The Origins of Classic Toys

By: Malena Esposito

If your childhood was anything like mine, you probably played with some of the classics like Lego’s, Play-Doh, Monopoly, Rubix Cubes, Lincoln Logs, and Barbie’s. In fact, I could probably say the same thing about your parents, or even your parents’ parents. These are just a few of the timeless toys that have been stocked on the aisles for generations, but have you ever thought about how those pieces of plastic came to be?

Well, ponder the thought no longer, as I present to you six toys with authentic origins.


Ah, yes, Lego’s. Ever step on one? Considering the amount of brain cells I’ve probably lost due to incessant hours of building, I’d say the memories of stepping on one is just as sharp as the pain I experienced.

The company was established in 1932 in Billund, Denmark. Ole and Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, a father-and-son twosome, ran a small workshop, producing “wooden toys, stepladders, and ironing boards.” By 1934, the Danish duo took on the name “Lego,” derived from “Leg Godt,” which means “play well,” for their thriving business.

And thrive they did, as the company was able to purchase a molding machine for their plastic creations in 1954, changing the way and the amounts of toys they were able to produce. By this time, the range of products spanned to over 200, including the “automatic binding bricks,” the ancestor of the slabs we love today. As the decade came to a close, a patent was produced, the name was changed, and the inter-locking principle of LEGO bricks was born. In the years that followed, the LEGO company went international, complete with instructions, movable limbs,  and sets, including DUPLO (1978), Space (1979), Western (1996), and my personal favorite, Harry Potter (2001).


Believe it or not, that putty that you always wanted to put in your mouth started off as a complete misunderstanding — which should only ensure that this product really isn’t to eat. In 1955, a “non-toxic reusable modeling compound” was developed by Joseph McVicker in Cincinnati, Ohio. Made up of flour, water, salt, boric acid, and silicone oil, the substance’s intention was only that of a wallpaper cleaner.

However, when a kindergarten teacher told McVicker of the difficulty she faced with her rambunctious students, the entrepreneur supplied her with a perfect solution. Using five-year-olds as guinea pigs, it was clear how captivated the children were, digging their tiny hands into the dough — the Play-Doh, that is.

Within the next year, the product was sold in department stores, the first being Woodward & Lothrop, located in Washington, DC. Alongside the aid of Rainbow Crafts, McVicker was able to manufacture his squishy spread, only to sell all rights to General Mills. By the age of 30, he became a millionaire, breathing in Benjamin’s and swimming in his own slime. As of today, over 700 million pounds of Play-Doh have been sold, complete with the company’s own holiday (National Play-Doh Day is September 18th)!

Magic 8 Ball

Now, what about the ball that you were so reliant on? From clothes to crushes to carryout, just a few shakes and your decisions were made. Even if you had to “concentrate and ask again later,” the black sphere of influence was constantly in your hands.

Developed in the 1940’s, the Magic 8 Ball came from the son of a psychic — literally. With a medium as a mother, Albert Carter spent years surrounded with clairvoyant concepts, inspiring his own device, the Syco-Seer. The liquid-filled tube was split in the center with a clear window on each end, allowing users to see the dice he placed inside. However, rather than numbers, the cube was covered with words, so by ejecting the tube, a response was revealed through the liquid.

Within the next two years, Abe Bookman and Max Levinson served as mentors to Albert Carter, aiding him with the correct necessities to file patents, create a crafting company, and produce his gadget on a mass scale.

However, in 1948, Carter died due to alcoholism and his “gypsy lifestyle.” Fortunately though, Bookman was able to carry out the Syco-Seer, which resulted in redesigning, renaming, and repurposing the product. Now called the “Syco-Slate,” the original liquid-filled tube was placed inside of a crystal ball and was supposed to be used as a giveaway prize for a Chicago company. Following the contest, the Magic 8 Ball was nothing but a paperweight until Bookman realized its potential in the children’s toy industry in the late 60’s.

Currently owned by Mattel, the company claims to sell a million Magic 8 Balls per year, and in 2011, the fortune teller was named as one of the “All-TIME 100 Greatest Toys” by TIME Magazine.

Rubik Cube

There are two types of people in this world: those who can solve a Rubik’s Cube and those who cannot. I am the second person, yet I know several people that can solve one in the blink of an eye.

Invented in 1974 by Erno Rubik of Hungary, the architect and professor aspired to create a 3-D diagram in hopes to help his students better understand geometry. At the close of that year, the first wooden model of the moveable squares was made.

However, despite Rubik’s fascination with his special square, he quickly discovered how hard it was to realign the colors. His first attempt took him a month to complete, and in passing the puzzle around, he found that many others had the same enjoyable problem. This realization led to the cube’s mass production for Hungarian toy manufacturer, Politechnika, who was able to successfully sell the stumper under the name “Büvös Kocka,” or “Magic Cube.” By 1980, the Magic Cube was marketed to the West and was renamed the “Rubik’s Cube.”

In the years since, a whopping 43 quintillion solutions have been discovered, books on how to do so, and even International Rubik’s Championships. As of 2015, the title of the world’s quickest “cuber” belongs to American Collin Burns at 5.25 seconds.

Mr. Potato Head

Have you ever stopped to think about how weird this toy actually is? Who on earth thought it was a good idea to stick body parts into vegetables? And sell it to children?

George Lerner, that’s who.

In the realm of World War II, Lerner designed plastic pin face pieces, such as noses, eyes, lips, and ears, that could be pushed into fruits or vegetables, essentially transforming the food into “an endless array of magical anthropomorphic playmates.”

However, due to the scarcity of supplies during the war, many manufacturers did not see it fit to waste food in such a fashion, making it hard for Lerner to make it big. Although a cereal company was interested, using the pieces as giveaway items in their breakfast boxes, the dedicated developer had bigger wishes than mere breakfast boxes.

By 1952, after being signed by a New England-based corporation, Mr. Potato Head became the very first toy to appear on television ads. Loved by all, from adolescents to elderly, he quickly became known as “one of the world’s most adored personalities.”

In the years that followed, not only was a hard plastic potato body added but also a striking abundance of Mr. Potato Head products, such as board games, video games, puzzles, and play sets. He even used his positive appeal to become the “spudsperson”  for the American Cancer Society after relinquishing his signature pipe and received an award from the “President’s Council for Physical Fitness” after abandoning his “couch potato” status, located on the lawn of the White House itself.


Before the iPhone was even thought of, the Etch-A-Sketch was the screen that captivated the young and the old alike, but how?

Like many great inventions, the Etch-A-Sketch came from nothing but a blooming curiosity. Located in Vitry-Sur-Seine, France, electrician Andre Cassagnes was installing a “factory light switch plate” in 1956 when he had a strange epiphany. By peeling off the translucent detail and making pencil marks on the plate, he realized that the simple scratches could be seen from the opposite side, therefore inspiring him to adapt his accident into a toy model.

After several experiments with a variety of materials, Cassagnes grew content with his use of aluminum powder and a joystick — So content, in fact, that the first prototype, consisting of a “hollow box with a pulley system on the inside” that uses a “stylus to brush away the aluminum powder from the screen,” was actually the last.

However, in terms of possessing a patent, the road was a little more rocky. Many manufacturers rejected Cassagnes because they thought he was asking for too much money or because they didn’t think his toy would be easy to produce or sell. However, the Ohio Art company took on the challenge, making minor adjustments to ensure that the Etch-A-Sketch would sketch as smoothly as possible.

From then on, the Etch-A-Sketch hit the shelves and the tele’s, as the big fat box with the antenna was becoming a prominent role in American culture. Kids were simply engrossed in the idea that their own pictures could “magically” disappear, leading to the impressive sales that kept, and keep, the Etch-A-Sketch a household name.

So, there you have it! The origins of six classic toys that are still probably lying in your attic. If they’re not, it’s probably because you’ve been so inspired and nostalgic throughout these last few pages, that you’re bringing out the old knick knacks now, completely forgetting about your test tomorrow.



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