up the idea for the first Ant Farm (Uncle Milton Industries), complete with live ants. Gumby
1957 - The Tonka (Tonka) truck is introduced by a group of Minnesota teachers. The word Tonka means “great” in Dakota Sioux, the language of the Native American tribe indigenous to Minnesota. More than 230 million trucks have been manufactured to date.
The idea of the Frisbee (Wham-O) comes from a metal pie tin originally manufactured by the Frisbee Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. During the 1920’s, students at nearby Yale University threw the tins around for fun and yelled “Frisbee” to warn passersby. Fred Morrison, a carpenter and building inspector who was fascinated with flight and plastic, came up with the design for a flying disk. Wham-O bought the idea and named it Pluto Power, because it resembled a flying saucer. In 1957 Wham-O modified the plastic disk and trademarked the name Frisbee. Since its debut, Wham-O has produced more than one hundred million disks.
1959 - Elliot Handler and his wife Ruth invent the Barbie doll (Mattel). Today, two Barbie’s are sold every two seconds.
Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr begin to market Hula Hoops (Wham-O) after getting the idea from a friend who saw school children in Australia twirl bamboo hoops around their waist for exercise. Merlin and Knerr were actually reincarnating a toy that was probably used a long ago as 1000 B.C. in Egypt, and, later, Greece and Rome. In the first year of production, 15 million Hula Hoops were sold.
1960 - The first Etch-a-Sketch (Ohio Art) is marketed. Since then, more than 100 million of these popular drawing toys have been sold. The Etch-a Sketch was invented by Arthur Granjean in the late 1950s and was originally called L’Ecran Magique.
In 1869, the Checkered Game of Life (Milton Bradley) was introduced. Its popularity began Bradley’s career in the game business. In 1959, executives at Bradley’s company asked game inventor Reuben Klammer to come up with a game to commemorate Milton Bradley’s anniversary. Inspired by one of Bradley’s old Checkered Game of Life game boards, Klamer designed the now-classic Game of Life.
1963 - Hasbro introduces its light-bulb heated Easy Bake Oven.
1965 - Stanley Weston creates a doll for boys based on a new television show called “The Lieutenant.” The doll, G.I. Joe, proves more popular than the TV series, to the surprise of many toy manufacturers who had assumed for years that boys wouldn’t play with dolls. Interestingly, a female G.I. Joe doll introduced years later was a flop.
Spirograph (Hasbro) is introduced at the Nuremburg International Toy Fair. Its visual creativity and ease of use expands the range of art experiences for children. With wild colors and patterns, it is appropriate for all ages and abilities. Using a simple set of gear-form templates and a set of colored pens, anyone can make hundreds of geometric shapes and create a variety of effects.
1966 - Elliot Handler, one of the cofounders of Mattel Inc., invents Hot Wheels (Mattel) when he decides to add axles and rotating wheels to small model cars. His gravity-powered car with special low-friction styrene wheels reaches 300 million per hour.
Twister (Hasbro) is introduced as the first game ever invented that requires people to use their bodies as playing pieces. Twister actually grew out of a project that inventor Reyn Guyer was working on for his father’s design company and has been played by an estimated 65 million people around the world.
1968 - A new push-pull toy called The Corn Popper (Fisher-Price) is introduced and adds the incentive of fun to confidence-building mastery. The multicolored balls pop inside the clear bubble as a response to the child’s walking. The popping fascinates children, and they keep walking to keep hearing the pops. This sort of sturdy and carefully designed toy works with your child’s growth patterns and makes learning and practice painless and carefree.
1969 - Parker Brothers introduces the Nerf ball (Hasbro), a polyurethane foam ball that is safe for indoor play. By year’s end, more than 4 million Nerf balls are sold.
1971 - Hans Beck creates his first Playmobil system. Perfectly designed for little hands and growing minds, the pieces are durable crafted, with bright colors, rounded edges, and inviting themes. And as an added bonus to parents, each set is fully washable. Playmobil has created over 275 different sets, all scaled to work together.
1972 - Magnavox introduces Odyssey (Magnavox), the first video game machine, featuring a primitive form of paddleball. Other companies soon invested in the video game business and, by 1976, hockey, tennis, and squash were available.
1973 - Dave Arneson and Scott Gygax invent Dungeons & Dragons. The game creates a whole new fantasy/ adventure category of toys, which has become a $250 million market.
1974 - Four engineers created Magna Doodle (Fisher-Price) in response to their search for a dustless chalkboard and it was first sold by Tyco. Magna Doodle has a variety of uses and has been purchased by more than forty million people.
1976 - Nolan Bushnell sells his video game company, Atari, to Warner Brothers. Atari’s popular (Warner Brothers) Pong and Super Pong video tennis games soon gave way to a home video cartridge system that ran full-color games, from baseball to Pac-man. By 1992, Atari was making $2 billion a year, but lost its business just as quickly through over-licensing. In 1983, Atari sent thousands of cartridges to Texas to be used as landfill.
1977 - A new line of Star Wars action figures (Kenner Toys) is marketed, in response to George Lucas’s blockbuster film. They dominate the action figure market.
1983 - Nintendo Entertainment System, (Nintendo) a home video game system, is introduced. With 52 colors, realistic sound and high-speed action, it catches the attention of retailers who were initially skittish due to Atari’s collapse. The NES, as well as the popular “Super Mario Brothers” and “The Legend of Zelda” game cartridges, were the top-selling toys for the 1987, 1988 and 1989 holiday seasons.
The Manhattan Toy Company begins under the creative hand of Francis Goldwyn; they make wonderful finger puppets and also make a theater for the puppets. Playing with finger puppets helps children develop their imagination and language skills and encourages them to express themselves.
1985 - Pappa Geppetto’s Toys in Victoria BC Canada is founded and begins as a small manufacturer of wooden toys and gifts. Squish (Pappa Geppetto’s now sold by Manhattan Toys ) was designed by Tom Flemons while he was studying Buckminster Fuller’s “tensegrity” structures-models that show coexistent tension and compression and are comprised of a complex network of triangles that form a roughly spherical shape. Squish is the ultimate baby toy, with bright colors, sliding beads and a jingling bell.
1986 - Artist Xavier Roberts introduces his Cabbage Patch Kids (Mattel) into the mass market first through the Coleco Company. Each of the dolls comes with an adoption certificate and unique name. Although more than three million of the dolls are produced, supply cannot keep up with demand. Cabbage Patch Kids become the most successful new dolls in the history of the toy industry
Rob Angel, a 24-year-old waiter from Seattle, introduces Pictionary, (Hasbro) a game in which partners try to guess phrases based on each other’s drawings.
1987 - Engineer Scott Stillinger invents the Koosh Ball (Hasbro) in an effort to teach young children how to catch. He tied rubber bands together to make a small, easy-to-catch ball. The name “koosh” comes from the sound the ball makers as it lands in a person’s hand.
The first Intellitoy is introduced and takes the country by storm. Teddy Ruxpin ( ) is an automated responding bear who can read books aloud.
1989 - A battery-powered, hand-held video game system called Gameboy (Nintendo) is released.
1993 - Toy inventor H. Ty Warner begins to market under stuffed plush beanbag toys called Beanie Babies (Ty). The toys are designed to be inexpensive so that a child can purchase them. Warner began with nine Beanie Babies (a dog, a platypus, a moose, a bear, a dolphin, a frog, a lobster, a whale, and a pig.) The toys were not an instant success. It was only after the 11 Beanie Babies were retired in 1996 that they became a collector’s item.
Gymini Gym (Tiny Love) is introduced as an expansion of the classic mobile so that your child can play with it in a variety of ways. The structure is based on colorful arches designed so soft toys can be attached. Because it is padded, your baby can lie on top of the mat and play on it or roll over around still be secure. A variety of Gyminis are available, with different themes and different colors. Gymini is a true original and the leading activity gym on the market today.
The grand idea for Toobers & Zots (Hands On Toys) came to Arthur Ganson, an artist, kinetic sculptor and artist-in-residence at MIT. Flexible, holdable and infinitely moldable, Toobers & Zots inspires hours of open-ended, creative fun. Toobers- long, bendable foam tubes-hold their shape and are lightweight and fun to use. Colorful Zots are an assortment of stars, circles, squares, triangles, donuts, crowns, and other shapes that connect with Toobers like beads on a string.
1998 - Tickle Me Elmo ( ) hits stores and causes Christmas-shopping hordes to triple in size. Elmo was the ideal character to launch a line of plush toys that reacted to a child’s touch
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