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Toys and Games


TOYS AND GAMES have always reflected the attitudes, humor, and imagination of the culture and times that created them. Toys have a unique cross-generational appeal that can capture the fancy of not only children, but adults as well. More than a few grown-ups have complex model railroads, proudly displayed action figure collections, or a coveted doll saved from their childhood. As toy historians Athelstan and Kathleen Spilhaus write, "A toy's appeal lies in the form and shape, the beauty of line, the color and detail, the charm of miniaturization, and the humor of caricature. Some toys amuse use with their jerky antics; others add beauty to our lives with their grace and rhythm. Many do things we can't do in real life, thereby keepingus in touch with fantasy."

Toys and Games through History

While some toys, such as mechanical, lithographed tin, or electronic toys, obviously could not have been introduced without simultaneous technological or production advances, once introduced a toy or game is not necessarily limited to its era of origin. Evidence shows that ancient Egyptian children played with simple, wooden dolls; Roman children played with marbles; stuffed dolls and animals date to antiquity and remain popular; chess seems to date from ancient Chinese and Egyptian dynasties; and little boys can still buy a bag of classic green soldiers just as their daddies did decades ago.

Colonial American children played with games and toys like marbles, dice (often carved from bone or antlers on the frontier), and stuffed dolls. Mothers, again especially on the frontier, made many stuffed dolls out of an old stocking or worn pant leg. The child of a more well-to-do urban merchant might play with a doll depicting a peddler, replete with items for sale. Such accessorized dolls foreshadowed by 150 years such modern dolls as Barbie and G.I. Joe. Paper dolls and paper cut-outs have long been popular. In the eighteenth century, dolls—hand painted with watercolor—typically reflected women at household chores. In the United States, that corresponded with republican ideals of womanly virtue. Late in the nineteenth century, Jules Verne's books had popularized science fiction, boys could cut out lithographed paper shapes that they glued together to make fanciful vessels. Punch-out paper dolls with attachable, tabbed clothing have remained a favorite with children.

Eighteenth-century adults fancied thought-provoking, strategic games like chess or checkers. Enlightenment thought encouraged exercising the brain for logical reasoning in any way possible. The eighteenth century also saw the production of many moving figures called "automata." These complex, often life-size models were the work of imaginative and skilled toy makers. However, because of their complexity and the limitations of preindustrial production, automata were never produced in sufficient numbers to classify as toys. Nevertheless, they captured the imagination of the age. One particularly fascinating automata was a Parisian monkey who deftly painted a portrait of Benjamin Franklin, then sat back to admire his work.

The eighteenth century, which spawned Frederick the Great, the Royal British Army, and the American and French Revolutions, not surprisingly also generated great interest in lead or "tin" soldiers. Johann Gottfried Hilpert, a Prussian, standardized soldier production and had a team of women to paint them. Children and adult collectors could amass whole armies of tin soldiers, complete with infantrymen, grenadiers, lancers, cavalrymen, artillerists, and commanders on horseback.

Industrialized production methods, including assembly-line processes, plus improved transportation in the mid-nineteenth century revolutionized toy making and toy consumption. Now manufacturers could quickly make toys and distribute them to a wide customer base.

The automata of the eighteenth century gave way to the mechanical toys of the nineteenth. Popular mechanical toys included monkeys painting pictures, figures that walked, and horse-drawn wagons that rolled as the horse's legs moved back and forth. A post–Civil War toy of Robert E. Lee depicted him on horseback; another more creative one depicted Union General Ulysses S. Grant raising a cigar to his lips, then puffing out real smoke!

While some earlier toys had moved by means of flowing water or sand, the new mechanicals reflected the industrialization of the time. Most were made of tin, detailed with colorful lithographs that accurately depicted rivets in a ship's hull or stripes on a tiger's back. Manufacturers fitted the molded tin around metal armatures, articulated with movable joints. Inside the armatures were energy storage devices. Most used springs that, when wound tight, stored kinetic energy. When a key or switch allowed the spring to relax, the released energy moved the toy. Others used clockworks—gears and springs wound by a key.

The late nineteenth century was also the era of the cast-iron bank. The most popular banks also moved via the same type of mechanism as toys. Some depicted animals jumping through hoops, or, again, drinking from bottles or mugs. Placement of a coin in a bank character's hand or mouth usually activated the bank. Any motion always ended with the deposit of the coin.

American toys have always exhibited an air of nationalism. Banks and toys began depicting American heroes, especially from the Revolution, around the nation's centennial in 1876. Post–Civil War toys, whether wooden pull toys, tin mechanical toys, or paper doll cutouts, often depicted Civil War soldiers from both the North and the South. As the United States Navy modernized into steampowered, steel-clad fleets with rotating gun turrets, toys reflected the change; wind-up, rolling destroyers with smokestacks and ramming prows became popular. In 1916, as the United States prepared to enter World War I (1914–1918), a mechanical toy showed Uncle Sam kicking Kaiser Wilhelm II in the seat of the pants.

American toys also depicted open racism and prejudice. One mechanical toy was an African American dancingon a platform, which was not overtly marked but latently resembled a slave auction block. Other black toys, often named "Uncle Tom," shuffled, danced, or played instruments.

The Twentieth Century

The early twentieth century saw toy makers introduce the names that would become classic. In 1902, after seeing a cartoon that depicted the immensely popular Theodore Roosevelt with a bear cub he had found on a hunting trip, Morris Michtom of Brooklyn's Ideal Toy Company introduced the stuffed "teddy bear." Picked up by a variety of other companies, teddy bears have been in production ever since. Another enduring stuffed toy hit the markets in 1915 when Johnny Gruelle introduced Raggedy Ann. Gruelle followed her up with Raggedy Andy for boys, and a series of illustrated books to keep them before the public.

Americans' fascination with industry and building translated to toys. In 1913, A. C. Gilbert introduced the Erector Set. The next year Charles Pajeau followed suit with Tinker Toys. And in 1916, John Lloyd Wright—famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright's son—introduced Lincoln Logs, which one of his father's creations helped inspire. As of 2002, all were still on the market.

The age of movie/toy tie-ins arrived in 1928 when Walt Disney created the animated Mickey Mouse in a cartoon short. Soon, stuffed Mickeys were on the market, accompanied by his animated sidekicks Donald Duck, Goofy, and the rest. Most large malls boast a Disney Store with toys and merchandise from all of Disney's movies.

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw families seeking durable games they could play together. In 1936, Parker Brothers introduced perhaps one of the most enduring games of all time, Monopoly. The game fit the mood of the country exactly. People had little money, but by playing Monopoly they could be rich with play money. They could buy lucrative Atlantic City properties and monopolize utilities and railroads. If they made a misstep, they could get tossed in jail—just as they wished would happen to many of the "captains of industry" whom many Americans blamed for the depression.

Two other phenomena once again revolutionized the toy industry after World War II (1939–1945). They were the introduction of a suitable plastic for toys, and the baby boom. The plastic known as polystyrene actually first appeared in 1927. But World War II perfected the use of plastics in industry. That, coupled with a postwar prosperity and the largest new generation in American history, set the stage for a toy boom.

The classics of the age were born. In 1952, the Hassenfeld Brothers—Hasbro—of Providence, Rhode Island, introduced an unlikely toy: plastic eyes, noses, ears, and lips that kids could stick into potatoes and other vegetables or fruits. Hasbro called the odd toy Mr. Potato Head, and it quickly caught on. In the 1960s, Hasbro marketed Mr. Potato Head with plastic potatoes, and even plastic carrots, green peppers, and french fries. A Mrs. Potato Head appeared, but the spuds lost their appeal by the 1970s. In 1995, however, Pixar's movie Toy Story repopularized Mr. Potato Head.

Television and movie tie-ins created new toy markets in the 1950s. Disney's Mickey Mouse Club spurred a demand for mouse-ear hats, as did Disney's Davy Crockett series a demand for coonskin caps. Disney's Zorro encouraged little boys to ask for black plastic swords tipped with chalk so they could slash a "Z" on sidewalks, trees, and buildings.

In 1959, Mattel introduced Barbie, the most popular plastic doll of all time. Mattel engineered a marketing coup with Barbie, by offering not only the doll but a range of accessories as well. Changes of clothes, purses, gloves, shoes—no Barbie was complete without a decent wardrobe, and a Barbie box to carry it in. Soon Barbie had a boyfriend, Ken, and a sister, Skipper. Barbie was born into the suburban housewife era and has lived through the hippie age of the 1960s, the do-your-own-thing era of the 1970s, and the flamboyant 1980s. While feminists have decried that Barbie, with her exaggerated hourglass figure, is sexist, foisting upon young girls an image of womanhood that is hard to achieve, she has nevertheless endured.

In 1965, Hasbro took the social risk of introducing a doll for boys—G.I. Joe. At almost a foot tall, Joe was loosely based on a new television series called The Lieutenant. In reality, Joe arrived in a year when the United States was celebrating the twentieth anniversary of its victory in World War II. Joe represented a time before the Cold War when Americans were victorious on the battlefield. Not that six-year-old boys cared, but Joe won the favor of their parents, and that was half the battle. Joe also followed Barbie's marketing scheme, by offering accessories like M-1 Rifles, hand-grenades, dress blues, and jungle camouflage. Boys could even outfit Joe in enemy uniforms; but they were enemies from the "good ol' days"—Germans and Japanese—not the North Vietnamese or Vietcong of the 1960s. Indeed, Joe would suffer, as would all Americans, from United States involvement in Vietnam. As victory eluded the United States there and things military faded from fashion in the wake of war protests, Joe changed from a soldier to an adventurer. In 1970, Hasbro began marketing Joes as the "Adventure Team." Bewhiskered Joes drove All-Terrain Vehicles instead of Jeeps, and hunted for stolen mummies and white tigers. Joe became anemic as the United States began to doubt itself on the battlefield. By the mid-1970s, Joe had faded away. He returned, however, as a smaller action figure in the early 1980s to battle an elite group of terrorists known as Cobra. In the late 1990s, Hasbro returned the original G.I. Joe to the markets. The target audience was grown-up baby boomers who once played with the original.

Toy cars had longbeen around. Jack Odell introduced finely crafted miniatures he called Matchbox Cars in 1952, and in 1957 Tonka trucks and cars hit the market. Larger-scale, metal vehicles with free-rolling wheels, Tonkas were virtually indestructible. Mattel revolutionized the market once again in 1966 with the introduction of Hot Wheels. The cars had low-friction wheels and used gravity to speed them down strips of yellow track that boys could attach to tabletops then run down to the floor. The cars depicted stock autos, like Mustangs and Camaros, and fanciful show and concept cars.

The release of George Lucas's Star Wars in 1977 brought new interest in miniature play figures, popularly called "action figures." In the early twenty-first century, toy buyers can expect tie-in toys to hit the shelves a month or more before their associate movie, but Star Wars arrived in the summer of 1977 with no affiliated toys. Not until the next year did figures of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the rest appear. Compared with later action figures, the original Kenner Star Wars figures are simple, yet toy collectors highly prize them. In the 1980s, virtually every kid-oriented movie from E.T. to Beetlejuice had action figure/toy tie-ins.

The 1980s also saw reverse tie-ins, when toy manufacturers contracted animation studios to produce cheap half-hour cartoons to support toys. He-Man, She-Ra, G.I. Joe, and Teenage-Mutant Ninja Turtles capitalized on such marketing strategy.

Electronics have also made their mark on toys. In 1972, Magnavox introduced Odyssey, the first video game that could be hooked into a television. Atari followed in 1976 with Pong. While home video games boomed briefly, they faded quickly in the early 1980s as large, coin-fed games in arcades attracted players. In 1983, Nintendo pried the home video game market back open with games like Super Mario Brothers. Now video games are a staple for both televisions and computers.


The History of Toys and Games. Available at

Ketchum, William C., Jr. Toys and Games. Washington, D.C.: Cooper-Hewitt Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, 1981.

Miller, G. Wayne. Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle between G.I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies that Make Them. New York: Times Books, 1998.

Spilhaus, Athelstan, and Kathleen Spilhaus. Mechanical Toys: How Old Toys Work. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989.

R. StevenJones

See alsoG.I. Joe ; Barbie Doll ; Middlebrow Culture ; "Monopoly" ; "Scrabble" ; Vacation and Leisure .

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