With the success of Barbie for Mattel in the early 1960s, the Hasbro Company saw an opportunity to break into an untapped market – dolls for boys.
The only problem was that Hasbro didn’t want to actually call it a “doll,” since Barbie’s sidekick Ken demonstrated that boys were not interested in a male doll. But how about a male “action figure?” Now that had potential.
As a struggling company during this time, Hasbro took a huge risk and invested a significant amount of money to bring the 11 ½ inch G.I. Joe “action soldier” to market in 1964. G.I. Joe debuted with a soldier, sailor, marine, and pilot. Each figure came equipped with a uniform and additional military supplies. This first “action figure” proved to be a huge hit in the toy market and spawned a previously untapped market.
After several years of growth with the new line, anti-war sentiment increased in the late 1960s during the conflict in Vietnam, and sales of G.I. Joe began to decline. Hasbro knew they needed to do something to save their latest investment, so in 1969, G.I. Joe reemerged as a “man of action” rather than an “action soldier,” which helped to distance the toy from its military roots. The G.I. Joe “man of action” was an adventurer but not specifically a soldier. Faced with increased competition in the new action figure market that they had created, Hasbro eventually stopped production of G.I. Joe in 1977.
In the mid-1980s, Hasbro tried again, rereleasing G.I. Joe, this time as a three-inch figurine, as well as an array of merchandise, a comic series, and television cartoon show, which helped to push G.I. Joe to the top of the sales charts.
In the 1990s, Hasbro released the Classic Collection, which featured limited editions of action figures based on real American heroes in the original 11 ½ inch size. The line featured Charleroi, Pa. native and Medal of Honor recipient Mitchell Paige, who is best known for his heroism at the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II.
Visit the History Center’s new Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s exhibit to learn more about the early years of this iconic toy and see an original limited edition Mitchell Paige action figure in the Special Collections Gallery.
Emily Ruby is a curator at the Heinz History Center.