Sunday, December 15, 2013


Mindware,  a catalog of brainy toys for kids of all ages, arrived in the mail box yesterday. My head was spinning half way through.  I had started with my grandchildren in mind, but soon realized there were toys that many adults could enjoy.  Life seemed simpler back in the day – namely back in the l950s. So, leaving baking soda/vinegar rockets, tightrope-walking gyrobots, and young architect drafting skill sets behind I took a mental stroll down toy memory lane, researching the top ten toys of the ‘50s.  You’ll recognize all of them, but you won’t find them on the 2013 list.  Here they are with some some history that was new even to me, thanks to Judith Blakely of the Yahoo Contributor Network.
1. Barbie
Debuting in 1959, this voluptuous doll scandalized many at the time.  She and her boy counterpart, Ken, were actually based on Mattel founders Elliot and Ruth Handler’s children. I was lucky enough to work at Mattel from 1962 to 1967 and know a lot about their toys firsthand.  There was a whole department of top notch dress designers and seamstresses who brought Barbie and Ken’s clothing designs to life.
2. Play-Doh
Looking for a safe modeling clay substitute , Noah and Joseph McVicker created a non-toxic reusable wallpaper cleaner in 1955 that was the precursor to this great item.  Nowadays some parents make up their own version of Play-doh with flour, salt and food coloring, but I think I prefer the store-bought kind
3. Frisbee
Frisbees also have their own interesting history, a blend of two ideas.  One involved William Russel Frisbie, a pie maker, who had his name impressed on the baking tins, figuring that people who saw the name would remember it and buy more pies.  Eventually students at Yale university began throwing and catching these pie tins.  In the 1950s a man named Walter Morrison designed a saucer dish based on his love of flying saucers. He sold the idea to a toy company called  Wham-O, at which time  the two ideas were merged, with the name changed to  Frisbee.
4. Tonka Trucks

Tonka trucks endure in popularity.  Supposedly they came about when a group of teachers trying to make garden tools gave up and used the left over parts to make toys.  Voila! Instant success. 
5. Matchbox Cars
Jack Odell, made a tiny car model and put it into a matchbox for his daughter’s school “show and tell.”  Now almost all children know what Matchbox cars are,  and play with them at home or school.
6. Yahtzee
Yahtzee was originally called The Yacht Game  It  began as a way a wealthy Canadian couple  entertained their guests on yacht cruises.  Everyone loved the game,  and toymaker Edwin Lowe was commissioned to make the first toys as gifts, changing the name to Yhatzee.
7. Skateboards
In a way, skateboards could really be called surfboards on wheels. In fact they were created so that kids could have the experience of surfing without being near any waves, the earliest ones made in the 30s.
8. Hula Hoops
According to legend Hula Hoops have been in existence for over a thousand years, possibly originating in Egypt.  Our more modern version comes from visitors to Australia seeing kids gyrating with bamboo hoops at school.  The idea was presented to Wham-O.  The present hoops are plastic, and can be purchased in many colors.  I think there are probably very few households without them.  I also imagine that there are very few people in the household who can actually  “do the hula hoop.”
9. Mr. Potato Head
Mr. Potato Head’s creator, George Lerner, originally designed face pieces in plastic that could be pushed into real food to design various faces.  Originally it did not go over well because some people saw it as a waste of food.  The idea was sold to a cereal company, to be used as “giveaways” in cereal boxes.  Lerner bought back his idea from the cereal company and sold it to the Hasbro toy company which manufactured the parts for children to use making potato figures.  After eight years plastic potatoes were invented and Mr. Potato Head was born. He is alive and well today.
10. PEZ
Originally dispensing mints, and shaped like a cigarette lighter, this toy evolved when the company put heads on the dispensers and marketed them to children.  Now PEZ  is a candy dispenser AND a collectible.


There really isn’t a “top ten” any more.  It’s more like a top one hundred. Perhaps you can see why my head was spinning.  Today  stores like Target, Amazon and Toys R Us advertise a multitude of items by breaking them down into age and gender groups.  The closest I could come to a top ten list is Toys R Us “first fifteen”. There are few toys on the list recognizable to my senior eyes.  See below:

1. Sofia the First royal Talking Vanity
2  Despicable Me 2 Minion Dave, Agnes and Gru Collector’s Edition Figures
3. The Ugglys
4. Doc McStuffins Deluxe Get Better Check-up Center
5.  Ever After High Royal and Rebel Dolls
6.  LeapPad Ultra
7.  LEGO Legends of Chima The Lion Chi Temple
8.  Crazy Cart
9.  Xbox One
10. FurReal Friends Cuddles, My Giggly Monkey Pet
11.  Big Hugs Elmo
12.  Shimmer ‘N Sparkle Cra-Z-Loom Bracelet Maker
13.  Tabeo e2
14.  Flutterbye Flying Fairy
15. Skylanders SWAP forcer

I find myself thinking back to 1962 when the world of toys opened up for me.  I was recently out of college, and looking for a job in Los Angeles.  I had started as an employment counselor for Aames Employment Agency when a job at Mattel, Inc. came in.  I knew nothing about Mattel, or what went into toy making but after an in depth interview was hired as “green sheet girl” in the research and design department.  This highly secure area was the birthplace of many toys that are still being manufactured and marketed today.   Keeping the “green sheets” up to date meant that I met with every designer and inventor for the latest information on toys as they evolved from ideas to the assembly line.  It was a simple and effective way to show all involved inventors, engineers and corporate entities the status of various toys in the design process.

Perhaps most people don’t realize how open to industrial espionage the toy business is, and that special passes are undoubted still needed to gain entry into R & D.   Also, I found it fascinating that some  engineers had been hired away from the lucrative aerospace companies to spend their days inventing and playing with complex toys, hot wheels, and guns.  The first talking toys originated at Mattel with Talking Chatty Cathy.  Barbie, patterned after the daughter of owners Ruth and Elliot Handler, became a main stay of the toy line during my time.  Barbie’s many beautiful outfits were created in the fashion department by top notch designers.   Game makers spent their days designing and playing games they thought would sell well.  Child research played a role, with children observed playing behind two-way mirrors to see their reactions.

During that time other employees and I were featured as characters in a game called  Lie Detector.  For me R & D was the most fun department.  But manufacturing, quality control, cost analysis and all other departments necessary for a company to operate served important roles and drew talent from around the country. The company, founded in 1945, had highs and lows, but is still a wonderful place to work and you can check out job possibilities by going to going to Mattel’s web site.

With ten days to go until Christmas,  you are no doubt looking for a holiday or birthday gift for that special child in your life.  If you don’t want to fight the crowds for one of this year’s “top fifteen”, consider checking out Or maybe, like me, you’ll think about the good old days and get a “tried and true” toy.  Hula hoops anyone?