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Introduction to

Alfred Knopf, 1991


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 spring.


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 hits.

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 skyrocketed.

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 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.


FUN! -- Basically the well-known (fad) toys that didn't fit under other categories, such as Slinky, Hula Hoops, Yo-Yos, FRISBEEs and so on.

KID STUFF -- Toys for tots, including Playskool, Fisher-Price, building blocks, LEGO, Lincoln Logs, TinkerToys, Play-Doh, Etch-a-Sketch, musical toys and our first record players.

HELLO DOLLY -- The chapter on dolls, from classics such as Raggedy Ann and Andy to Betsy Wetsy, Barbie (of course) and even Troll dolls.

GIRL CRAZY -- Girls' toys and how toys back then (and I suppose still today) helped train girls to be the little homemakers that the post-war culture expected. You'll find play cooking sets, tea sets, Easy-Bake Oven, make-believe makeup and arts and craft kits.

THE BIG BANG THEORY -- Basically the "boy toy" section. This chapter covers gunplay -- cowboy stuff from the 1950s and spy stuff in the '60s, with brief sections on the history of bb guns, early cop toys (Dick Tracy and Dragnet), and war toys, and how the Vietnam War killed the market for war toys by the '70s.

GOING PLACES -- The first half is about train sets, which peaked in the '50s, and the second is about cars and slot car racing, which peaked in the '60s. The chapter ends with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars and other examples of Americans' fascination with the automobile.

THE RIDE STUFF -- Wagons, push and pedal cars and riding toys, bikes, pogo sticks, skateboards (the '60s version) and sleds.

BLINDED BY SCIENCE -- Sci-fi toys, science kits, Erector Sets, robots and primitve computers.

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY -- Board games through the decades, ending with the final toy in the book: the early-'70s Pong game, the first video game of the new era.

You can also read an excerpt from the book on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." at the "Fans from U.N.C.L.E." website. We'd love to publish the book in paperback someday; if anyone can help make this happen, by all means give us an e-holler!

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(photograph by Glenn Asakawa, Rocky Mountain News)

"The Toy Book" Copyright 1991 - Not for use without permission.

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Copyright 1998-Present by Gil Asakawa

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