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Recently, I stopped by the building block “wonderland” that is Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO® Bricks, a temporary exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

I watched children (and also adults) busily absorbed in designing their own Lego creation - choosing from 200,000 Lego bricks placed within the exhibit as a hands-on activity for visitors. Some kids were likely inspired by the impressive Lego models of famous skyscrapers and other buildings displayed there. Many kids immediately dove into the “bottomless pit” of Lego bricks, jazzed by the opportunity to build something wonderful from their own imaginations.

And children DO love to build things--whether they create imaginary worlds or smaller versions of the real one. Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively “the building blocks of childhood.” Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills--and encourages creativity. Toy bricks, logs and girders are the stuff of playtime joy!

Over the last 150 years, entrepreneurs have introduced innovative construction toys that have delighted generations of children. Which is your favorite?

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District School Building Block Set, 1876-1886. THF300131. (Gift of Mrs. Clemens August Haass)

After the Civil War, the Charles M. Crandall Company’s building blocks were all the rage. Like Lego bricks, they could be easily and securely linked together in a “thousand and one” ways. By 1879, Crandall offered 28 sets of interlocking blocks and jointed figures.

This “District School” set was a miniature version of a common childhood experience of the era: the one-room rural school. Crandall advertised that children would “laugh over this group of teachers and scholars” as they built the school and arranged the figures. The “District School” had playful appeal, combining entertainment with education--children could learn their alphabet while having fun.

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Tinkertoys, 1914-1925. THF97403

Tombstone cutter Charles Pajeau noticed how much fun his children had sticking pencils into empty thread spools and assembling them into imaginative forms. So, he designed a shorter wooden spool with one hole drilled in the center and a series of holes along the edge. Kids could now build at angles and connect multiple dowels at once. Tinkertoys were born! In 1914, Pajeau started a company to produce and market the toy.

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Erector Set, 1915. THF95319

As toy marketer A.C. Gilbert rode the train from New Haven to New York on business, he watched as workers erected an electrical system along the railroad line using steel girders that had been riveted together. This inspired Gilbert to design a construction set for older boys with metal girders, panels, wheels, gears, and pulleys. His marketing spoke directly to boys, encouraging them to build.

Boys used their Erector sets to build small versions of steam engines, Ferris wheels, zeppelins, bridges, elevators, trucks, cranes, and other devices. The toy not only delighted boys--it also appealed to their parents, who appreciated the way Erector sets could introduce their kids to careers in engineering. The company even offered “degrees” from its “Engineering Institute.”

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Lincoln Logs, about 1960. THF6627 (Gift of Steven K. Hamp)

John Lloyd Wright, son of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs. Introduced in 1916, these sturdy, miniature logs had interlocking notches. Lincoln Logs were named after Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin.

After World War II, Lincoln Logs got another boost as they became an iconic Baby Boomer toy. In the 1950s, nostalgia for the American West and the frontier had kids crafting log buildings with their Lincoln Log sets. With their nostalgic connection to America’s past, Lincoln Logs were marketed as “America’s national toy.”

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Lego Building Set, 1976-1983. THF59

Legos, developed in Denmark during the 1950s, first appeared in the United States in 1962. With their small interlocking studs and tubes, Lego plastic bricks held together well - yet could easily be pulled apart. Lego bricks offered “no limits on what you can build.” Two Lego blocks could be joined in 24 different ways. Six blocks--over 100 million ways.

Lego bricks can be assembled and connected to create buildings, vehicles, and even human figures. Though the design and purposes of individual pieces have evolved over the years, each Lego brick--whether made in the 1950s or the present--remains compatible in some way with existing pieces.

Duplo bricks - larger sized versions made for preschoolers - debuted in 1969. They were easier for tiny hands to maneuver.

Over the years, Lego has created Lego sets with a variety of themes, including space, pirates, castles, robots, and the Wild West. They have licensed themes from popular cartoons, films, and video games--like Batman, Harry Potter, and Star Wars.

With their endless creative possibilities, Lego bricks have staying power--and fans worldwide. In 2000, Legos were named “Toy of the Century” by Fortune magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers.

As a kid, I loved to design and build houses. Growing up, my siblings and I had Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and an Erector set. I rather envied my friend--she had Block City, pre-Lego plastic bricks with architectural details like doors and windows (which Lincoln Logs lacked). My grandmother (who sewed a lot) kept a box full of empty spools and some wood scraps for us to build with--we created imaginary “towns” all over her living room floor. She never seemed to mind.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford Museum, making, LEGO, childhood, by Jeanine Head Miller, toys and games

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As we continue to celebrate our first year of What We Wore--our new collections platform in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation--a new group of garments from The Henry Ford’s rich collection of clothing and accessories makes its debut.

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This season it’s all about kids.

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Sailor Suit, about 1925
Sailor suits were popular from the 1870s into the 1930s—with short or long pants for boys and skirts for girls. These nautically-themed outfits were usually made of sturdy washable fabrics and, though stylish, allowed kids a bit more freedom of movement.

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Jumper and Blouse, 1958–1960
(Gift of Mary Sherman)
In the 1950s, girls still wore dresses or skirts much of the time—for formal occasions and for school. Pants were play clothes—what girls wore after school to run around the yard or play indoors.

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"Wrecker" Coordinating Shirt and Pants, 1978
(Gift of Diana and John Mio)
Designs with kid appeal often appear on children’s casual clothing— images like cars and trucks, princesses, dinosaurs, animals, butterflies, and monsters.

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Blouse and Pant Outfit, about 1935
This girl’s casual outfit was inspired by adult fashion—beach pajamas, informal resort wear sporting wide pantlegs. Cheerful, pastel prints were popular during the Depression era.

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Leisure Suit, 1977
(Gift of Diana and John Mio)
The casual and versatile leisure suit reached the height of popularity with adult men in 1977, when John Travolta wore a white version to the disco in the movie Saturday Night Fever.  Even kids donned this ultimate—and short-lived—1970s fashion trend.

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Dress, about 1920
(Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis)
In the 1920s, simple dresses were preferred for younger girls. Linen fabric and pale colors were popular for summer wear. The understated details on this dress are embroidered, crocheted and tatted—the children’s mother was a skilled needlewoman.

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The Building Blocks of Childhood

Children love to build things--whether they create imaginary worlds or smaller versions of the real one.  Construction toys are quite literally and figuratively “the building blocks of childhood.”  Playing with them builds physical and intellectual skills--and encourages creativity.  Toy bricks, logs, and girders are the stuff of playtime joy!

Entrepreneurs have introduced innovative construction toys that have delighted new generations of children.  Which is your favorite? For the LEGO fans, Towers of Tomorrow with LEGO® Bricks, a first-of-its-kind, limited-engagement exhibition, is rising up in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation October 12 through January 5, 2020.

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Erector Set No. 1, about 1915

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Junior Tinkertoy for Beginners Set, 1937-1946

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American Plastic Bricks, about 1955 (
Gift of Miriam R. Epstein)

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Lincoln Logs, about 1960 (
Gift of Steven K. Hamp)

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Lego Building Set, 1976-1983

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Dream Builders Super Blocks Building Set, 1991-1992

childhood, What We Wore, toys and games, Henry Ford Museum, fashion, by Jeanine Head Miller

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Naugahyde Advertisement in Life Magazine, October-December 1967. This image is not an original photograph and is a combination of two images created for illustrative proposes.

The Nauga, a colorful, horned, happy-looking creature native to the island of Sumatra, was once hunted to near-extinction. They were hunted for sport, but more often for their smooth and durable leather-like hide – Naugahyde, as it’s generally known. However, hunting a Nauga for its hide is quite unnecessary -- they painlessly shed their hide at least once each year for use in furniture, clothing, and more.

Wait a minute.

You’ve never heard of the Nauga?

All right, you’ve got me. The Nauga is a fictional creature. It was an advertising gimmick created to help Uniroyal Engineered Products promote their soft vinyl-coated fabric that feels like leather but is more durable.  The product, Naugahyde, was used primarily as upholstery in the furniture industry, but also was used for clothing, shoes, accessories and other home goods. Its success spawned many imitators.  In the mid-1960s, Uniroyal hired legendary ad-man George Lois and designer Kurt Weihs to craft an advertising campaign to differentiate their product from the competition. And what did Lois and Weihs create? The Nauga.

A humorous ad campaign featured the Nauga engaged with the world – as the life of the party, as a child’s play companion, adorned in splattered paint from a craft went awry, even as a vacationer readying for travel with golf clubs in hand. These advertisements emphasized the suitability of Naugahyde upholstery for all areas of life, claiming it could be indistinguishable from other fabrics like leather, tweed, or silk -- but “last about ten times as long.” An image of the Nauga found its way onto hang-tags that accompanied all genuine Naugahyde products. Many of the ad campaigns ended with this directive: “If you can’t find the Nauga, find another store.”

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Naugahyde advertisement in Life Magazine, July-September 1967.

The advertising worked – at least in that it caused excitement over the mysterious Nauga creature.  Allegedly, some people even believed Naugas were real creatures and became concerned about inhumane treatment as the use of Naugahyde boomed in the late 1960s. A New York comic, Al Rosenberg, invented a fictional character named Earl C. Watkins who spearheaded the “Save the Nauga” project to protect the species from extinction, adding that a “herd of Naugas is often mistaken for a roomful of furniture.'' The Nauga even made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Nauga dolls, like this one in The Henry Ford’s collection, were also produced to promote the brand. In fact, if you visit the Naugahyde website today, you can still “Adopt a Nauga,” which, according to the company’s webpage, are bred on a ranch outside Uniroyal’s headquarters in Stoughton, Wisconsin.

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Uniroyal "Nauga" Toy, 1955-1975

It isn’t unusual for companies to go to great lengths to endear a product to the public. These efforts have often yielded highly creative and memorable results, like Oscar Mayer’s Wienermobile, the Heinz pickle charms and pins, or the Pets.com Sock Puppet, to name a few. While the Nauga creature has faded nearly into obscurity, the leather-like product it represents lives on…perhaps even as the upholstery of the chair you’re currently sitting on.

Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford, recently adopted a Nauga doll of her very own.

toys and games, by Katherine White, advertising, furnishings

It’s not every day that you get to see a newly acquired artifact in action – in Greenfield Village just weeks before the opening of the 2019 season.

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Meet the 1971 Wooster, Ltd. Sno-Bob, recently acquired by The Henry Ford. A Sno-Bob, also referred to as a ski bike, ski bob, or ski toy, is a bicycle frame attached to skis instead of wheels, or sometimes to a set of foot skis. The origins of bicycle-ski contraptions like the Sno-Bob date back to the mid-1800s. Equipped with real skis and a steering system to give the rider more control than a standard sled, the Sno-Bob is a unique offering in the world of winter toys.

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The Sno-Bob isn’t just a fun winter-themed toy, it’s a bit of a rare find for our collections. As a society, we don’t buy as many snow toys to begin with, let alone save them to be possibly donated to a museum in the future. The Sno-Bob also has a connection to the Beatles, too: those loveable Liverpudlian mop tops ride Sno-Bobs in the Austrian Alps during the “Ticket to Ride” sequence in Help!, their second movie.

While not quite the Austrian Alps, you can see our Sno-Bob in action in Greenfield Village earlier this winter as Conservator Cuong Nguyen takes it out for a spin. While we generally don’t “play” with the artifacts in our collection, we feel that this toy is unique enough to justify video documentation showing how it’s used. (We’re fortunate that the weather cooperated with our plans this winter.)


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by Jeanine Head Miller, by Matt Anderson, by Charisma Tatum, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, toys and games, winter

Toys That Fly!

December 19, 2018 Archive Insight
Sure, trains may still be the classic holiday transportation toy (thank you very much, Polar Express), but some children still look to the skies when putting together their wish lists. We’ve got any number of pilotable playthings in our collection, but here are a few of our favorites.

“Mystoplane” Toy Airplane Set, 1946-1947 (2008.23.1)
“Mystoplane” Toy Airplane Set, 1946-1947 (2008.23.1)

“It’s scientific! It’s educational! It’s thrilling!” So claims the Mastercraft Toy Company about Mystoplane. This little airplane flies through the air without rubber bands or batteries, but with the wave of a magic wand. In reality, the Mystoplane is an extremely thin piece of foil, and the wand’s mystical power is plain old static electricity. Rub the wand against the included cloth and the resulting static charge causes the foil airplane to float near the wand’s tip. It’s low-tech fun at its best.

P-51 Mustang Model Airplane Kit, 1970-1980 (2016.107.1)
P-51 Mustang Model Airplane Kit, 1970-1980 (2016.107.1)

North American Aviation’s P-51 Mustang ranked among the pre-eminent fighter airplanes in World War II. With its powerful engine and its efficient wing and fuselage design, the Mustang flew faster and farther than other Allied fighters. Mustangs escorted B-17 and B-24 bombers on raids deep into German territory. When fitted with external drop tanks to increase its fuel capacity, a Mustang could make it all the way from Britain to Berlin and back. The P-51D version, equipped with a Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine, topped out at more than 430 miles per hour. This balsa wood model doesn’t have quite the range or speed – but how much can you expect from a rubber band?

Star Wars Play Set, Millennium Falcon, circa 1979
Star Wars Play Set, Millennium Falcon, circa 1979 (2002.60.7)

Part of Kenner Products’ line of action figures based on the original Star Wars films, this Millennium Falcon spaceship didn’t technically fly…but in the hands of an imaginative kid (or kid at heart), she’ll make point-five past lightspeed, carrying Han Solo and Chewbacca (sold separately) on adventures across the galaxy.

The level of detail, functionality, and compatibility with the popular 3.75” action figures made this the definitive Millennium Falcon toy for the first generation of Star Wars fans.  Updated versions of the toy produced from 1995 to 2005 reused many of the original design elements.  She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.

Star Wars Vehicle Play Set, Darth Vader TIE Fighter, 1979-1980
Star Wars Vehicle Play Set, Darth Vader TIE Fighter, 1979-1980 (2002.60.5)

An antagonist for Kenner Products’ Millennium Falcon, the evil Darth Vader’s ship featured a battery-powered “laser” light and sound effect, and – spoiler warning for a movie released in 1977 – a button-activated “exploding” action that made this toy fly apart

Spin Master “Air Hogs Hyper Stunt Drone,” 2016 (2016.114.1)
Spin Master “Air Hogs Hyper Stunt Drone,” 2016 (2016.114.1)

Static electricity and rubber bands were fine for the 20th century, but today’s toys are a bit more complex. This Air Hogs micro drone runs on two AAA batteries for the remote control and a USB-rechargeable battery in the drone itself. The little flyer is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, with a basic “beginner” mode and a set of shields that allow it to bounce off of obstacles. (“Crash and keep going.” If only everything in life was so simple!) Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can switch over to “advanced” mode, remove the shields, and fly as high as your confidence – and your ceiling – allows.

Never underestimate the power of play. You never know what inspiration a toy might spark – even years after the fact. You may have heard the story of the two brothers whose father brought home a rubber band-powered toy helicopter. They played and played with the little gadget and, when it broke, built versions of their own. Years later, they remembered those toys as they experimented with a new, larger project in the dunes near Kitty Hawk…

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, and Jim Orr is Image Services Specialist at The Henry Ford.

childhood, by Jim Orr, by Matt Anderson, toys and games

Nostalgia for those who experienced it—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others.

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The Visits with Santa experience in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation this year is a throwback to the 1960s. Kids can tell Santa their wishes as they sit next to him under a colorful kiosk made by Ray and Charles Eames for the IBM pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Nearby is a cozy 1960s living room vignette—complete with a La-Z-Boy chair, television set, and an aluminum Christmas tree from the era.

This mid-century modern theme coincides with the opening of our newest permanent exhibit in the museum, Mathematica, also designed by Ray and Charles. Several components of Mathematica were featured inside that IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, so we were excited to bring those two experiences together for this year’s holiday programming.

The scene provides a bit of nostalgia for those who experienced the 1960s—and a hip mid-century modern revival for others. Let’s look at some blasts from the 1960s Christmas past.

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Aluminum trees brought a modern look to a mid-1960s Christmas.  THF170112

The early 1960s brought a fresh, new look to Christmas tree aesthetics.  A completely modern look--the aluminum Christmas tree.   It made a shiny, metallic splash in living rooms all over America.  More than a million trees were sold during the decade.   A tree choice that eschewed the traditional pine- or fir-scented Christmas experience when it landed on the Christmas scene in the 1960s, now conjures up images of a retro Christmas past.

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Color wheel sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, 1960-1965.  THF8379

A color wheel lit up the aluminum tree, with the tree changing from blue to red to green to gold as the wheel revolved.  The color wheel was there for a practical reason—you couldn’t put strings of lights on aluminum trees because of fire safety concerns.   But to those viewing the transformation, the color wheel seemed a no-brainer way to light these trees—so modern and so magical.  It was mesmerizing to watch—whether from a front row seat in your living room or the view through your neighbor’s window.

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The Smith family of Redford, Michigan purchased these ornaments in 1964 to hang on their aluminum Christmas tree.  THF309083

Aluminum trees called for minimalist look. The trees were often sparingly decked with ornaments all of one color. 

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The Wojewidka siblings pose for a Christmas photo in front of their live tree in 1960.  THF125145

Yet, “real” trees remained popular as well—fresh-cut trees chosen from one of the many temporary Christmas tree lots that popped up in cities and towns. (The cut-your-own trend was not yet widespread.)  Scotch pines were favored by many—though there were diehard balsam fans as well.  These trees were bedecked with a varied array of ornaments—glass ones by the Shiny Brite company were popular. And shiny “icicles”—made of lead before it was prohibited—hung from the branches to add to the sparkle.

Holiday Greetings in the Mail

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By the early 1960s, Christmas cards offered a greater variety of seasonal images beyond those traditionally found. This image shows a woman clothed in a pine tree decorated with 1960s trendy-colored ornaments.   THF287028  

By mid-December, mailboxes were filling with Christmas cards, sent by family and friends to let the recipient know that they were being specially thought of during the holiday season. It was exciting to pull out handfuls of cards from the mailbox—it may have been the only time during the year when a kid had much interest in what the postman delivered. And not necessarily because of the cards themselves—the cards were a tangible sign that Christmas was indeed on its way and that Santa would soon be making his deliveries!  

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Christmas card display clothesline and pins, about 1964. THF155082   

Where did people display all these Christmas cards? On a mantle, a table, or the top of the television. Or taped to a wall or a large mirror in the living room. Hanging them from a Christmas-themed clothesline was a more novel way to display them.

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This 1962 stamp carried traditional Christmas images of lighted candles and a wreath.  THF287036

In 1962, the United States Postal Service issued the first Christmas-themed postage stamps in America. (A few other countries had already beaten us to the punch on issuing Christmas-themed postage stamps.) But once begun, Christmas stamps graced more and more Christmas card envelopes to complete the annual presentation of holiday-themed greetings sent through the mail. 

Making a List

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Christmas catalogs like this 1964 Sears, Roebuck & Company got a workout in December. THF135874

Kids were busy deciding what to ask Santa for. Instead of perusing the web, kids looked forward to the arrival of Christmas season catalogs sent by stores like Sears, Roebuck and Company, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward.  Kids (and adults) eagerly leafed through the pages of the toys, clothing, and other gifts offered within, making their wish list for Santa’s perusal before passing the catalog along to another family member.

Television offered additional gift ideas, playing out the merits of products before viewers’ eyes in commercials that one couldn’t speed past with a DVR.

Toys for Girls and Boys
Many 1960s toys that appeared on the Christmas lists of millions of kids during the 1960s—some in updated versions—are still classics.

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Silly Putty modeling compound, about 1962.  THF135811

Silly Putty was invented during World War II as General Electric researchers worked to develop a synthetic substitute for rubber.  While no practical purpose could be found for the stuff, it did turn out to be a great toy. Silly Putty bounced higher and stretched farther than rubber.  It even lifted images off the pages of color comics. (My sister took Silly Putty to bed with her, leaving a perfect egg-shaped stain on the sheets that never came out.)

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Eight-year-old Rachel Marone of New York received this Etch A Sketch as s Christmas gift in 1961.  THF93827

The 1960s saw an innovative new arts and crafts toy—the Etch A Sketch. Turning the knobs at the bottom of the screen (one to create horizontal lines, one for vertical) let the user “draw” on the screen with a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads. To erase, you just turned the screen over and shook it.  Incidentally, it was the first toy that Ohio Art, its manufacturer, ever advertised on television.  (Accomplished users could make great drawings on the Etch A Sketch—and some of us were just happy to produce decent-looking curved lines.)

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This 1962 Play-Doh Fun Factory was a childhood toy of Mary Sherman of Minnesota.  THF170363

Play-Doh introduced their Fun Factory in 1960. Now kids could go beyond free-form modeling with their red, yellow, blue and white Play-Doh. The Play-Doh Fun Factory provided instructions on how to create things like trains, planes, and boats—and an extruder with dies to easily make the components. 

Watching Christmas Specials on TV

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Album from A Charlie Brown Christmas television special, about 1965.  THF162745

Kids eagerly listened for announcements on television or leafed excitedly through TV Guide magazine to find out when the holiday specials would air.  You didn’t want to miss them—it was your only shot at watching!  There were no DVRs or DVDs back then. Two animated classics from the mid-1960s--A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas--are among the earliest and most enduring of the Christmas specials developed for television.  

Within their engaging storylines, these two shows carried a message about the growing commercialization of the holiday.  As kids watched the barrage of toy ads that appeared with regularity on their television screens and leafed through catalogs to make their Christmas lists, seeing these cartoons reminded them that Christmas was also about higher ideals—not just about getting presents.  These television shows—and the increasing number and variety of Christmas specials that have since joined them—remain a yearly reminder to temper one’s holiday-related commercialism and to think of the needs of others. 

Not only have Charlie Brown and the Grinch become perennial favorites enjoyed by children and adults alike, but the soundtracks of these shows have joined the pantheon of musical Christmas classics. 

Christmas Music

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The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, with its freshly melodic “Ring-a-ling-a-ling Ding-dong ding” background vocals on this 1963 Phil Spector-produced album, has become an iconic Christmas classic. THF135943

What would a 1960s Christmastime be without Christmas-themed music heard on the stereo at home and over speakers in stores? The 1960s saw a flood of Christmas albums and singles. Various singers—like Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Presley, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Beach Boys—recorded their versions of old favorites and new tunes.   

The Annual Christmas Photo

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In 1963, the Truby brothers of Royal Oak, Michigan, posed in Santa pajamas given to them by their grandmother. THF287005

After the presents were opened and everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery, it was time to round up the kids for photos. Siblings (and, sometimes, their parents) might be posed together in front of a seasonal backdrop like the Christmas tree or a fireplace. Some families filmed home movies of their celebrations. These home movies often captured only strategic snippets of the Christmas celebration—movie film was expensive. And these home movies were without sound—which was probably sometimes a good thing!

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

correspondence, events, Henry Ford Museum, popular culture, by Jeanine Head Miller, toys and games, holidays, Christmas

Woody Toy Story Sliding Puzzle
Alien Toy Story Sliding Puzzle
Sliding puzzles of
Toy Story characters, 1996.
THF135833, THF135835


Sunday November 22, 2020, is the 25th anniversary of Disney-Pixar’s first Toy Story movie, which came out in 1995. Learn about the real history of toys that inspired the characters in this hit animated film.

In 1995, Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story made history as the first feature-length computer-animated film. The movie was a surprise box-office hit, far exceeding estimates. In 1996, it won an Academy Award for Special Achievement and was the first animated film ever nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

In fact, Disney took a real chance on Pixar, a young unproven tech startup at the time. Indeed, the staff at Pixar knew computer technology but they had never created a full-length feature film. But, in the course of developing the film, they made a key decision that laid the foundation for Pixar’s success, both then and now. They decided to put the story first—to focus attention the characters, the plot, the action. So, sure, the computer animation of the first Toy Story movie looks really primitive today. But pretty soon, you forget about that because the story still grabs you. Even though the main characters are toys, it’s a universal human story, about who your friends are, or aren’t, or could be.

In addition to the very relatable human story, both children and adults embraced the film right from the beginning because of the choices of the toys themselves. Why are those the toys in Andy’s room? In fact, they primarily come from the filmmakers’ own memories playing with their childhood toys—leading to a motley assortment of toys from the mid-20th century to the 1990s that reflects the varied ages of the film’s creators. Some of these evoke a specific era; others have become classics, continually produced over decades for successive generations of kids. We dug into our own collections to find some of the real toys that appear in Toy Story and reveal their true stories.


Sheriff Woody: Cowboy Toys

 

Cheyenne cowboy-themed game
Cheyenne game, 1958-65. THF 91876

Let’s start with the main character, Sheriff Woody. Woody wasn’t a real toy; instead, he represented a whole group of toys. During the 1950s, cowboy movies and TV shows were huge. This was an era during which the West was greatly romanticized, something Walt Disney was on to when he created Frontierland at Disneyland in 1955. Cowboys, in particular, were revered as rough and tough, independent, honest, and hardworking characters—at the time considered laudable traits for young boys (and girls) to emulate. In Toy Story 2, we find out that Woody indeed comes from a 1950s-era TV show entitled Woody’s Roundup. This game from our collection was named after a real TV show called Cheyenne that ran from 1955 to 1963.

Buzz Lightyear: Outer Space Toys

 

Rocket Darts, outer space-themed game
Rocket Darts game, 1940s. THF 91902

Buzz Lightyear also represented an era and a larger group of toys and games. During the mid-20th century, outer space was considered really mysterious and it fascinated people. At first, it was depicted as pure science fiction, as represented by the aliens and Pizza Planet in Toy Story and shown on the cover of this Rocket Darts game from the 1940s. Increasingly, outer space became a real destination as part of the 1960s-era “Space Race”—leading to Americans actually landing a man on the moon in 1969. Buzz Lightyear is reminiscent of this era, equipped as he is with special features that seem more advanced and sophisticated than Woody’s primitive pull string.

Mr. Potato Head

 

Mr. Potato Head playset
Mr. Potato Head playset, 1955-60. THF 47

Mr. (and Mrs.) Potato Head were and still are real toys. They were introduced in 1952 and 1953, respectively. Back in the 1950s, when this playset was produced, it included 28 different face pieces and accessories—like eyes, noses, mouths, and mustaches—that kids would stick on real potatoes! Hasbro began supplying a plastic potato with each kit in 1964.

Slinky

 

Slinky toy advertisement from Life Magazine
Life magazine ad, 1957. THF 109573

Slinky toy and its original box
Slinky in original box, 1970s. THF 309090

Slinky Dog or, as Woody called him—“Slink”—was also a real toy, as show in this 1957 Christmas ad. He evolved from the invention of the Slinky, along with a host of other rather bizarre-looking Slinky-related toys shown in this ad. The original Slinky was introduced in 1946, when a marine engineer was trying to invent a spring for the motor of a naval battleship.

Toy Soldiers

 

Toy Army men
Toy army men, mid- to late 20th century. THF 170098

The green army men from the “Bucket O Soldiers” referenced the long history of toy soldier playsets. Toy soldiers made of lead or tin date back to the 19th-century Europe. With advancements in plastics, green army men made of plastic like these became popular after World War II. Molding these figures in one piece with the base attached was less expensive to manufacture, leading to the stiff-legged maneuvers of the “troops”—as Woody called them—in the film.

Doodle Pad: Magic Slate and the Magna Doodle

 

Magic Slate toy
Magic Slate, 1937-46. THF 135603

Woody’s Doodle Pad may be a mashup between the Magic Slate and the Magna Doodle. The Magic Slate, marketed as the “erasable blackboard” is essentially a cardboard pad covered with a clear plastic sheet that “wrote” when a wood or plastic stylus was impressed on it and “erased” when the plastic was lifted up. It dates back to the 1920s, when it was offered as a free giveaway by a printing company. People finally realized that it would make a great plaything and it was heavily marketed to kids after World War II. The Magna Doodle, introduced in 1974 as a “dustless chalkboard,” can be considered a later magnetic version of the Magic Slate, with an erasable arm that swept the “board” clean.

Etch A Sketch

 

Etch A Sketch toy in box
Etch A Sketch, 1961. THF 93827

The Etch A Sketch fell somewhere between the Magic Slate and the Magna Doodle. It was invented in 1958 by a French mechanic and tinkerer, who called it “L’Ecran Magique,” or “The Magic Screen.” It used a mixture of aluminum powder and plastic beads with a metal stylus guided by twin knobs and it erased when it was turned over and shaken. The rights to the toy were sold to Ohio Art in 1960, where it became the company’s biggest hit.

Barrel of Monkeys

 

 Barrel of Monkeys toy
Barrel of Monkeys game, 1966-70. THF 91975

What better way to use the Barrel of Monkeys game than to make a chain of monkeys to try and save a toy that had fallen out of a second-story window? Unfortunately, the monkeys didn’t save Buzz Lightyear but, when this game was introduced in 1966, it was advertised as being—what else?—“more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”

TinkerToys

 

Junior TinkerToy for Beginners
Junior TinkerToy for Beginners playset, 1937-46. THF 135602

Woody used the classic TinkerToy box as a lectern for his meeting with the other toys in Andy’s room. TinkerToys were the brainchild of a man who cut out tombstones for a living but saw how much fun kids were having sticking pencils into spools of thread. He came up with the idea of the TinkerToy playset in 1914, billing it as the “Thousand Wonder Builder.” Over the years, TinkerToys were produced in a huge array of colors, sizes, and variations including plastic sets for younger kids introduced in 1992.

Bonus “Toy:” Nursery Monitor

 

Playskool Portable Baby Monitor
Playskool Portable Baby Monitor, circa 1990. THF170094

The Nursery Monitor is technically not a toy, but it played a key role in the “Toy Story” film for the troops’ reconnaissance mission to report out on Andy’s presents. So we’ll consider it an honorary toy. It is the only item here, and one of the very few in the film, that dates uniquely from the era of Andy’s own childhood. This device would have connected immediately with young viewers who were Andy’s age in 1995, and who would grow up with him in succeeding Toy Story films.

Donna R. Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford, enjoyed viewing Toy Story several times as “research” for this blog post.

This post was last updated November 18, 2020.

popular culture, movies, Disney, by Donna R. Braden, toys and games

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I’ve already shared some thoughts on the 2017 North American International Auto Show, but one important new car wasn’t yet revealed during my visit last week. Of course, I’m talking about the LEGO Batmobile from Chevy.

My tastes in bat-transportation run more traditional, but Chevy has something going for it here. The LEGO Batmobile’s 20,000-horsepower rating makes it eight times as powerful as the Goldenrod land speed racer. Likewise, the V-100 engine’s 60.2-litre displacement is more than eight and a half times what it took for the Mark IV to win at Le Mans fifty years ago. The LEGO Batmobile’s styling achieves that rare combination of aerodynamic and exquisite, certain to turn heads on every street corner. Be sure to order the optional bat hood ornament – superior to anything by Lalique. (Besides, everybody knows that bats eat dragonflies.)

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toys and games, NAIAS, Michigan, LEGO, Detroit, cars, car shows, by Matt Anderson

THF166754

Santa Claus is a fan of The Henry Ford. Every year, he visits Henry Ford Museum and spends time with guests of all ages. This year, you’ll find him at the North Pole—in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit, right next to the Fokker Tri-Motor flown over the pole by Richard Byrd. Behind Santa is an enticing display of toys—but what you might not know about these is that all of them are artifacts in our collections, including this “Designed by You” Faber-Castell Fashion Studio set.


To learn more about the other toys in Santa’s Arctic Landing, or to put together a last-minute Christmas list for yourself, visit our Digital Collections to see more toys on display throughout Henry Ford Museum. 

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford

toys and games, Henry Ford Museum, holidays, Christmas, by Ellice Engdahl, digital collections

Kenner’s original Millennium Falcon play set. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. THF1083

It’s an old museum-related joke: You don’t feel old until you see your toys exhibited as historic artifacts. Okay, so I felt a bit aged the first time I saw that Star Wars lunchbox in Your Place in Time, but I never questioned its right to be there. For us Gen X types, few things are so much of our time as Star Wars.

While I was around when all three of the original films were in theaters, most of my viewings came via videotapes recorded from HBO airings. (Heh, a Star Wars viewing still doesn’t feel quite right to me unless it starts with this.) Not until Return of the Jedi arrived in 1983 was I old enough to see one of the movies on the big screen. I still remember being thrilled by the sarlacc pit battle and the speeder bike chase, being saddened at Yoda’s death, and being generally grossed out by Jabba the Hutt. Disgusting or not, it was satisfying to finally see that vile gangster after hearing his name dropped ominously in the first two movies. All in all, it was a magical experience, and the reason that I don’t personally rate Jedi as a lesser work than its predecessors. Continue Reading

childhood, toys and games, space, popular culture, movies, by Matt Anderson