RSS
10 fascinating true origin stories of America's favorite toys
Dominoes and Star Wars action figures are joining Monopoly and Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Hall of Fame. Do you know the real stories behind these popular playthings?
Star Wars action figures Obi-Wan Kenobi (left) and Darth Vader (right) have finally been admitted into The National Toy Hall of Fame.
Star Wars action figures Obi-Wan Kenobi (left) and Darth Vader (right) have finally been admitted into The National Toy Hall of Fame.
AP Photo/ Victoria Arocho
R

ejoice, children and children at heart! The National Toy Hall of Fame — which is, indeed, a real place in Rochester, New York — has announced this year's inductees: Dominoes and Star Wars action figures. The latest entrants into the Hall of Fame, which were selected from a list of nominees that included Lite-Brite, the Magic 8 Ball, the tea set, and Twister, will join many other beloved toys that have been inducted over the past 15 years. Though the ubiquity of the nation's favorite toys may make kids feel like they've been around forever, the real stories behind these popular playthings is often both surprising and illuminating. Here, 10 of the most fascinating origin stories in the National Toy Hall of Fame:

1. Play-Doh (inducted 1998)
A member of the National Toy Hall of Fame's inaugural class, Play-Doh was originally intended for use as a wallpaper cleaner when it debuted in 1955 — until Joe McVicker, the nephew of the original formula's inventor, suggested that it would be better used as a softer alternative to clay in children's art classes.

2. Frisbee (inducted 1998)
The Frisbee began life as a humble pie plate (or, some insist, cookie tin lid) from the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the late 19th century. The leftovers were re-purposed into flying discs by New England college students, who would shout "Frisbie!" to oncoming passersby. Despite their unofficial popularity, it wasn't until 1948 that commercial, plastic versions expressly designed for the game were unveiled.

3. Monopoly (inducted 1998)
The first board game inducted into the Hall of Fame, the diversion that eventually became Monopoly was devised by Lizzie Magie in 1903 under the title "The Landlord's Game." Though the game's original intention was to teach players about the injustices of capitalism, Magie suffered an ironic disappointment when her ideas were stolen by businessman Charles Darrow, who re-purposed the game as Monopoly and sold it to Parker Brothers in 1932.

4. Mr. Potato Head (inducted 2000)
In a bid to make vegetables more palatable to children, inventor George Lerner conceived of a set of "silly face parts" that could be inserted directly into vegetables. When the Hassenfeld Brothers — better known as Hasbro — purchased his invention, they promoted it with the first-ever TV commercial for a toy, sending sales skyrocketing. The "actual vegetable" concept was ditched in 1964 for the familiar plastic potato used today. 

5. Tonka Trucks (inducted 2001)
The genesis of the iconic toy truck line goes back to the years following World War II, when six Minnesota schoolteachers pooled resources to start a company called Mound Metalcraft, intending to manufacture and sell garden tools. But when the teachers discovered that a toy steam shovel acquired in a takeover of a competing company was outselling their equipment, they changed their name to Tonka, after nearby Lake Minnetonka, and switched their focus to toys.

6. Raggedy Ann (inducted 2002)
Cartoonist and illustrator Johnny Gruelle accidentally invented the iconic doll in 1915 when he drew a new face on an old, worn rag doll that belonged to his daughter Marcella. Three years later, he wrote a book about the doll, which publisher P.F. Volland packaged along with a tie-in Raggedy Ann doll. The marketing coup was a massive hit, and brother Raggedy Andy — who was also inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2007 — was created in 1920 to capitalize on the success. 

7. G.I. Joe (inducted 2004)
Though G.I. Joe was originally introduced to massive success at the height of the Cold War in 1964, the toy's popularity dropped amid the controversy of American entering the Vietnam War. Hasbro responded by rebranding the solider as a "Land Adventurer" — the first in a string of many re-imaginings, tailored to the trends of each era, that has led the company to sell more than 400 million figures.

8. Easy-Bake Oven (inducted 2006)
Inventor Ronald Howes was inspired to create the Easy-Bake Oven in 1963, after observing New York street vendors keeping their pretzels and chestnuts warm by heating lamp. The original model was powered by two 100-watt light bulbs, and came packaged with utensils, baking pans, and mixes for both cookies and cake.

9. Skateboard (inducted 2008)
Contrary to what Back to the Future will tell you, the skateboard wasn't invented by a time-traveling Marty McFly. Historians believe that the first "skateboarders" were actually surfers, who affixed wheels to their boards in order to practice when the surf wasn't up. By the end of the 1960s, millions of kids had purchased less rudimentary boards, turning skating into an extreme sport in its own right.

10. Big Wheel (inducted 2009)
The Big Wheel was invented by Louis Marx & Co designer Ray Lohr in the 1960s, when they took apart a standard tricycle and mixed up the parts to create the new kids' vehicle. By placing the driver lower than the drive wheel, and placing the seat just a few inches off the ground, the Big Wheel allowed kids to reach much higher speeds and much sharper turns than a conventional tricycle.

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week