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Fun-filled beginnings of 12 famous toys

While most adults with jobs, kids, and other responsibilities have little time to play with toys, chances are these same busy folks can easily recall their favorite playthings from childhood. That’s because the best toys — whether a doll, sporting item, video game, or other novelty — pack a certain timeless appeal and leave lasting memories. But as much fun as these cherished items can be to play with, it’s also fun to learn about the unique ways they came into existence. Discover how breakthrough experiments, bold innovation, and even bizarre accidents created some enduringly popular classic toys.

Frisbee

Unveiled by the Wham-O toy company in 1957, Frisbees are said to have gotten their unofficial start decades earlier among New England college students who enjoyed tossing pie tinsand other containers made by the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. One young man named Walter Morrison decided to form a business from these flying discs, and by the late 1940s, he and a partner had developed a plastic version that eventually caught the attention of Wham-O founders Arthur "Spud" Melin and Richard Knerr.

At that point called the "Pluto Platter," to capitalize on the UFO craze then sweeping the country, the disc was rebranded to its now-familiar name in 1958 as a nod to the pie company that unintentionally launched the high-flying toy. And while undoubtedly a success from a profit standpoint — more than 200 million official Frisbees had been sold by the time of Morrison's death in 2010 — the disc also left a sizable imprint on popular culture by inspiring the creation of new sports like Ultimate Frisbee and Frisbee Golf.

Lincoln Logs

It can be tough following in the footsteps of a famous parent, and while architect John Lloyd Wright never quite emerged from the outsized shadow of his legendary father, Frank Lloyd Wright, he did manage to distinguish himself in a completely different field. Inspired by his dad's work on Japan's Imperial Hotel, which was built on a flexible wooden-beam structure designed to sway but not collapse during an earthquake, the younger Wright set about developing his own mini-version of interlocking building beams that could withstand the rough play of children.

After founding the Red Square Toy Company in 1918, John Lloyd Wright obtained a patent for his "toy-cabin construction" in 1920. With an increasingly urbanized populace yearning for the adventurous days of the Western frontier, Wright named his product for the log-cabin-born President Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln Logs debuted in 1924 with packaging boasting "Interesting playthings typifying the spirit of America."

After a failed follow-up attempt to pique the interest of young builders with the more complex Wright Blocks, Wright sold Lincoln Logs to Playskool in 1943 and abandoned the toy trade to resume his focus on architecture. While some of his homes are still standing, Lincoln Logs remain Wright's best-known creation, even with frequent changes in licensing rights shuttling possession of this classic playset across several companies and into the hands of its current distributor, Basic Fun!

Mr. Potato Head

While most parents would prefer that their kids not play with their food, that was precisely the concept motivating George Lerner's creation of what became Mr. Potato Head in 1949. After initially scoring a deal to have his three-dimensional plastic facial parts distributed as a cereal-package prize, Lerner found a better opportunity with Hassenfeld Brothers (which later became Hasbro) in 1951. Mr. Potato Head began appearing in stores the following year, offering a series of body parts and accessories that could be affixed to other objects with pins; although they came with styrofoam heads, the instructions suggested that potatoes and other vegetables could easily be substituted.

Mr. Potato Head pulled in a whopping $4 million in sales after a few months, and his popularity soon fueled the additions of Mrs. Potato Head and children Yam and Spud to the family. In 1964, lingering concerns about the sharpness of its pieces prompted Hasbro to finally package Mr. Potato Head with a plastic body and easily pluggable body parts.

The toy eventually became something of an unlikely ambassador for the changing of the country's values. In 1987, Mr. Potato Head's pipe was discontinued as a show of solidarity with the Great American Smokeout, a day dedicated to anti-smoking efforts. Five years later, the character disavowed his time-honored status as a "couch potato" and received an award from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. And in 2021, Hasbro announced that the famed brand would simply be known as "Potato Head" in an effort to be more gender-neutral.

Silly Putty

It seems the creation of Silly Putty was a happy accident on the part of not one, but two separate chemical engineers. According to the standard story put forth by its manufacturer, Crayola, General Electric's James Wright was seeking to come up with a rubber substitute during World War II when he mixed boric acid and silicone oil to produce an extremely bouncy and stretchy material. At roughly the same time, Dow Chemical researcher Earl Warrick stumbled upon a similar boric acid-infused polymer. Both men obtained patents, but because there were no practical applications for this substance, it mainly served as a novelty item at parties.

The stretchy stuff eventually made its way into a toy store, where it caught the attention of advertising executive Peter Hodgson. Seeking to market it himself, Hodgson secured a small loan, hired Yale University students to separate a batch into 1-ounce balls, and sold the "Silly Putty" in plastic eggs for $1 each. Demand was modest until a favorable review appeared in an August 1950 issue of The New Yorker, after which some 250,000 eggs were sold over the course of three days.

Initially marketed toward adults, Silly Putty was rebranded as a children's toy in the mid-1950s. By the time it made its way onboard Apollo 8 in 1968, the former laboratory curiosity had emerged as an iconic plaything for people of all ages. As of 2021, more than 300 million eggs and 4,000 tons of the beloved goo had been sold.

Barbie

In the early 1950s, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler saw her daughter Barbara playing with paper fashion figurines and mused about the possibility of creating a full-figured adult doll. After a trip to Europe in 1956 brought her into contact with an existing doll of that type named Bild Lilli, Handler set about convincing her reluctant colleagues to develop their own prototype.

Making her debut at the National Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959, the original 11-inch Barbie cost $3 and scared off most of Mattel's usual distributors because of the doll's adult-proportioned body parts. However, Barbie's popularity began to pick up by summertime, and more than 300,000 dolls were sold before the end of the year. In 1961, she was joined by her longtime companion, Ken. The following year saw the introduction of the Barbie Dreamhouse.

Even more than Mr. Potato, Barbie has been a barometer of social change. Mattel has long sought to prop up a persona of ambition for its flagship figurine, giving her some 250 careers over the course of her existence. Black and Latina versions began appearing in 1980, and in recent years, added efforts at diversity have led to the introduction of Barbies with prosthetic limbs and Down syndrome.

Meanwhile, the leggy doll continues to stand tall in popular culture. Barbie launched her first bid for President in 1992, and she made the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2014. You may have heard something about a recent Barbie movie, too, which grossed more than $1.4 billion globally at a time when theaters are struggling to draw audiences. Altogether, more than 1 billion individual Barbies have been sold since she made her National Toy Fair splash back in 1959.

Slinky

As the famous jingle goes: “What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound? A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it's Slinky.” But did you know the beloved toy was created by accident?

In 1943, while stationed at a Philadelphia shipyard, U.S. Naval engineer Richard T. James was searching for a way to use springs to help sensitive equipment hold up in turbulent seas. One day, Richard knocked a spring off a shelf and watched as it gracefully “stepped” from a stack of books to a table and then to the floor, where it landed upright. James told the story to his wife, Betty, who wondered if the industrial spring could be transformed into a toy.  

Richard soon took that idea and designed a machine to coil 80-feet of wire into a 2-inch spiral, which Betty named “Slinky,” inspired by the flowing movement and distinct sound of the spring in motion.

The toy was introduced during the 1945 Christmas season at a Gimbels department store in Philadelphia. Priced at $1, the Slinky was an immediate hit, with 400 Slinkys selling out in just 90 minutes.

However, in 1960, Slinky sales began to decline when Richard left his family to become a missionary in Bolivia. Betty took over the business, even mortgaging her home to keep it afloat. She reintroduced the Slinky at a 1963 New York Toy Show.

The Slinky toy line expanded through the decades with plastic Slinkys and Slinky animals. In 1995, the Slinky Dog became a hot ticket item after it was featured in Pixar’s Toy Story, with 800,000 Slinky Dogs selling that year. Today, more than 300 million Slinkys have been sold, enough to circle the globe 150 times if stretched.

Candy Land

Candy Land is one of the top-selling children’s board games of all time, wIth an average of one million games sold a year.

Players began traveling through the Peppermint Stick Forest and the Molasses Swamp in 1948, when retired schoolteacher Eleanor Abbott invented Candy Land in the polio ward of a San Diego, California, hospital. Abbott’s hand-crafted game became a welcome distraction for the sick children during their most difficult moments.

This inspired Abbott to bring the game to Milton Bradley, and it debuted on shelves in 1949. The post-World War II Baby Boom created a huge market for children’s games, and Candy Land quickly became Milton Bradley’s highest-selling game. Marketed as the “sweet little game for sweet little folks,” Candy Land’s legacy is even sweeter because Abbot donated all the royalties she received from her invention to children’s charities.

Magic 8 Ball

Since the 1950s, the Magic 8 Ball has been a consistent source of advice for all of life’s problems. The toy’s inventor, Albert C. Carter, was the son of a Cincinnati clairvoyant, and completely fascinated by her work. Carter’s mother, Mary, would often use the fortune-telling invention the Psycho-Slate — a small chalkboard sealed inside a container — with her clients. When someone asked a question of the “other world,” Mary would reveal the answer on the Psycho-Slate, as if the spirits scribbled it down themselves.

Thus inspired, in 1944, a grown-up Carter completed his version of a fortune-telling tool called the Syco-Seer, a liquid-filled tube with a window allowing a view of two floating worded dice. The Syco-Seer attracted the attention of Cincinnati store owner Max Levinson, who turned to his brother-in-law Abe Bookman to help with production. Under the company name Alabe Crafts, the Syco-Seer’s design was further tweaked to a smaller tube with only one floating die inside a crystal ball.

In 1950, Chicago company Brunswick Billiardswas looking for a promotional item to give to their customers and came across the Syco-Seer. Brunswick Billiards tweaked the design once more and replaced the crystal ball with a black eight billiards ball.

After ending its contract with Brunswick, Alabe Crafts went on to market the now-named Magic 8 Ball as a paperweight before repositioning it as a children’s toy, which launched its international popularity. Today, the Magic 8 Ball continues to respond with its 20-sided die that includes 10 positive, five negative, and five vague responses. Now owned by Mattel, over a million Magic 8 Balls are sold every year.

Play-Doh

In the early 20th century, Cincinnati’s Kutol Products was known for its pliable compound used for cleaning coal soot from wallpaper. But by the 1950s, during the transition to cleaner heating fuels, there was far less demand for Kutol’s cleaner.

When Joseph McVicker was tasked with turning the company’s fortunes around, his sister-in-law Kay Zufall, a nursery school teacher, read that wallpaper cleaner could be used as a type of modeling clay, and tested the nontoxic material in her classroom. The children loved it, and Zufall suggested a new name for the product: Play-Doh.  

When Play-Doh was launched in 1956, the product was only available in white and would harden when left exposed to air. In 1957, chemist Dr. Tien Liu tinkered with the formula allowing Play-Doh to remain pliable longer and make its color more vibrant.

Initially, sales were modest, but in 1958, they began to soar when Play-Doh was featured in ads during the hit TV show Captain Kangaroo. Eventually, additional colors were included in the line, and in 1960, the first Play-Doh Fun Factory set hit shelves.

In 1965, McVicker sold his Play-Doh company to General Mills, with Hasbro taking the brand in 1991. Today, more than 3 billion cans of Play-Doh have been sold in more than 80 countries.

The Easy-Bake Oven

The Easy-Bake Oven debuted in stores in November 1963. It was inspired by Norman Shapiro, a sales manager at toy manufacturer Kenner, who saw a New York City vendor warming pretzels in a cart’s tiny oven and thought it would make an excellent toy. The original oven was made up of three cubes with a stovetop and carry handle, all painted bright teal. While users were invited to come up with their own recipes, the oven came with mixes for baked goods, bubble gum, candy bars, and complete “kiddie dinners” of meat, macaroni, and peas. Packet contents were mixed with water, poured into supplied bakeware, and cooked by the heat of two lightbulbs, with temperatures reaching up to 350 degrees.

The toy was originally priced at a then-high $15.95 (around $115 in 2022), which surprisingly did not deter sales of 500,000 units in the oven’s first release. The quick-baking toy’s popularity paralleled America's interest in kitchen technology and the increased use of mixes and packaged products.

In 1968, Kenner was acquired by General Mills, who introduced Betty Crocker recipes into the Easy-Bake Oven’s repertoire. Over the years, production increased along with changes to the toy’s design to reflect the interior design trends of the time, from the harvest-gold and avocado tones of the 1970s to a redesign of the oven to resemble the new microwaves of the 1980s.

Recently the Easy-Bake Oven, now owned by Hasbro, has adopted a more gender-neutral design, acknowledging its popularity with both girls and boys. Since its inception almost 70 years ago, more than 30 million Easy-Bake Ovens have been sold and more than 150 million mixes have been cooked.

Nerf Balls

After the incredible success of the game Twister, its Inventor Reyn Guyer wanted to create another sensation. In 1968, Guyer and his team began work on a game they called “Caveman,” using “rocks” cut out of mattress foam which were to be thrown at opponents. During development, Guyer thought the rocks would be better shaped into balls for safer indoor use. The original concept was scrapped in favor of making an indoor game using the newly named Muffball.

Parker Brothers acquired Guyer’s ball, and in 1969, introduced the renamed Nerf ball in four colors: yellow, orange, red, and blue. While some think the name is an acronym for “non-expanding recreational foam,” Guyer says it came from the foam-padded roll bars on Jeeps, known as “NERF bars.”

With ad copy of “throw it indoors; you can’t damage lamps or break windows. You can’t hurt babies or old people,” 4.5 million Nerf balls were sold in the first year of production. In 1971, Parker Brothers expanded the product line to include a Super Nerf Ball and Nerf Disk.

In 1972, Fred Cox, former Minnesota Vikings field-goal kicker, came up with the idea of making a football out of foam, using an injection molder to give the soft ball a durable surface that could be gripped. Cox brought the invention to Parker Brothers, where it became the Nerf Football which further propelled its international fame. Today, NERF is probably best known for its series of foam dart blasters, which debuted in 1992.

Simon

In the 1960s, Ralph Baer, a military engineer, would spend his free time developing early video games, dreaming of a system that would allow gameplay on a television. He eventually succeeded and in 1971, Baer and his employer Sanders Associates received the first-ever video game patent for the Magnavox Odyssey, which went on sale in 1972.

In 1976, Baer, who was now working as a consultant for toy company Marvin Glass and Associates, took inspiration from an Atari arcade game called Touch Me, where players had to repeat a bright light and annoyingly loud musical sequence. Over the next two years, Baer worked on a portable game with four pleasing bugle horn notes. Originally called Follow Me, the new game was licensed by Milton Bradley as Simon, after the children’s game Simon Says.

In 1978, Simon debuted at the disco palace Studio 54 in New York City. That Christmas season, stores reported long lines of people hoping to nab one of the highly desired machines, despite its original price of $25 (around $90 in 2022). While Simon could only play one sequence, was bulky, and required many D batteries, it was a huge step forward in home electronic gaming. The popularity of Simon was boosted by its coincidental connection to Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. During the science-fiction classic’s finale, aliens communicate using a sequence of musical notes and lights on their spaceship that resembles Simon’s gameplay.

By the end of the 1980s, 10 million Simons were sold despite many knock-offs of the original game entering production. Newer versions of the game, including Simon Optix, where users wear a virtual reality-style headset to play, have brought the game to new audiences — but the retro appeal of the original remains.

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