In 1943, the industrial strength of the world's most powerful countries was being flexed
in a deadly-serious war effort, manufacturing guns, bombs, tanks, planes and ships.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a civilian naval engineer working for a shipyard watched as
a torsion spring aboard a ship he was inspecting fell off a table and wiggled and bounced
back and forth. Amused, he took it home to study it. He figured he could make the spring
bounce down stairs and thought he could manufacture one and sell it as a toy.
It took two more years - and the end of the war - before Richard James and his wife,
Betty, formed James Industries. When the spring was perfected, it needed a name. Betty
James flipped through a dictionary and stopped at a word she thought suited the coiled
Mention the word, and almost everyone holds out his or her hands, palms up, and bounces
them up and down, imagining Slinky's back-and-forth motion and the shifting,
"slinky" sound - it's one of the best-known toys of the past forty years. Its 80
feet of coiled steel spring jiggles, shuffles, bounces and stretches back and forth
between the hands, and true to Richard James' original hunch, even "walks" down
stairsteps, with the momentum of its weight propelling its shiny coils end over end.
Though it's been sold in all sorts of variations, including animal and train shapes
attached to its ends, junior sizes and plastic versions, the basic Slinky remains
virtually unchanged. It's self-contained, easy to manufacture, inexpensive to buy - it
sold for $1 when it was introduced, and it still only costs $2.25 today.
Best of all, Slinky is still endlessly fascinating to children and adults alike. It's
become a classic toy since its official introduction in November 1945. It's a toy an
entire generation - the biggest generation in the history of the world - grew up with.
That's what this book is about: the playthings of the generation that came after World War
II, the memories of endless hours spent playing with long-forgotten toys. Unlike Slinky,
the vast majority of the toys that captured our attention and made our Christmas lists
haven't been available for years, and there's already a healthy collectors' market for
toys from the last four decades.
But this isn't a book for collectors. There are no lists of all the toys a manufacturer
made during the period, no lengthy explanations of a toy's rarity, no price guides. This
is a book for people who want to remember how much fun they had growing up.
We devoured our playthings, whether they were related to Howdy Doody
or Fred Flintstone, the Rifleman or Illya Kuryakin, the Beatles or
the Monkees; we had to have exactly what we wanted, and we wouldn't
settle for less. We pestered our parents with our wants, and they
were happy to spoil us rotten with our every wish.
Our wish lists were compiled from TV commercials, comic books, magazines, and annual
Christmas catalogs sent out every fall by the major department stores. We took every
Sears, Montgomery Ward, and J.C. Penney catalog and folded the corners of pages with the
toys we wanted that year; we circled the items on the pages themselves; sometimes, we cut
out the items and posted them on the refrigerator, just in case Mom and Dad forgot.
They didn't dare.
In 1955, for instance, our parents blew $100 million on Davy Crockett toys. After Fess
Parker's sentimental portrayal of the pioneer adventurer appeared on a Disney television
show, the country suddenly erupted with frontier capitalism: coonskin caps and buckskins,
sweatshirts, sleds, blankets, toothbrushes, lunch buckets, and copies of Old Betsy, Davy's
trusty flintlock rifle. Every kid in the country became Davy Crockett.
The pioneer hero wasn't the only TV character to appeal to kids. "The Howdy Doody
Show" went on the air in 1947, and by the mid-fifties was one of television's most
popular shows - 15 million viewers every week, more than Perry Como, Dinah Shore, even
Arthur Godfrey. Howdy had more commercial sponsors than today's sports heroes, except he
didn't have to wear them on his sleeves.
By 1954, seventy manufacturers were producing Howdy items, including
Blue Bonnet margarine, Royal puddings and desserts, Kellogg's cereals,
Wonder Bread, Poll Parrot shoes, and Campbell's soups. There were
Howdy Doody card and beanbag games, dolls of Howdy, Clarabell, Princess
Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring, Chief Thunderthud, Mr. Bluster, and Flub-A-Dub,
paint and shovel sets, swim rings, boxed puzzles, sewing kits, and
stuffed animals. Six million Howdy comic books were sold a year, and
he was featured in Golden Books. RCA Victor had best-selling Howdy
The toys in this book span the period from the late forties to the early seventies,
although it wasn't until the early fifties, when the first kids born after the war were
entering grade school, that the toy industry exploded. Before then, the market was
limited, and growth was modest. Toy companies, like other businesses, struggled to get by
during the Depression, and later most diverted their production to the war effort. In
1940, the toy industry did $84 million in business. By the start of the fifties, the
industry was raking in $1.25 billion, and the figures rose dramatically as the birthrate
It wasn't until after the war that entrepreneurs like Richard and Betty James or companies
like Marx, Ideal, Mattel and Kenner could profit from the vast numbers of children filling
the new suburbs forming around the perimeters of American cities.
The boom of babies peaked in 1957 but continued through 1964, so we've chosen to end the
book around 1974, when the last batch of kids were about ten years old and switching on
the first wave of electronic games.
Toys can evoke powerful memories. Remember that Slinky sound and motion with your hands?
Of course you do, as if you'd held one just yesterday. Anyone who's played with Silly
Putty and Play Doh can recall the smell instantly. In fact, Binney & Smith, the
company that manufactures both Silly Putty and Crayola Crayons, found that the waxy smell
of Crayolas is one of the twenty most recognizable odors to adult Americans. (The two
odors that brought back the sharpest memories were coffee and peanut butter.)
This isn't a scratch and sniff book, but we've tried to present the toys as they were,
through ads, pictures and snapshots from the era. We've dredged up names to jog dim
memories: Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs, Mr. Machine, Mr. Potato Head, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em
Robots, slot cars, electric trains, Betsy Wetsy, Judy Splinters, Easy-Bake Ovens,
Spirograph, Silly Putty, Super Balls, Etch A Sketch, Magic "8" Ball, The Game of
Life, Bas-Ket, Mouse Trap, Hula Hoops, FRISBEEs, yo-yos, Lightning Bug Glo-Juice, and on
Our playthings were a product of the world we grew up in. Besides providing fun, toys
reflected technological advances (look how "science" toys have changed, from
clunky building sets to computer games and Star Wars fantasies); changes in social
attitudes (it was no mistake that Barbie got a black friend during the height of the civil
rights struggle); and values from the adult world (many toys are miniature versions of
adult merchandise, and help prepare kids to function as grownups).
But enough pop sociology. Nobody thought about the cultural implications of an Easy-Baked
cake, a three-day Monopoly marathon, or spending the afternoon chasing THRUSH agents
around the backyard
Let's just play.