Andy Masich, President & CEO, Heinz History Center:
Hi, I’m Andy Masich, president here at the Heinz History Center. Welcome to Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. It’s our latest exhibit. Toys have been important in early childhood development since the dawn of time, stimulating imagination, learning, and creativity.
Now, here’s Emily Ruby, curator of Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. She’s here to give you a guided tour.
Emily Ruby, Curator, Heinz History Center:
Here we are in the 1950s living room. Now each living room in this exhibit is based on a toy from that decade, so the 1950s is based on a Marx Toy Company toy house and of course it’s a Western theme, which was very popular in the 1950s.
Many toys of the 1950s were marketed directly to girls or boys so they were training children how to be future mothers or fathers or adults so at that time for girls it was a lot of homemaking toys and for boys it was toys training them how to be future construction workers or how to take over dad’s job, like a chemistry set and things like that.
The ’50s and ’60s were the era of plastics. Traditional wooden or metal toys were increasingly being replaced by plastic toys as plastics became more durable. They were also a cheaper material to produce toys with so again an increase in the production of toys.
Dolls have always been a popular toy for girls. In the 1950s, we saw a little bit of a different take on dolls because of the Sara Lee doll, which was the first mass marketed African American doll and provided a more positive image for African American girls.
Because an increasing number of people had televisions in the home, many toys of the 1950s are based on popular television shows such as Howdy Doody, the Mickey Mouse Club, and the most important popular toy of the era – the Davy Crockett coonskin cap. We also saw television commercials, which were increasing the demand for toys.
The first toy to be advertised on television was the Mr. Potato Head in 1952. Here we have one of the original Mr. Potato Head kits, donated to the Smithsonian by its inventor, George Lerner. This kit consisted of pieces that stuck into an actual potato. Parents complained of rotting vegetables found around the house. In 1964, Mr. Potato Head finally got his plastic body and became the Mr. Potato Head we know today.
Here we are in the 1960s living room. Now this is based on one of the most popular toys of the decade – Barbie’s dream house. Barbie was actually invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler, who saw her daughter assigning adult roles to her baby doll. She invented Barbie doll and it was produced by Mattel. Not to be outdone by Mattel, Hasbro decided to invent a doll for boys, but you couldn’t call it a doll. In 1964, G.I. Joe debuted as an action soldier, but because of the conflict in Vietnam, he became a “man of action” in the 1970s. Even though the Barbie doll offered girls more career options for their future, many toys for girls still emphasized their role as a mother and homemaker, such as the Easy-Bake Oven.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s created some increased diversity in the doll market with the premiere of Christie, which was the first African American Barbie doll. We also had the Julia doll, which premiered in 1968. She was based on the popular television show “Julia,” which starred an African American single mother.
In 1961, President Kennedy vowed to put a man on the moon. The ensuing space race with Russia made people obsessed with all things space-themed, including toys. There was the Alpha-One Ballastic Missile. There was the G.I. Joe astronaut. But the Cold War also created many spy and espionage type toys based on shows like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and 007.
The 1970s living room you see here is also based on another Barbie playhouse. In the 1970s, more women joined the workforce and toys became a little less gender specific. We had things like the McDonald’s Familiar Places play set and the Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit that could be marketed to both boys and girls. The 1970s also saw the first Earth Day and with an increased awareness of the environment, kids were able to participate in this.
In the 1970s, there was an increased concern with what was on television and being marketed to children. Pittsburgh’s own Mister Rogers debuted in 1968 and he refused to have commercials advertising toys during his show. In November of 1969, Sesame Street debuted and it became one of the most popular shows of the 1970s for children. Because of this, many toys were produced based on the Sesame Street characters.
You can’t mention toys of the 1970s without mentioning “Star Wars.” Not only were they popular toys for children, but they also launched the collectible toys market.
The dawn of the computer age changed the future of the toy industry. The must-have toys of the 1970s were computer-based games such as Simon, Speak and Spell, and Atari’s Pong.
Andy Masich, President & CEO, Heinz History Center:
Pennsylvania toy makers, including the Wolverine Toy Company here in Pittsburgh, reinforced society’s gender roles. Sandy Andy construction equipment for boys and Sunny Suzy play appliances for girls. Marx Brothers made Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots while in Hollidaysburg, Slinky took the nation by storm.