Histories    |     Facts    |     Archives    |     About Us    |     Contact Us

From Rubber Balls to Barbie Dolls

A History of Baby Toys in America

Toys have existed in some form or another in America since the very beginning of its history. In the early days of America, Native American children had miniature hunting toys, leather balls, and dolls. When European settlers first reached American shores, it was only natural that their children would bring along some small toys, such as dolls and whistles. From these first early toys to the complex, robotic toys of today, children and adults alike have eagerly gobbled up the offerings of American toy manufacturers. 

Early American Toys

When settlers first arrived in North America in the late 1500s, they brought with them a slew of toys to be used as gifts to native children and playthings for their own offspring. Some of the more popular toys of the time period included dolls, whistles, and simple hoops (O?Brien 1990). However, despite the popularity of these early toys, toy making in America would not really take off until the settlers began to experience some economic security in the late 1600s. Prior to this period, their strict religious affiliation and general lack of money limited the appeal of toys. By the early 1700s, however, parents had enough money to indulge their children with toys, and toy advertisements greatly increased. Doll houses, toy drums, and wooden figurines were all embraced by children as the young country developed during the 1700s. 

By the early 1800s, toy makers had begun to experiment with tin and had commenced making a variety of soldiers, horses, and other animals out of the material (O?Brien 1990). Rubber also became a popular material for balls, rattles, and doll heads during this time period. By the eve of the Civil War, toy pistols and cap guns were in the experimental phases, and one of today?s favorite children’s toys, the rocking horse, was also being developed. Indeed, by the late 1850s, the American toy industry was in full bloom, and it would only continue to expand in coming years.

Civil War Era Toys

While the Civil War was at first a hindrance to the toy industry (materials and craftsmen were diverted toward the war effort), by the end of the war in 1865, wartime manufacturing plants quickly transitioned to a variety of different pursuits, among which toy manufacturing was quite popular. During the five years following the Civil War, more than 160 patents for new toys were issued and the industry experienced a huge upsurge (O?Brien 1990). 

Many of the toys popular during the late nineteenth century could be propelled by either wind-up mechanics or steam, and they were a general reflection of the industrialism taking over the nation. Kaleidoscopes, mechanical banks, and soap bubbles made their first entry into the toy market at this time, while perennial favorites such as wooden blocks and dolls continued to enjoy immense popularity (O?Brien 1990). Iron became a popular medium for toys, and a variety of different animal, people, and locomotive figurines were constructed from the durable material. By 1875, toys had become so popular that major department stores like Macy?s and Montgomery Ward established sections devoted entirely to toys (O?Brien 1990). The toy industry was clearly on its way to unprecedented success.

Toys Flower at the Turn of the Century

As America entered the booming economic times of the early twentieth century, the toy industry was growing rapidly. By 1900, the list of toy manufacturers had reached 500 names, and the industry employed more than 4,000 workers (O?Brien 1990). Toy catalogs grew in size, and trade magazines dedicated exclusively to toys began to pop up. Models of trains, horse-drawn vehicles, and steamboats became ever more intricate, as toys began to reflect even more genuinely the technology of the era. By the late 1800s, electricity had revolutionized the toy industry, and electric trains had become quite popular. Another new toy of the era, the air rifle, also enjoyed great success. While the toy gun had been popular as far back as the fifteenth century, the new air rifles boasted surprising accuracy and power. 

By the early 1900s, as American manufacturers began to experiment with working prototypes of the car and motorcycle, miniature versions of these vehicles began to show up on the toy scene. Toy soldiers in a variety of intricate uniforms also became very popular, and parents could purchase full battalions of the tin and lead figurines for their children. The teddy bear, an American favorite named after President Theodore ?Teddy? Roosevelt, emerged during the early 1900s as well, and it became a very popular toy for babies and small children. By the year 1919, the toy industry had carved out a solid niche in the economy for itself, and there would be little in the booming era of the 1920s to move it out of place.

The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression

During the incredible economic times of the 1920s, Americans were optimistic about the future, and the toys of the era reflected this attitude. Toy cars, motorcycles, and trains proved incredibly popular during this time period, and the electric train became ever more detailed and functional. As the airplane became an exciting new mode of transportation in real life, toy planes entered the market with widespread appeal. Models of the German airship Zeppelin also entered the toy market to the delight of small children throughout the country (O?Brien 1990). As circuses traveled throughout America, toy circuses with a variety of different animal menageries and train cars also encountered commercial success. While the toy industry boomed in the 1920s, however, the dark days of the Great Depression would soon greatly change its prospects.

Great Depression-era toys were largely designed to appeal to a less affluent market. While expensive toy stores and department store toy sections suffered, five-and-dime variety toys actually turned in good sales numbers during the Depression (O?Brien 1990). With war imminently on the horizon, the most popular toy item of the period was the toy soldier, and it was an item perfectly suited to dime stores. Toy soldiers of all kinds cropped up during the 1930s and early 1940s, and young children purchased them nearly as quickly as they were produced. 

While the Depression era proved to be a heyday for toy soldier manufacturers, this was not the case for most other toy makers. Hundreds of toy manufacturers were forced out of business during the Depression, and those that survived did so by producing cheaper toys and cutting profits (O?Brien 1990). However, many toy manufacturers were rescued by the widespread popularity of Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Superman, and other cartoon characters in the 1930s. These characters proved to be marketable models for a variety of popular stuffed toys and action figures. Other toy manufacturers, such as Fisher-Price and Playskool, also managed to survive (and sometimes flourish) by producing educational toys for very young children that could be sold throughout the year (O?Brien 1990).

World War II and Beyond

As World War II and the industrial work it generated gradually rescued the nation from the grips of the Depression, the toy market began to flourish once more. Children generally had been encouraged to make do with the toys they already had during the war, and few new toys were introduced while all of the country?s manufacturing plants and materials were concentrated on the war effort. However, once fighting and rationing had subsided, a variety of notable toys entered the marketplace to the tune of resounding success. While toy soldiers declined somewhat in popularity after the war (largely due to America?s desire to forget about the fighting), ironically G.I. Joe action figures would enjoy long-lasting popularity after their introduction in the late 1940s (O?Brien 1990). Mr. Potato Head, a toy that once used an actual potato to model plastic facial features, was introduced in 1952 and was the first toy to be advertised on television (O?Brien 1990). The Barbie doll, one of the most popular and versatile dolls in American history, officially hit toy store shelves in 1959. Other notable and popular toys include the Etch-a-Sketch, introduced in 1960, and Hot Wheels miniature cars, which first appeared in catalogs in 1968. Indeed, the decades from World War II to the present have produced a variety of popular toys, and many are still enjoyed by children today.

In recent decades, the trend in the American toy industry has largely turned to overseas manufacturing. However, small toy makers still maintain a vibrant industry by appealing to toy collectors. While new toys are continually being produced to appeal to young children, toy collectors have generated a definite market for old toys and new parts to repair them (O?Brien 1990). All in all, both children and adults seem to be having fun with toys--and that is, after all, what the toy industry is all about.

-- Posted June 7, 2007

References

O?Brien, Richard. 1990. The Story of American Toys. Abbeville Press: New York.