Authors: Marvin Kaye
THESTORY OF MONOPOLY, SILLY PUTTY, BINGO, TWISTER, FRISBEE
By Marvin Kaye
First published in 1973 as
A Toy Is Bom
More people assisted in the preparation of this book than can possibly be enumerated. Thanks must go to executives and public-relations officials of most major toy- and game-manufacturing firms. In addition, valuable aid was provided by the Toy Manufacturers of America, the official trade organization and sponsor of the most important market of the year, the American Toy Fair.
At the TMA, special thanks go to Frank Gavitt and Ted Erickson for furnishing statistics, background data, and opinions on the condition of the toy market, product safety, and advertising, and for helping me locate important historical sources.
Thanks to Sid Sackson for providing data and literature on the history of games.
At the toy trade magazines, valuable aid came from Bill Van Gorp and Bill Troeber, publisher and editor, respectively, of
and Tom Murn, editor of
Many thanks to Marianne Mackay, of Milton Bradley Co., for lending me her copious annotations and copy of Edward Swartz’s book, since I refuse to support him by buying my own.
Thanks to Wayne Port for valuable suggestions on certain legal points.
Inestimable gratitude is due to Michael Spielman, former editor of
who was New York campaign manager for George McGovern. Winner of the American Business Press’s Jesse H. Neal Award—the “Pulitzer of trade journalism”--Mike hired me in the first place. He lived to regret it.
There is one more person whose contribution is beyond estimation: my wife, Saralee. Her encouragement and sympathy were invaluable. And she also went out of town long enough to let me finish writing this book.
toy (toi) 1. Something for a child to play with.
2. Something insignificant, paltry, trivial or trifling.
Perhaps. But consider some typical contemporary scenes:
A technician pushes a button and camera no. 2 dollies in for a medium shot of Johnny Carson standing behind a table laden with bright-colored gadgets. “Here are some of the goodies we’ll be seeing on toy counters this Christmas,” he says. “I’m going to try playing with them now, and I
they all worked before the show!” The audience laughs.
“Toys,” says a child psychologist to a group of parents, “are vital emulative tools. They help children build imagination, develop basic motor skills, and rehearse socioeconomic roles in fantasized form that they may later assume as adults.”
Half a dozen fashionably dressed young married couples put down their martini glasses and kick off their shoes. The host drags out a vinyl cloth emblazoned with colorful circles. One pair gets down on the mat and begins to play the contortive game of Twister.
Everywhere in America, record numbers of adults are discovering the fascination and fun of toys and games. Teenagers amass tons of stuffed animals and swoop up every new body-action game on the market. Postgraduates fill their bookshelves with tactical contests that enable them to strike it rich in the stockmarket, fight historical battles in principle, and build and merge hotel chains. Enthusiasts of every age and sex race and collect miniature vehicles or launch scaled-down rockets that really work. And wide-eyed youngsters find an overwhelming choice facing them in the toy store— from action figures and dolls that walk, talk, dance, and write through complex construction sets that can build anything from log cabins to robots. There are motor-driven kiddie cars, rockets that really fly, and electrical appliances that work “just like Mommy’s”—not to mention educational toys.
The fast-growing American toy business—with boundaries extending deep within related “leisure” product fields (hobbies, sporting goods, swimming pools, etc.)—is becoming increasingly important with the increasing amounts of leisure time available to most Americans. Yet despite its enormous size and influence, the industry has barely emerged from commercial adolescence. And, like a postpubescent teenager, it is still suffering growing pains.
Though it is now a multimillion-dollar business, the domestic toy market grew to its present prominence only in the past quarter of a century. Before Pearl Harbor, toys and games were chiefly Christmas merchandise sold almost exclusively in department stores. Specialty toy shops were all but nonexistent. A handful of “name” suppliers took the lion’s share of sales: companies like A. C. Gilbert, Parker Brothers, Lionel Corp., Murray Ohio, and Milton Bradley.
Today, there are nearly twelve hundred toymakers in America, ranging from home-workshop operations to Mattel Inc., one of the top five toy manufacturers in the world with annual sales of more than $300 million a year. The industry’s rate of growth is phenomenal, too. In 1955, total manufacturers’ domestic sales came to $592 million. The first billion mark ($1.1) came in 1962, but it only took eight more years to pass $2 billion. In addition, toys are now sold the year round, and all kinds of retail outlets stock them: discounters, specialty stores, drug chains, supermarkets, even auto parts stores.
With this growth has come a fierce competition for the consumer’s attention. Given the immense number of playthings on the counters, it is no easy task to make a steady living producing toys. Every year at New York’s Toy Fair, the principal trade market, established firms with excellent past records still come out with large new lines of goods.
Thanks to the huge amount of product turnover, there is a real premium on ideas. Even though most new toy and game suggestions are submitted by professional inventors, the man, woman, or child who has one “big idea” cannot be discounted. Some of the classics came from nonprofessionals, and the business is too unpredictable for any sensible toy producer to turn his back on the freelancer. He just might open up his mail and find the germ of another Scrabble.
“You never know what is going to be a best seller,” explained one major Midwestern wholesaler. “You can make a pretty shrewd guess on what’s good, taking your own knowledge into account, and adding to that modern marketing techniques like demographics, test-marketing, and so on. But what you finally come down to is whether or not Mom is going to shell out good money for your new Razzle-Dazzle Zap Gun. And there are always surprises. It’s a hell of a crazy business, but that’s what makes it fun.”
This capriciousness makes the brief history of the modern American toy business an exciting one, with an unusually high number of Horatio Alger success stories. Toy making today is a flashy, exciting venture that is viewed by its champions as second only to show business in its sense of excitement and glamour.
Naturally, there is a harsher side to the picture. Unscrupulous marketers, flagrant idea thieves, and lackluster trend-followers also are endemic to the toy scene. Critics have scored the industry for short-changing educational content, overemphasizing materialism, foisting off poorly made merchandise, charging outrageous prices, broadcasting objectionable commercials, and endangering children with unsafe products. Some of these claims are valid, others irrational. The psychological danger of, say, Aurora Products’ series of plastic buildup torture kits—complete with buxom, scantily clad doll and guillotine, as well as other instruments of pain—makes it deserve all the brickbats that were thrown at it. But such blatant bad taste and public irresponsibility is increasingly rare in the industry.
The American toy business, like all other segments of our culture, is undergoing a generation-gap shift. The older officials are fading from the picture, and a younger breed of executives—many of them intimately attuned and sympathetic to the changing face of our society—is coming to the fore. Aware of this disillusionment of some shoppers, these men and women are keenly anxious to expunge the bad parts of the past and bring a new, improved image of toy making to the American public.
A Toy Is Born
I hope to help further this new definition. The stories that follow show that toy inventors and marketers are also partners in the human dilemma: fallible, anxious, sometimes irascible, sometimes generous, beset with money troubles and personal fears; but, like everyone else, trying to do a good job given the limitations of personal ability and resources. Hopefully, if the American toy scene is set within its changing perspective, a valid picture will emerge of an industry rapidly leaving adolescence and entering early maturity.
My experience with the toy business derives from several years as senior editor of
a Harcourt Brace Jovanovich trade magazine. After leaving HBJ, I embarked on the queasy career of a freelancer and have since contributed numerous articles on the toy scene to two trade journals,
as well as to the venerable national family newspaper,
A Toy Is Born,
I have avoided an encyclopedic approach to the toy field. Taking as a common starting point the invention and/or early marketing of various playthings, I have chosen rather to adopt a kaleidoscopic view of the industry, focusing on the success stories of famous toys and games—the accidental birth of Silly Putty, the kitchen-table gestation of Monopoly, the traveling-salesman story behind Bingo, and many other fascinating anecdotes. And since we began by discounting the traditional definition of the word “toy,” we will be concerned throughout with tracking down clues as to the actual nature of playthings and the activity of play itself.
Also to be discussed are new trends and directions in products, and issues such as safety and TV advertising. Any value judgments expressed are my own, based on nearly a decade of experience as a toy journalist.
Ultimately, the stories and topics included are a result of authorial winnowing, and my chief yardstick has been that of personal enthusiasm. In this way, I hope
A Toy Is Born
will reflect the spirit of fun so vital to any warm appreciation of children’s playthings.
Some old-timers, though, argue that all of the fun has gone out of the trade. What with increasing governmental regulation, consumerist pressure, and growing corporate bureaucracy, some veteran toymen sigh deeply and swear that Toy Fair, once a carnival, has now become a dreary ritual. “This business,” they state emphatically, “just ain’t what it used to be.”
But they are apt to say it with crazy grins on their faces and Joy Buzzers in their hands.
New York City, 1972
An informal history of man’s values, both material and spiritual, can be traced in the variety and number of toys owned by children of different cultures and eras. The playthings of the young can mirror the events of the grown-up world.
Most simple cultures show little evidence of crafted playthings; primitive life is too full of hardship to allow children much time to play. This held true as late as the colonization of America. Early settlers trained girls to spin yarn; boys foraged for food with bows and arrows. Even such simple games as hopscotch, tag, and hide-and-go-seek were at one time or another forbidden by the Pilgrim fathers.
The scarcity of materials for making playthings helps explain the small number of toys in earlier societies. While aboriginal parents probably hacked away at chunks of wood to make play animals, more often children must have contented themselves with rocks or sets of animal bones. Knucklebones were used as dice, gourds may have been the first rattles, and fir cones probably served as early tops.
No real upgrading of toys could take place until man became more at ease with his environment. The more advanced the culture, the greater the number of playthings found by archeologists. Egyptian tombs have yielded balls, pull toys, rattles, and tops, while sketches of toys appear on Greek and Roman pottery. The
describes games that were part of religious rites, and in one ancient Greek poem a young man dedicates several of his playthings as temple offerings to signify his entrance into manhood.
One Grecian vase depicts a boy with a yo-yo—the only trace of this toy in early European history. The current popularity of yo-yos followed a reimportation of the toy to Europe and the New World from the Orient. (The Far East is the cradle of many favorite modern playthings: cards, kites, dominoes, and balloons, to name a few.)
The earliest examples of dolls used as toys come from Rome. Workmen digging the foundations for a building recently uncovered the coffin of a young Roman girl. Buried with her was a carved wooden jointed doll with an elaborate hair style and bracelets on the arms. Another excavation yielded a crudely stitched rag doll; according to experts, it may have been sewn together by the child to whom it belonged.
No one seems sure just how dolls first became toys. Though human figures have been found in the ruins of nearly every society, it is unlikely that they were children’s objects; dolls were probably regarded as powerful religious totems invested with life, divine or profane. As man grew more familiar with his gods, the doll’s mystical significance diminished. The Greeks, of course, worshiped an extraordinarily human and fallible family of deities, and it is in Plutarch that one of the earliest records of a doll as a toy can be found— Plutarch’s daughter, Timoxena, at the age of two begs her nurse to give her doll milk at the same time she is being fed.