views updated May 23 2018



NAICS: 33-9931 Doll and Stuffed Toy Manufacturing, 33-9932 Game, Toy, and Children's Vehicle Manufacturing

SIC: 3942 Doll and Stuffed Toys Manufacturing, 3944 Games, Toys, and Children's Vehicle Manufacturing

NAICS-Based Product Codes: 33-99310 through 33-99310326, 33-99321 through 33-99321116, 33-99323 through 33-99323131, 33-99323 through 33-99323566, 33-99325 through 33-99325236, and 33-99320 through 33-99329100


Toys are, in their broadest sense, physical representations of working objects powered by imagination. They mimic real-world materials and concepts but ideally not in ways that can harm the user. Toys help a child enter a gradually-enlarging world, though when used by adults, toys are a means to minimize or hide the significance of that world. Human culture has used toys as long as it has used stories and for similar purposes: to instruct, to entertain, and to inform.

The first toys, just as the first tools, were likely objects occurring in nature but modified for human use. Early dolls were made from clay, wood, or fur. What adults used for tools, children use for play. However, adults, too, play games and often play with toys. Adults played early versions of board games such as chess, checkers, and backgammon in ancient civilizations. Such games, created in Egypt, Greece, India, or China, developed established rules. Board games were introduced to different cultures through exploration and military campaigns. For instance, Roman soldiers traveled with early versions of backgammon. During the thirteenth century Alfonso X, King of Leon and Castile, commissioned the Libro de los Juegos, or Book of Games. This first encyclopedia of European games was completed in 1281. It contained the rules for chess, backgammon, dice, and other games designed to entertain adults.

Toys for children were often designed to instruct or inform. Research into medieval times shows boys buried with small copies of weapons and tools; girls, with domestic implements. With over eighty percent of humanity living outside urban centers, toys held survival value: hunting, farming, and fighting practice for boys, motherhood simulation for girls. Dolls are among the oldest form of toys, with wood dolls made in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Talented artisans were recruited by nobility to make dolls. At the time of her death in 1589, the inventory of the belongings of Catherine de Medici contained 16 dolls. Pinocchio was a wooden doll with roots in Italy based on an 1883 book written by Carlo Collodi, also known as Carlo Lorenzini.

Toy shops became common through most of Western culture by the late nineteenth century, following the increased availability of disposable income as a result of the industrial revolution. Outdoor toys were common in the United States. A rolling wooden hoop made from oak and ranging in size from 22 inches to 44 inches was sold with a stick. It was advertised as an outdoor toy for boys in 1979–1880 by Davis Brothers. By the turn of the twentieth century, early U.S. toys included doctor and nurse kits, toys designed to instruct and inform children into playing the roles of professional adults. Children commonly played house or school, another way of assuming the roles of adults. By 1928 two schoolteachers in Wisconsin believed preschoolers could benefit from early learning at home and made toys to that end.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, toys continued to instruct, entertain, and inform. Toys for preschoolers, outdoor toys, and dolls remained popular with a large variety of choices available in the marketplace.


The U.S. toy manufacturing industry has been declining. While the sale of toys has been strong, the shipments of U.S.-made toys has been declining since the mid-1980s. Peaking in 1984 at $615 million worth of shipments, U.S. manufacture of dolls and stuffed toys declined to $150 million in 2005. The decline in U.S. manufacturing of games, toys and children's vehicles is more difficult to track to before 1997 when the U.S. Census Bureau changed the industrial codes by which it tracks shipments. However, shipments of games, toys, and children's vehicles stood at $3.9 billion in 1997 and had fallen to $3.2 billion by 2005. The games, toys, and children's vehicles segment of the industry, while also declining, is doing so at a slower pace than is the dolls and stuffed toy segment.

U.S. Census Bureau data for the period 1997–2005 are presented for both industries in Figure 214. Notable in the shipment data for both toy industries is the impact that the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States had on the toy industry. Since the Christmas season is such an important engine for sales of toys, the decline in seasonal sales in 2001 was a important blow to the toy industry. Items in the dolls and stuffed toys segment include dolls of all sorts, toy animals, action figures, and stuffed toys, including parts and accessories. Items in the games, toys, and children's vehicle segment include plastic baby carriages/tricycles, models and craft/science kits, non-electric toys and puzzles, and a non-electric toys category that represented 34 percent of the segment in 2005. This largest game and toy category includes toy weapons, housekeeping, and cooking toys.

The industry association, Toy Industry Association, Inc., located in New York, tracks consumer purchases of toys in conjunction with the NPD Group. From the data they collect and publish a breakdown of the market by type of toy can be made. The categories used by the Toy Industry Association differ slightly from those of the Census Bureau and consist of the following eleven categories: action figures and accessories, arts and crafts, building sets, dolls, games/puzzles, infant/preschool, youth electronics, outdoor and sports, plush/stuffed toys, vehicles, and all other.

According to the Toy Industry Association, retail sales in the industry for 2006 were $22.3 billion. The three categories with the largest share of this total were the infant and preschooler category (14%), followed by outdoor and sports toys (13%), and dolls (12%). Arts and crafts was another important category, as was the games and puzzles category.

Imports have played an important role in the toy marketplace. As U.S. production of toys has fallen, the quantity of imports has risen. In 2000 toy imports in the United States stood at $14.4 billion, for items in both Census Bureau toy categories, dolls and stuffed toys, as well as games, toys, and children's vehicles. In 2006 imports of toys to the United States were valued at $18 billion.


In the United States there were 139 establishments manufacturing dolls and stuffed toys in 2002 and an additional 742 manufacturing games, toys, and children's vehicles. Most doll and stuffed toy makers were located in California and New York, while most game, toy, and children's vehicle makers were in California and Pennsylvania. The top two U.S. toy manufacturers are Mattel, Inc., and Hasbro.

Mattel, Inc.

With its global headquarters in El Segundo, California, Mattel employed more than 32,000 people as of December 31, 2006 in 43 countries and sold products in more than 150 nations. The Mattel umbrella includes Barbie, the most popular doll ever, Hot Wheels, Matchbox, American Girl, Radica, and Tyco R/C, as well as Fisher-Price brands, including Little People and Power Wheels. Fisher-Price sells a wide array of entertainment-inspired toy lines. Mattel reported net sales in 2006 of $5.7 billion. Its North American factories are in Tijuana and Monterrey, Mexico.

Mattel emerged from a toy company started by Ruth and Elliot Handler in their garage. The Handlers were inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989. They advertised on television on the Mickey Mouse Show in 1955. In the 1960s Mattel introduced plastic toys like See and Say and die-cast toys like Hotwheels. In 1993 it acquired Fisher-Price. It introduced Tickle Me Elmo in 1996 based on the well-known Sesame Street character, and Elmo became the biggest toy craze of the decade. In 1998 Mattel acquired Pleasant Company, the Wisconsin direct marketer of the American Girls brand of dolls, the second largest brand in the world, targeted for girls ages seven to twelve.

Mattel is the largest name in doll manufacturing. It makes Barbie, the number one doll brand targeted toward girls aged three to seven. Since her creation in 1959 as a teenage fashion model, Barbie was introduced in various professional roles with many friends. Ken joined Barbie in 1961. Mattel introduced an African American Barbie in 1980, but only the coloring—not the doll's features—had been changed. Barbie got her first disabled friend in a wheelchair in 1997. Barbie underwent a makeover in 1998 in response to complaints that she contributed to the lowering of the self-esteem of young girls. Her figure proportions were made more realistic and her makeup was toned down. On average, U.S. girls own eight Barbie dolls each. An estimated 95 percent of U.S. girls own at least one. Barbie remains popular by changing with the times. The Barbie Web site had 54 million hits per month, according to 2006 data from Webtrends International Analytics Reporting Tool. Barbie direct-to-DVD movies are consistent best sellers. By the end of 2006, seven Barbie movies had been released including Barbie Swan Lake, The Princess and the Pauper, and Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses.

Hasbro, Inc.

Hasbro began in 1923 in Providence, Rhode Island, when the Hassenfeld Brothers started a company that eventually expanded its product line to include paint sets, wax crayons, and doctor and nurse kits. Hassenfeld Brothers changed its name to Hasbro Industries in 1968, the year it went public. Hasbro grew primarily through acquisitions. Net revenues in 2006 were $3.2 billion. It employs 5,800 people; 3,200 in the United States. It has manufacturing facilities in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and Waterford, Ireland, along with suppliers in Asia. The Hasbro Children's Hospital opened in 1994 Providence, Rhode Island.

In 1928 Playskool, acquired by Hasbro in the 1980s, was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by two former school teachers who believed preschool children could benefit from early learning experiences at home. In 1935 Parker Brothers, acquired by Hasbro as part of its 1991 Tonka acquistion, launched a game about real estate wheeling and dealing called Monopoly, which eventually became the all-time, best-selling game. In 1947 Mound Metalcraft built Tonka trucks outside of Minnetonka, Minnesota. Hasbro purchased Tonka Corporation in 1991.

Hasbro owns Scrabble, which debuted in 1948 and has a checkered history. First manufactured by Selchow and Righter, the game was acquired by Hasbro 1989 and is currently part of the Parker Brothers lineup. In 1949 Milton Bradley, acquired by Hasbro in 1984, introduced Candy Land for children as young as age three to play. In 1952 Hasbro had its first major toy success with Mr. Potato Head, which it advertised on television. In 1956 Rainbow Crafts formulated Play-Doh. In the 1960s Kenner Products, purchased by Hasbro in 1991 as part of Tonka, created the Easy-Bake Oven for girls and G.I. Joe—an example of an early action figure—for boys.

After a brief hiatus from the market, Hasbro reintroduced G.I. Joe to the market in 1982 in the 3 3/4-inch scale made trendy by movie action figures. The new G.I. Joe spawned a hit animated television series and best-selling comic book line. In 1984, the same year it purchased Milton Bradley, Hasbro rolled out die-cast cars that transformed into robots called Transformers that retailed at $8 to $10 per car. In 1985 Hasbro Industries officially changed its name to Hasbro, Inc.

Acqusitions in the second half of the 1990s included Larami (maker of Super Soakers), Russ Berrie and Company subsidiaries Cap Toys and OddzOn (Koosh brands and interactive Cap Candy line), Tiger Electronics, Avalon Hill (maker of strategic board games), and Galoob (Micro Machines). In 1999 Hasbro acquired Wizards of the Coast, makers of Pokemon collectible trading cards and owner of the well-known role playing game Dungeons & Dragons.

Other Companies

Ty, Inc. made the plush-like and highly collectable Beanie Babies starting in 1993. In 1999 Ty retired all Beanie Baby manufacturing. Traditional dolls in the collectible segment are made by manufacturers such as Alexander Doll Company and Lee Middleton. Build-A-Bear Workshop was started by Maxine Clark in 1997 using knowledge of retail marketing she gained as a clerk at Payless Shoe Source. Typically located in shopping malls, these stores allow children to design their own teddy bears and other stuffed animals and construct them, usually with little or no adult assistance. By the end of 2006 the company posted sales of $437 million.


Reports published by the U.S. Census Bureau as a part of their Annual Survey of Manufactures detail the materials needed to make toys. These are primarily plastics resins and fabricated metals. Plastic is easily colored, heat stable, and durable. According to Standard & Poor's, consumer and institutional goods such as toys, sporting goods, and medical products consume approximately 13 percent of plastics production.

Mattel reported in a June 2007 analysts report that its supply chain initiatives include a materials laboratory to identify alternate sources of raw materials. As a result of the competitiveness of the plastics resins market, Mattel purchases recycled resin from outside suppliers at a lower cost. This also gives it credit for becoming more environmentally conscious. The materials laboratory also identified alternative materials for the popular die-cast cars. The laboratory developed a zinc/steel composite for die-cast cars, where a substitute steel filler saves approximately 20 percent over the cost of purchasing the more expensive zinc.


While the retail toy distribution channel involves a classic structure wherein toy manufacturers sell products to wholesalers who distribute to retailers, the largest retailers with a nationwide presence have a direct relationship with toy makers. During 2006 Mattel's three largest customers were Wal-Mart at $1.1 billion, Toys R Us at $0.8 billion, and Target at $0.5 billion. Combined, these stores accounted for approximately 43 percent of Mattel's worldwide sales.

Toy Industry Association, Inc., reported that among the top 50 global toy retailers are Best Buy, Carrefour, Costco, Federated Merchandising, JCPenney, Kroger, Loblaw Companies Ltd., Marmaxx, Sears Holding Corp., Target, and Wal-Mart.

Mattel described its current distribution channel in June 2007. Its U.S. products are sold directly to retailers, including discount and free-standing toy stores, chain stores, department stores, other retail outlets and, to a limited extent, wholesalers. Mattel also operates several small retail outlets, generally near or at its corporate headquarters as a service to its employees and as an outlet for its products. Additionally, Mattel sells products online through its Web site. American Girl Brand's products, however, are distributed differently. They are sold directly to consumers via a catalog and through Mattel-owned stores.

The retail toy distribution channel is dominated by five top national retailers who sell 60 percent of toys. Market Share Reporter 2007 reported that Wal-Mart accounted for 20 percent of the retail toy market, Toys R Us claimed 17 percent, Target generated 8 percent, while Kmart had 6 percent, and KB Toys had 5 percent. The distribution channel for toys is distinct due to its absolute reliance on the Christmas season, which accounts for 50 to 60 percent of annual sales. Long-time toy retailers KB Toys, FAO Schwarz, Inc., Zany Brainy, and The Right Start filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection following the 2003 Christmas season. In 1998 Toys R Us started selling toys online.


In terms of market share, infants and preschoolers are the largest users of toys. Of the $22.3 billion spent by U.S. consumers in 2006, most spending was in the infant and preschooler category (14%). Other key users are both adults and children who enjoy outdoor sports activities (13%). Dolls tend to be used most by children and represent 12 percent of the toy market by type. Users of arts and crafts, as well as games and puzzles, may be children or adults and are often a combination of children and adults playing together. These two categories of toys represented 23 percent of the toy market based on value of retail sales in 2006.


The primary adjacent market for toys involves licensing agreements for Hollywood movie entertainment characters. Tapping into the lucrative adjacency of entertainment properties is generally credited to director George Lucas who released the movie Star Wars in 1977. The following year miniature play figures such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were rolled out and came to be known generically as action figures. Since the 1980s most child-oriented movies from E.T. to Harry Potter to the Pirates of the Caribbean series had action figure tie-ins. For instance, in 2000 Mattel obtained the licensing rights for Harry Potter, rolling out Harry Potter dolls, games, and puzzles, along with plush and collectible characters.

The Toy Industry Association inducted George Lucas, the director of Star Wars, into its hall of fame in 2007, explaining:

Star Wars was the first entertainment franchise that brought together film, licensing and merchandising. Not only did Star Wars completely reshape the pop-culture landscape, it revolutionized our industry. Star Wars action figures established the 3 3/4-inch scale, which allowed kids to recreate the dynamic scenes of the movies, and spawned a community of passionate toy collectors—kids and adults alike. Star Wars set the industry standard on which most major movie toy lines are based today.

Kenner introduced the Star Wars line in 1977, fourteen years before it was acquired by Hasbro. Star Wars radically changed the profile of the action figure market. In addition to creating the standardized 3 3/4-inch size, Star Wars brought down the retail price, making action figures affordable for all kids. As a result of its 1991 acquisition of Tonka Corporation, which included Kenner Products and Parker Brothers, Hasbro acquired Star Wars and a wide range of licensed properties, such as Batman.

According to its Web site, Hasbro has licensing agreements with the entertainment industry's premier companies, such as Disney and Lucasfilm. Hasbro teamed up with the Walt Disney Company in 2000 and became the master toy licensee for all Disney films, and was named official toy and game company for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Euro Disney. As part of the agreement, Hasbro worked with Disney to design and develop a special toy store, called Once Upon a Toy, that opened in Downtown Disney in the summer of 2002.

According to its 2006 annual report, Mattel has agreements to license entertainment properties from, among others, Disney Enterprises, Inc. including Disney characters such as Winnie the Pooh, Disney Princesses, Cars from Pixar, and all Disney films and television properties for use in Mattel DVD board games sold in North America; Viacom International, Inc. including its Nickelodeon properties Dora the Explorer, Go-Diego-Go!, and SpongeBob SquarePants; Origin Products Limited including Polly Pocket!; Warner Bros. Consumer Products including Batman, Superman, and Justice League; and Sesame Workshop including its Sesame Street properties.

Hasbro is expected to have the biggest seller of the 2007 summer move season with its Transformers action figures. Hasbro introduced Transformers in the 1980s, and the Transformers action film directed by Michael Bay is based on the Hasbro line of toys. Concurrent with the release of the move, Hasbro updated its Transformers line to include the Optimist Prime 18-wheel truck that transforms into a blaster with one pull of a handle. Typically, the studios license the rights to toy manufacturers and also receive royalties of 7 to 15 percent of the sales, according to a June 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times.

Hasbro also has the master toy license to three Marvel superhero movies in theaters in 2007: Spider-Man 3, Transformers, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The June 2007 Los Angeles Times article reported that Hasbro needs $1 billion in Marvel-related sales over the next five years to make a profit on its licenses. Toward that end, Hasbro signed deals with 230 licensees worldwide for T-shirts, bedding, cellular phones, and shoes for its Transformers brand.


During 2004, 2005, and 2006, Mattel spent $171 million, $182 million and $174 million, respectively, in connection with the design and development of products, exclusive of royalty payments. Although classics such as Barbie, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Slinky have demonstrated strong, long-term sales performance, few toys or games stay on the shelves for more than a year or two. Toy makers continually update products. The traditional toy industry has competition from video games. While traditional toy industry consumer spending grew 4 percent from $21.3 billion in 2002 to $22.3 billion in 2006, consumer spending for video games grew from $10.3 billion in 2002 to $12.5 billion in 2006, an increase of 17 percent.

The addition of electronically driven features to toys is also an area receiving a great deal of R&D attention in the early twenty-first century. The incorporation of digital media in toys and games is another focus of many redesign projects. DVDs are being incorporated into games to make the experience more engaging. The latest version of the Game of Life uses a Visa card rather than cash and electronically keeps track of points, speeding the game pace significantly.


A trend seen in many areas of fashion and entertainment during the first decade of the twenty-first century is also showing up in the toy market. The trend is the retro trend, the revival through reissue and remaking of previously successful products. The aging of the Baby Boom generation (those born between 1945 and the early 1960s) is often cited as a motivator behind this trend to reissue games and toys that were popular when this large generation was in its youth.

Another trend that is influencing the toy market in the latter part of the first decade of the twenty-first century has to do with the increasing use by U.S. toymakers of subcontractors located outside the United States. To take advantage of low labor costs, many toy companies having been contracting with suppliers in countries like China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. This trend is so common that Toy Shippers Association, Inc., part of the Toy Industry Association since 1989, negotiates competitive ocean freight contracts for member companies that import toys from Asia, giving members equivalent economies of pricing to those enjoyed by large toy makers such as Hasbro and Mattel command.

The increased influence of foreign made toys in the market has lead to another trend, that of growing concern about the materials used in the manufacture of toys. In 2007 the United States Consumer Products Safety Commission tested many products coming into the United States from Asian producers and found high levels of lead in them. This discovery started a series of recalls that shook the toy industry. Mattel announced recalls of more than one million toys found to have paint containing high levels of lead. In August 2007 it announced another recall of more than 9 million toys that contained small magnets that could come loose and be swallowed by children. The recall regarding magnets involved 63 varieties of toys sold before January 2007, including some Polly Pocket, Doggie Day Care, Batman and Barbie toys.

On September 4, 2007, Mattel announced that as a result of its ongoing investigation of its toys manufactured by its Chinese contractor, it would voluntarily recall 11 toys lines globally, including eight pet and furniture play-sets sold under the Barbie brand and three Fisher-Price toys, due to impermissible levels of lead. No Barbie dolls were included in this recall. In total, the September 2007 recall involved 522,000 U.S. toys. The voluntary recall resulted from Mattel's August 2007 promise of extensive testing of finished products combined with thorough investigation of vendors. Several prior subcontractors are no longer manufacturing Mattel toys.


In marketing toys, toymakers must appeal to both the children, for whom the toys are intended, and the adults who care for them. Mattel reported during its June 2007 shareholders meeting that it has documented increased toy spending per capita in the United States since families are having fewer children and starting those families later in life.

Hasbro is segmented by the markets it targets. It calls these segments boys, girls, development, creative play, board games, and action figures. It also has youth electronics and electronic games, part of the electronic games industry. Mattel segments first and foremost into the largest consumer spending market: infants and preschoolers. Fisher Price has four segments: baby gear, infant toys, preschool toys, and rescue heroes. Mattel also targets, simply, boys, girls, and adults. For adults it has Matchbox collectibles, Barbie collectibles, and Scrabble, among others toys and games. For preschoolers it has Barney, Disney, and Dora the Explorer. Mattel also targets girls ages seven to twelve with its American Girl brand dolls and accessories, which represented 7 percent of its $5.7 billion sales in 2006.

Mattel operates its own American Girl stores in Chicago, Illinois; New York, New York; and Los Angeles, California. The American Girl outlet store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, sells excess product. The second American girl store opened in Manhattan on Fifth Avenue in 2003. The 42,000 square foot store was modeled on the Chicago, Illinois, flagship store and includes a café and a live action theatre. American Girls starred in three made-for-television movies since 2004 that aired on the WB network and were produced by actress Julia Roberts.

In August 2007 Mattel opened a new American Girl Boutique and Bistro in Atlanta, Georgia, at the premier North Point Mall. The 12,000 square foot retail site features a shop, a bistro, a doll hair salon, and private party rooms. The boutique offers a collection called Dress Like Your Doll of clothing for girls. In the 77-seat bistro, favorite dolls can sit next to their owners in special seats. Mattel plans to open a similar boutique and bistro in 2007 at Galleria in Dallas, Texas.

All available evidence suggests the human desire for playthings appears to have no limits on complexity, price, or customer age, and has lasted our entire history.


American Specialty Toy Association,

Game Manufacturers Association,

National Scrabble Association,

Toy Industry Association, Inc.,


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see also Board Games, Video Games & Consoles


views updated May 21 2018


While toys today are widely associated with children, historically toys were the province of adults and were only gradually passed on and relegated to the young. Playthings, long rare and slowly changing, became far more varied and transient in modern society, reflecting conflicting cultural and economic influences over the childhood experience.

Origins of Modern Toys

For all but the rich, the preindustrial family's need to work meant play and toys were not encouraged by parents. In ancient and medieval times, adults shared objects of play with children primarily during festivals as occasions for emotional release. Common play objects, such as hoops, tops, balls, and even hobbyhorses, were only gradually abandoned by adults as childish. The passing of toys to children was closely related to the sixteenth-century shift from community spectacle to domestic celebrations (with the miniaturization of crèche, battle, and animal scenes for family amusement and edification). Miniature scenes eventually became children's play sets (e.g., the sixteenth-century wooden Noah's Ark). Only in the late sixteenth century did miniature soldiers shift from being adult to children's toys. In the eighteenth century domestic miniatures, which had formerly been custom-built for luxurious display for adult women, became doll cabinets and houses to instruct girls in the arts of housekeeping and domestic fashion. Domestic automata, mechanical figures or animals that were powered by water and even steam, had amused wealthy men from ancient times, but it was not until the nineteenth century that mass production and cheap clock and winding works let adults pass these novelties down to children as toys.

Poor children, of course, found time to make their own rag- and straw-stuffed dolls or balls from animal skins, and created games in unsupervised groups with whittled sticks and castaway bits of cloth. Traditional toys, such as hoops pushed along the street with a stick, or hand-made cup-and-ball toys, let children display skill until the end of the nineteenth century.

The toy industry began in southern Germany (Nuremberg and Groeden Valley especially) in the fourteenth century. At first, seasonal craftspeople specialized in carving wooden animal figures sold regionally through peddlers. But by the end of the eighteenth century, cheap tin toy armies for boys and miniature kitchens for girls were manufactured according to the strict specifications of powerful merchants and distributed across Europe and North America to children in middle-class families. European toy makers also found new, cheaper materials (like sawdust-based "composition" for dolls' heads by 1850 and lithographed paper on wood to simulate domestic interiors or hand painted scenes on play sets by 1890). These innovations not only put more playthings into the hands of less wealthy children, but also made for more variety and more rapid change in toys, thus turning playthings into a fashion industry. Nevertheless, older craft production and distribution through merchants survived in many branches of the toy industry throughout the nineteenth century, delaying mechanization. German toys prevailed until World War I, when Germany still exported 75 percent of its output.

Toys in the United States

Until the mid-nineteenth century, American children had relatively few playthings, especially after the toddler years. Parents seldom thought of toys as tools of learning or character building, but rather as frivolities that interfered with the learning of sex work roles through assisting adults in their daily tasks. Religious strictures against idleness, especially in Puritan New England, made toys suspect, except perhaps on Sundays or holidays. Only after the Civil War, with the spread of factories and the coming of department stores and mail order catalogs, did the American toy industry begin to emerge. Innovative interlocking building blocks and comical windup toys appeared in the 1860s and 1870s. But more common were simple miniatures of adult work tools (toy hammers, saws, and garden tool sets for boys and dolls and miniature houseware sets for girls).

Toys became part of an ideal childhood in the middle-class home. Industrialization removed production from the home and reduced the need for child labor, making playthings essential to preparing the young for adult roles. Parlor board and card games and "scientific" toys (featuring optical illusions) replaced shared domestic work to create family loyalties and to train the child in the values of honesty and competition. Such "educational" playthings served aspiring middle-class parents to isolate their young from often-unruly street gangs while also providing antidotes for loneliness. With greater affluence, the young were increasingly encouraged to enjoy the spontaneity and the pleasures of their freedom from work and responsibility. Playthings were both vehicles to introduce the real world and fantasy objects that shut off the child from that world.

Beginning around 1900 toy manufacturing diversified greatly and began to offer almost annual changes. As boys were withheld longer from the workforce and girls spent less time caring for younger siblings and doing household duties, playthings for older children became more common. Boys up to sixteen years old could look to sophisticated toy construction sets, toy microscopes, chemistry sets, and electric trains as fun, but also as practical preparation for modern careers in engineering, business, and science. Toys became even more sex stereotyped as boys' toys increasingly idealized technology, constant innovation, and the values of competition and teamwork. By contrast, a new generation of playthings for females featured companion and baby dolls, meant to encourage emotional attachments and nurturing "instincts." New interest in early child development created a demand for building blocks, crafts, and other educational playthings. The didactic and often austere character of educational toys (rejecting, for example, any association with popular film or comic book characters) limited their appeal and led to their declining role in children's lives by the 1960s.

Other popular toys encouraged fantasy. They were sometimes drawn from folk literature (like the Scottish elf Brownies figures and play sets of the 1890s) but more often from the ever-changing stories and characters of comics and movies, including Kewpie dolls (1912), Charlie Chaplin dolls (1914), and eventually Mickey Mouse figures (1930). The teddy bear, based on a story of Teddy Roosevelt sparing a baby bear on a hunt, became an international craze in 1906. This toy, in contrast to the hard wooden or stiff cloth animals of the past, was cuddly (made of upholstering fabric and filled with soft stuffing) and provided children security and protection. Teddies also made children seem innocent and charming and later reminded adults of their own childhoods. Most toys of the early twentieth century were intended to convey adult messages to children either by giving them the adult's image of their future or by presenting adult fantasies or nostalgia about ideal childhood.

Growing Fantasy and Autonomy in Toys

A major shift in playthings began in the 1930s during the Great Depression. In response to reduced sales, toy makers

offered cheaper toys, often sold by the piece rather than in sets (as they had often been sold in the past). This tended to encourage children to purchase their own toys, bypassing parental control. Toy companies also began to use licensed images of popular radio and movie personalities in their toys to increase sales. Buck Rogers toy guns, Little Orphan Annie decoder rings, Popeye wind-up figures, and Shirley Temple dolls served as props to reenact stories or to identify with heroes. Military figures, science fiction play sets, and cowboy cap guns gained a new prominence in boys' play in the 1930s as war approached and the optimism that had characterized the previous generation of construction and scientific toys declined.

In many ways, toys during the post-1945 baby boom generation returned to the era before 1930. In a period of new scientific and technological advances and perhaps closer bonds between fathers and sons, space toys and miniature cars and trucks were common. Adult fascination with the rugged individualism and moral certainty of the pioneer, cowboy, and Indian fighter led to parents' buying cowboy suits, holster sets, and Lincoln Logs as well as frontier ranch and Fort Apache play sets for their sons. These often featured movie and TV western heroes such as Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, and the Lone Ranger. By contrast, parents gave their baby boomer daughters miniatures of mother's work, including kitchen sets and replicas of name-brand products like Toni home permanents, presumably to teach girls their future roles as homemakers and consumers. As in the past, baby and companion dolls continued to invite girls to build play around relationships and emotional ties.

While the 1950s seemed to be a throwback to the past, there was one significant innovation in the world of toys during this periodthe beginning of mass advertising of toys directly to children on TV programs. The Mickey Mouse Club was not the first children's show to promote toys when it first appeared on TV in 1955, but its advertising was designed to appeal to the child's imagination rather than the parent's values. Mattel toys proved that year-round advertising featuring children actors could create a mass demand for "burp guns" and Barbie dolls even outside of the Christmas gift season. Increasingly children pressured their parents into buying the "must-have" toys seen on TV.

Changes since 1960

In 1959, Mattel's Barbie doll, with her model's body, broke from the friendship and nurturing themes of the companion and baby dolls that had predominated since the 1900s, and put grown-up fashion and spending in its place. To the eight-year-old of 1960, Barbie represented a hoped-for future of teenage freedom from the dependencies of childhood that ignored the likely future responsibilities of her own mother. Barbie certainly did not teach girls to shed female sex stereotypes. Rather, she encouraged girls to associate being grown up with Barbie's "shapely" female body and with her freedom and carefree consumption.

G.I. Joe, introduced in 1964, was at first a boy's military dress-up doll modeled after real soldiers. During the Vietnam War when military toys became controversial, Joe and his friends became a line of adventure figures (who searched for treasure, for example). By 1975 G.I. Joe was again a fighter, but in a science fiction world divorced from the experience of real war. By 1978 boys' toys had become props to reenact the fantastic gadget-filled adventure of the Star Wars series, when the producers sold the rights to produce millions of action figures of the movie heroes and villains to Kenner Toys.

Since 1982, toy companies have produced TV cartoons based on their own toy lines. Mattel's series, He-Man and Masters of the Universe, featured warring characters from a TV program. However, with these toys, unlike the toy guns of the past, the tiny figures, not the boy, pulled the triggers.

Following on the success of action figures, toy makers introduced little girls to their own world of fantasy figures and play sets. In the early 1980s, greeting card companies developed lines of minidolls (Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, and others) popularized with Saturday morning cartoons and movies. In the 1990s, the periodic release of movies like Little Mermaid or Aladdin created demand for toy figures associated with movie characters. Each child received her or his own "heroes" based on the media craze of the moment. While the American toy industry grew to sales of over 20 billion by the end of the twentieth century, parents' values and memories had little to do with children's toys even as children experienced more autonomy, albeit in a highly commercialized form of play.

Fate of the Toy Industry Outside the United States

In contrast, toys remained relatively static after 1920 in Europe and elsewhere. American toy innovations penetrated European childhood, especially with Walt Disney's aggressive marketing of character licenses to European doll and toy makers in 1935. The Americanization of toys meant a shift of play away from an adult world of training and toward an international culture of childhood created by linking children's movies and other media to toys. Of course, older toys survived after World War II in Europe: British Meccano construction sets returned and the Lesney "Matchbox" cars updated a tradition of play based on realistic miniatures of adult life. The Swedish Brio Company perpetuated a tradition of high-quality wooden toys (simple trains, cars, animals, and blocks) and promoted them as an educational alternative to licensed character toys. In the 1960s, the German Playmobil Company thrived by offering sturdy plastic updates of traditional wooden play sets. German toy makers abandoned war toys and specialized in electric trains, stuffed animals, and fine character dolls.

Where TV advertising was minimal or prohibited (e.g., Sweden), TV toys were somewhat slower to dominate the European market. Traditional craft toys (such as dolls, miniature animals, jumping jacks, and kites), made of common materials and featuring generic humor, still exist in the street markets of Asia and Africa in great regional variation. But even in poor countries, where parents cannot afford American name-brand action figures and dolls, local manufacturers make cheap imitations.

From the 1960s, European toy companies survived by imitating or becoming subsidiaries of aggressive American toy makers (e.g., with imitations of Barbie or European translations of G.I. Joe as Action Man). American control of licensed characters, associated with globally distributed movies like Star Wars, assured American dominance of the new type of toy line. The most dramatic exception was the Danish Lego interlocking blocks, which, starting in the mid-1960s, became a global boy's toy. By the late 1980s, however, Lego compromised with the American toy industry by introducing kits or "systems" designed to construct a single model based on exotic science fiction or fantasy themes. While educational toys survived in specialized upscale stores, appealing especially to parents intent on giving their infants and toddlers a head start, the older child has become part of a global consumer culture through satellite TV, movies, comic books, and after 1991 especially video games. Toys are increasingly designed and marketed through American and Japanese companies and manufactured in South China near the international commercial center of Hong Kong for global distribution.

While some toy companies have undertaken research on children's response to new toys (such as Mattel and Lego) and development through toys (e.g., Fisher Price), only recently have children's playthings attracted impartial scholarly research (such as that by the International Toy Research Association). Toy collections are often small and specialized reflecting the particular interests of collectors. But major displays of historic toys are available at the Margaret Strong Museum (Rochester, New York), the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (London, England), Legoland (Billund, Denmark), and the Brio Toy Museum (Osby, Sweden).

See also: Boyhood; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Construction Toys; Early Modern Europe; Economics and Children in Western Societies; European Industrialization; Girlhood; Theories of Play.


Chanan, Gabriel, and Hazel Francis. 1984. Toys and Games of Children of the World. Paris: UNESCO.

Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hewitt, Karen, and Louis Roomet, eds. 1983. Educational Toys in America: 1800 to the Present. Burlington, VT: Robert Hull Fleming Museum.

Kline, Stephen. 1993. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children's Culture in the Age of TV Marketing. New York: Verso.

McClintock, Inez, and Marshall McClintock. 1961. Toys in America. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

Gary Cross


views updated May 17 2018



Toys are physical items used in play by children.


An estimated 2.6 billion toys, including electronic toys and video games , are sold in the United States each year, according to the Toy Industry Association, Inc. Toys can support cognitive growth, development of fine motor and gross motor skills , and improve problem solving and attention. Children may find extended periods of play with a toy, whether it was purchased in a store or found in the home (recycled plastic containers and empty spools of thread, for example). Most children will be happy to play with a few favorite toysthe size of the toy inventory is not critical to successful play. Parents and others who choose toys for children should take into account the following characteristics of the child for whom the toy is intended. These include the age and developmental stage, his or her interests, ease of use of the toy, the necessity for adult supervision, the presence of younger siblings for whom the toy could pose a hazard, and whether the toy is designed for independent play or group play.

While computer and video game sales have more than tripled in the past decade, to nearly $240 million last year from $65 million in 1996, toys were expected to have their third straight year of slight decline in 2004. Children are still riding bikes, sipping from play tea sets, and enjoying some of the same toys their parents did, including building blocks, erector sets, and Lincoln Logs. But the pressures bearing down on traditional toys are many. Kids are growing up faster and putting down Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures at an earlier age, increasingly smitten by the grownup images of young celebrities such as high-profile athletes, movie and television stars, and recording artists. The prime audience for toys has shrunk as the children of the immense baby boom generation have grown into teenagers and beyond. And as in other industries, giant retailers have taken sales from specialized toy chains and squeezed some of the incentive to devise the next great toy.

Toy labeling

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has developed guidelines for age grading of toys and related products. Most toy manufacturers use these guidelines in labeling toys and games for age-appropriateness. Manufacturers also consider recommendations of experts in child development regarding the stages of physical, emotional, and intellectual development. Four main criteria are considered in establishing age guidelines:

  • Physical skills: Can the child manipulate and play with the features of the toy as it was designed?
  • Understanding: Can the child understand how to use the toy?
  • Interest: Is the toy of interest to a child of a particular age?
  • Safety: Is the toy safe for a child at this particular stage?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has established a number of regulations related to toy safety. These are published by the American Society for Testing and Measurement (ASTM) under the safety standard known as ASTM F963. This standard is voluntary, but the majority of U.S. toy manufacturers comply with its guidelines. In fact, many incorporate a message about the toy's compliance with ASTM F963 on the toy packaging.

Infancy and toddlerhood

Toy manufacturers consider the size of toy partswhich are likely to be put into the mouth by an older infant or toddlerin designing toys. Anyone purchasing a toy for the youngest children must take the choking hazard seriously and make appropriate selections. When a new toy is brought into the home or child-care setting, all wrapping material should be promptly discarded. Plastic wrapping in particular may pose a suffocation hazard to the youngest children. The U.S. government maintains statistics on toy-related injuries and deaths. Many accidents involving toys are not caused by the toy itself; for example, a child may trip over a toy that was not put away after play. When an unsafe toy reaches the marketplace, U.S. government inspectors may discover it and order its recall; additionally, vigilant parents and caregivers can observations about toy safety to the CPSC. Manufacturers routinely cooperate with the CPSC in recalling products that are deemed unsafe or dangerous.

In 2002, the medical journal Clinical Reference Systems issued pediatric advisories on age-appropriate toys. Some of the recommendations follow. Suggested play things for infants include: interesting objects hung in view, such as brightly colored mobiles, crib decals, and colorful wall posters; sturdy rattles; large plastic rings; soft toys for throwing; colorful balls; light plastic blocks; cloth cubes; music boxes; teething toys; floating bath animals; washable squeak toys; nests of hollow blocks; and rough-smooth touching books; washable cloth picture books; and sturdy, colorful picture books.

Suggested toys for toddlers include: pyramid rings; large nesting blocks; large and small colored building blocks; cuddly stuffed animals; large, soft balls; washable, unbreakable dolls; push-pull toys with rounded handles; simple musical instruments; sand box and sand toys; water toys; transportation toys (trucks, cars, trains, and airplanes); objects to imitate adults such as plastic garden tools, toy telephones, and toy dishes or pots; and sturdy, colorful picture books.

Preschool and school age

U.S. law requires that toys and games for young children (ages three to six) carry a warning about choking hazards. If the toy or game includes small parts, marbles, or balloons, it must be marked that it is not appropriate for children under the age of three. Beyond toddlerhood, children begin to develop their own ideas about play activities and the toys that they want. They will be influenced by what they see advertised on television and by their peers. Toy fads and television show tieins can be powerfully persuasive to children. Parents may experience their first opportunities to teach about peer pressure and independent decision-making over toy requests. Toys should be selected to stimulate play and related cognitive and physical development; fad toys are less likely to sustain play activity and support development beyond the fad stage.

Toys and play items appropriate for preschool-age children include: large and small transportation toys; cuddly toy animals; simple musical instruments; farm and zoo animal sets; miniature circus; hospital, police, and fire station sets; bean bags; large balls; art materials such as paints, modeling clay, paste, and colored paper; wagons; tricycles; crawl-through play equipment; simple construction sets; nursery rhyme books; humorous and playful books; activity books; and books about familiar people and places.

For early school-age children, six to nine years old, suggested toys include: construction sets; art materials such as crayons, chalk, paint, modeling clay, and simple weaving materials; chalk, Velcro, or flannel boards; small bicycles; wagons; jump ropes; simple board games; playhouses; puzzles; kites; globes or planetarium sets; aquariums; terrariums; and books about jokes, riddles, tongue twisters, animals, insects, birds, reptiles, and children from other lands and cultures.

Appropriate toys for older school-age children, nine to 12 years, include: croquet, badminton, and shuffleboard sets; sports equipment (baseball, basketball, soccer, football, and tennis); skates and skateboards; aquariums and terrariums; craft sets; hobby sets; electric trains; radio-controlled vehicles; model kits; board games; microscopes; binoculars; compact disc players; camping and backpacking equipment; and books about adventure, science fiction, fantasy, science topics, simple biographies, and jokes, puzzles, riddles, and tongue twisters.

Parental concerns

Violent toys and video games

In addition to product safety, one of the biggest concerns of parents is the growing trend towards toys and video games that promote violence, crime, and war. In 2002, a national department store chain published an advertisement on its web site for a toy called "Forward Command Post" that featured an American soldier standing in a bombed-out house. It's an example of the growing collaboration, in recent years, between the toy and entertainment industry and the U.S. military, according to the activist group Worldwatch Institute. Video games with themes of terrorism and war in Middle-Eastern settings are selling well. In video games, kids can experience virtual combat, are exposed to exploding virtual body parts, and practice committing murder and theft to win games.

Traditionally, boys' and girls' toys have often been contrasted as being "rough-and-tumble" versus "nurturing." But that distinction may be disappearing, not only for healthy reasons of waning gender stereotyping, but for more questionable reasons such as the growing tolerance ofor obliviousness toaggression and hostility in play by both sexes, according to an article in the May-June 2003 issue of World Watch, the institute's official publication.

Many parents are concerned about the growing number and level of acceptance of toys and video games that promote violence and war. However, not everyone agrees on what constitutes a violent toy. Most parents agree guns are symbols of violence. But at what point is the line drawn between a child perceiving a play gun as a toy or a device of violence? Many might agree a BB gun is violent since it can kill and wound small animals and birds and injure humans. But what about a squirt gun that shots water or a Nerf gun that shoots foam balls? To help answer these questions, Daphne White, founder of the Lion & Lamb Project, published a list of guidelines in the November-December 2004 issue of Mothering magazine. Lion & Lamb is an organization founded in 1995 to stop the marketing of violent toys and entertainment to children.

According to White's guidelines, violent toys and video games:

Age range Toys
Birth to two months Activity centers to look at and listen to; mobiles over cribs
Two to four months Rattles, teethers, activity centers to hit or kick while on back.
Four to six months Soft books, roly poly toys
Seven to nine months Nesting cups, pop-up toys
Ten to twelve months Push and pull toys, large blocks, board books, toys that require hand manipulation to "make something happen"
Thirteen to fifteen months Toy telephone, walk-behind toys like doll stroller, soft dolls and animals, balls
Sixteen to eighteen months Simple toy musical instruments, playing with water or sand, shape sorters
Nineteen months to two years Rocking horse, easy puzzles, make-believe toys (plastic houses and people, toy cars and trucks, play food and dishes), crayons and paper
Two to three years Tricycle, toy basketball hoop and balls, toy trains with tracks, dolls with bottles and other equipment, toy kitchen equipment, coloring books and crayons, books
Three to four years Simple crafts (including scissors, glue, and paper), beginning board games, toys for imaginative play
Four to five years Simple sports equipment, books, board and card games, computer games, collections, building blocks
Five to six years Small blocks and building sets, art supplies, activity books, beginning reader books, games
Six years and up Music, books, games, sports equipment. By this age, kids may get particular about their toys according to what is popular with their friends
  • Promote violence and aggression as the best way to settle disputes.
  • Depict violent actions as fun, harmless, and "cool."
  • Encourage children to act out aggressive scenarios.
  • Foster aggressive competition.
  • Depend on "enemies" that must be "destroyed."

When to call the doctor

An inability to play with or lack of interest in toys at an early age may indicate a developmental problem in such areas as gross and fine motor skills . If this is suspected, a pediatrician, psychologist, or other specialist should be consulted.


Cognitive The ability (or lack of) to think, learn, and memorize.

Fine motor skill The abilities required to control the smaller muscles of the body for writing, playing an instrument, artistic expression and craft work. The muscles required to perform fine motor skills are generally found in the hands, feet and head.

Gross motor skills The abilities required to control the large muscles of the body for walking, running, sitting, crawling, and other activities. The muscles required to perform gross motor skills are generally found in the arms, legs, back, abdomen and torso.

See also Cognitive development; Fine motor skills; Gross motor skills.



Neufeld, Les. Making Toys That Teach: With Step-by-Step Instructions and Plans. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2003.

Oppenheim, Joanne, et al. Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, 2005: The Best Toys, Books, Videos, Music, and Software for Kids. New York: Oppenheim Toy Portfolio (Publishers), 2004.

Whittaker, Nicholas. Toys Were Us: A Twentieth-Century History of Toys and Toy-Making. Collingdale, PA: Diane Publishing Co., 2004.


(No author). "Between the Lines." World Watch (May-June 2003): 2829.

Morantz, Carrie, and Brian Torrey. "Selecting Toys for Young Children." American Family Physician (Aug. 15, 2003): 763.

Rubin, Judith L. "No More Junk Toys: Rethinking Children's Gifts." Mothering (November-December 2003): 4653.

Walker, Andrea K. "Joystick and Mouse Cut Regular Toy Sales." The Detroit News (Dec. 15, 2004): Business 1.

White, Daphne. "From War Chests to Toy Chests: How to Change Your Child's Worldview for the Better, One Toy at a Time." Mothering (November-December 2004): 4042.


Toy Industry Association, Inc. 1115 Broadway, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. (212) 675-1141. Web site: <>.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Washington, DC 20207-0001. (800) 638-2772. Web site: <>.


U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Toy Safety Publications. Dec. 13, 2004. Available online at: <> (accessed Jan. 2, 2005).

Ken R. Wells


views updated Jun 11 2018


The role of toys in the construction of gender ideals and identities is best understood within the context of cultural notions about childhood (girlhood and boyhood) as well as the social realities of children as girls and boys. Though the meanings and uses of toys are commonly assumed to be unchangeable, their social meanings and the roles toys have played in children's lives are historically contingent. While toys have ancient origins, the more recent historical forces that gave rise to the notion that toys had masculine-making or feminine-formulating potential include:

  1. the decline of orthodox Christian precepts that associated play with sin;
  2. the shift from a subsistence economy to an industrializing one;
  3. the spread of Enlightenment notions about children among the emergent middle class;
  4. increasing social equality for women and girls;
  5. egalitarianism within the family; and
  6. the development of a global consumer culture.

Though it is not clear which of the toylike artifacts archaeologists have unearthed at ancient sites figured in rituals and which were meant for recreation, adults have long produced and promoted toys encoded with dominant ideals that fostered normative gender roles in children. Since at least the eighteenth century, when toys entered the domain of children in the West, play with particular kinds of toys has been assumed to promote socially specific gender characteristics. "Boys' toys"—those that emphasize technology, science, transportation, combat, construction, and hunting—have been understood to foster such "masculine" attributes as assertiveness, dominance, heroism, and competition. "Girls' toys"—centered on homemaking and child rearing—have been thought to instill such "feminine" qualities as compassion, affection, adornment, and nurturance. The expectations of adults, however, have been known to conflict with the activities of children, who sometimes play in less socially prescribed and more "gender-inappropriate" ways.


For centuries, adults have used a variety of prescriptive, proscriptive, and punitive methods of transmitting information to children about which toys were gender appropriate and which were not. But since the emergence of toy advertisements during the early twentieth century and the advent of TV commercials aimed at children in the 1950s, the preferences of young consumers have been shaped by the prevalence of coded images of girls or boys at play with gender-specific toys. While the color pink signified boys at various times in the past (blood = bravery), color-coded toys and packaging since the 1950s have served to inform youngsters—too young to read but old enough to link color with gender—that pink (and pastel-colored) toys are for girls. This categorizing of merchandise by color has led to the gendering of toy store spaces, where color-coded layouts attract girls to eye-catching pink-colored aisles that repel boys fearing contamination and recrimination. While pink has long predominated as a girls' color in the West, it is a boys' color in South Korea where primary colors are associated with girls. Comparisons across time and place reveal that toys and their presentation have had very different cultural meanings. In North America, little girls of the Woodland Indians played with sticks in preparation for their role as the tribe's key agriculturalists (farmers).


Western toys designated as boys' toys: (1) contain distinctive themes drawn from the activities of men (e.g., war, transportation, construction, athleticism); (2) correlate with the skills and sensibilities associated with masculinity (e.g., aggression, courage, competition, strategy, mobility, agility); and (3) foster a wide variety of physical and intellectual developmental abilities. Though toy soldiers have been found in ancient Egypt, eighteenth-century emperors and kings bestowed upon their sons miniature armies made by high-end producers in Nuremberg, Germany, and later on in France. Toy soldiers served to instill imperial ambitions in royal and aristocratic sons and patriotic alliances in boys who played with uniformed soldiers, artillery, and transportation during the major wars of the twentieth century. Though plastic toy soldiers were poor imitations of those that had marched off production lines before them, their affordability made infantry men far more accessible to middle-class and poor children in whom they were to cultivate masculine nationalism.

Also having ancient origins that served more practical functions in times past, toy weapons (swords and guns) lead the boy toy market as symbols of adventure and heroism in their material variety and in virtual reality. While generations of parents have given boys toy guns in an effort to build sons' manly identities, adults' distaste of war and violence in the twentieth century also exposed the powerful social forces that shape the desires of boys for toys. Prevented by his parents from playing with toy guns, one determined four-year-old used a plastic "chip clip" he found in a kitchen drawer as a substitute for the gun he preferred.

Along with war toys, toy trains assumed a unique place in the lives of boys over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of technological innovation, improved production, expanded market distribution, and the power of advertising. Especially after the application of electricity in the mid-1920s, these machines inspired fantasies of mobility and taught boys about other scientific principles—both beyond the scope of what was considered important for girls to acquire and imagine for themselves. Making boys into builders of civilizations led to the commercialization of construction toys. By the early twentieth century, toy pioneers marketed toy trains to boys perceived to be in need of modern engineering and construction skills during the new "machine age." In addition to other products, LEGO sets of the post-World War II period were marketed to boys in gender-coded advertisements in which little sister, bewildered by her enterprising brother the junior engineer, stood outside the LEGO metropolis he alone constructed.

Such athletic equipment as balls, bats, hoops, and nets have long been targeted at boys for the masculine attributes—the spirit of competition and the skills of achievement—they are thought to instill. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits, boys from well-to-do families posed with athletic props while their sisters dressed in floor-length gowns clutching dolls, flowers, or little animals. Throughout the nineteenth century, fears that activity would precipitate sexual desire in girls led experts to discourage girls from riding hobbyhorse toys and to recommend limiting them to wand-waving callisthenic exercises as demonstrated in prescriptive manuals.


Among the toys designated as for girls only, those playthings with obvious domestic purposes and maternal themes have enjoyed unchallenged dominance. Whether the purposes of ancient human figures were spiritual or secular, it is certain that as symbols of fertility, dolls have had an indomitable place in the history of girls. Cultivating the fabled maternal "instinct" by instilling the skills and sensibilities of mothering (caring and grooming) and instructing girls in homemaking, dolls and symbols of domesticity have long dominated as a cultural priority over time, across periods, and from one society to another. Expected to take their place within the home and not outside of it, to adorn the body, and to cultivate the heart and not the mind, girls' toys—including dolls, dollhouses, and household utensils and technology—have been intentionally attractive, diminutive, intended for indoor passive play, and purposely unscientific, unmechanical, unintellectual, unadventurous, and unathletic.

While adults have promoted and produced girls' toys, male and female producers have not always shared the same gendered values nor used the same materials, methods, and models. In the late-nineteenth-century United States, Germany, and England, women doll producers had more in common with each other than they did with their commercial countrymen. Women doll producers across national borders were more likely to make realistic-looking, portable, pliant, and useful cloth-bodied dolls modeled after real babies for girls and for boys. Similarly on both sides of the Atlantic, businessmen who drew upon more masculine skills and sensibilities were more likely to make hard-bodied dolls (wood or metal) with fragile China heads and limbs that reflected prevailing Victorian feminine ideals of delicacy, domesticity, submission, purity, piety, and leisure. In the twentieth century, women doll designers and producers mounted significant challenges to gender stereotyping with dolls. Though the Barbie doll, pioneered by Ruth Handler, cofounder of Mattel, emphasized adornment and consumption as much as had Victorian French fashion dolls, the exalted femininity of the postwar teenage fashion model nevertheless embodied autonomy, empowerment, and sexual agency. Girls have received more than one billion Barbie dolls since Barbie's debut in 1959. Since the end of the twentieth century, feminist ideals have been represented as sexual agency in female dolls, while antifeminist fears have led to the embodiment of hypermasculinity in male action figures. A 1998 study (Harrison G. Pope Jr., et. al.) revealed that between the 1960s and late 1990s, G.I. Joe's bulging biceps doubled in size.


While many children play with toys in ways that meet with adult approval, girls who ditch dolls for trucks and boys who swap whips for wigs traverse accepted boundaries of gendered play. Although many girls demonstrating domestically useful sewing skills contented their mothers, even Catherine Beecher, the nineteenth-century architect of domesticity, detested sewing stints. Beecher was not unlike other girls in rural and small-town America who preferred active outdoor activities to sedate indoor ones and playing with toys and games that required power not propriety. While many girls loved dolls, others loathed the ones that were forced into their arms by adults committed to the dominant gender ideology. In the late-nineteenth-century United States, girls' extensive funereal play (as opposed to wedding play) generated pleasure among embryonic feminists who broke and buried dolls.

While some boys preferred dolls to soldiers and dressing up to standing down, "gender-inappropriate" behavior historically has been met with disapproval and discouragement from parents and peers. Few toys, including stuffed animals—principally the iconic teddy bear—have inhabited a "gender-neutral" terrain. As representations of domesticated nature and childhood innocence, stuffed animals have been as acceptable for baby boys as for girls, but brothers are expected to outgrow their affections and attachments long before their sisters.


Calvert, Karin. 1992. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600–1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Formanek-Brunell, Miriam. 1993. Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood, 1830–1930. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

McClintock, Inez, and Marshall McClintock. 1961. Toys in America. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press.

Pope, Harrison G., Jr., Roberto Olivardia, Amanda Gruber, and John Borowiecki. 1998. "Evolving Ideals of Male Body Image as Seen through Action Toys." International Journal of Eating Disorders 26 (1): 65-72.

                                             Miriam Forman-Brunell


views updated Jun 08 2018


The term "toy" generally applies to any object used by children in play. However, there is a huge business in creating objects, usually in miniature, designed specifically for children's play. These toys generally model adult culture and society, frequently with great accuracy. In the last half of the twentieth century, model National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spacecraft, toy ray guns with light and sound action, and spaceships and action figures related to popular films reflected the recent growth of interest in science fiction and space exploration.

There are a wide range of space toys available in the market today. Children have access to transparent model Saturn V rockets, models of the International Space Station, models of the Apollo 15 Lunar Lander with the Lunar Rover, and a complete Cape Canaveral launch pad. The toy manufacturer Brio has a Space Discovery Set suitable for very young children that includes an astronaut, a launch vehicle, and a launch control center with a ground crew member. Lego has three toys in its Life on Mars series: the Excavation Searcher, the Mars Solar Explorer, and the Red Planet Protector. Action Products sells the Complete Space Explorer with models of the space shuttle, Apollo Lunar Lander, Skylab, and dozens of small action figures representing astronauts and ground crews.

The Mars Pathfinder mission, one of a series of robotic explorations of other planets, created many business opportunities for toy manufacturers. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA have signed thirty-seven licensing agreements for products related to this mission, including T-shirts, caps, and toys. One of the most interesting and ambitious toys was the Mattel Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack set. This set includes toy models of Sojourner, the Pathfinder spacecraft, and a lander. Many of the Sojourner rover's unique attributes are included, such as its six-wheel independent suspension that allows it to navigate rough terrain. According to Joan Horvath, a business alliance manager with JPL's Technology Affiliates Program, these toy models helped educate both kids and parents alike about the Mars Pathfinder mission in the most user-friendly manner possible. Moreover, it made the business community aware of the many different aspects of the JPL's technology transfer programs.

The success of the Mattel Mars Pathfinder set led to another license agreement. JPL and Mattel teamed up for a toy version of NASA's Galileo spacecraft. The Hot Wheels Jupiter/Europa Encounter Action Pack includes a highly detailed reproduction of the Galileo spacecraft, the Galileo descent probe, and of one of the ground-based antenna dishes.

Toys in Space

Toys have also ventured into space. Carolyn Sumners of the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Houston, Texas, assembled a small group of toys to be flown on space shuttle mission 51-D in April 1985. During the flight, crew members experimented with the toys, demonstrating the behavior of objects under conditions of apparent weightlessness. The first "Toys in Space" mission was so successful, a second group of toys was flown on the STS-54 mission in January 1993. During the second Toys in Space mission, astronauts John Casper and Susan Helms demonstrated how the behavior of several simple toys was quite different under microgravity conditions.

In June 2001, The Lego company teamed up with Space Media, Inc. and RSC Energia to conduct the first experiment on the International Space Station using toys. The Life on Mars: Red Planet Protector was used to measure the mass of an object under zero-gravity conditions. Cosmonauts Talgat Musabayev and Yuri Baturin demonstrated how an object's mass can be determined from oscillation frequency in a weightless environment.

Educational toys related to space exploration can serve the dual roles of providing a good return on investment for toy manufacturers while at the same time providing a rich learning opportunity for children. The vision of Lego, sparking an interest in science and space, can provide a sound basis for socially conscious free enterprise. The cooperative model developed by Mattel and JPL has been mutually beneficial, serving as a strong profit center for Mattel while effectively publicizing NASA and JPL's commitment to technology transfer.

see also Education (volume 1); Mars (volume 2); Microgravity (volume 2); Robotic Exploration of Space (volume 2).

Elliot Richmond


Cross, Gary. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Maurer, Richard. Rocket! How a Toy Launched the Space Age. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.

McCurdy, Howard. Space and the American Imagination. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Payton, Crystal, and Leland Payton. Space Toys: A Collector's Guide to Science Fiction and Astronautical Toys. Sedalia, MO: Collector's Compass, 1982.

Sumners, Carolyn R. Toys in Space: Exploring Science with the Astronauts. New York:TAB Books, 1994.

Young, S. Mark. America, Blast Off! Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns, and Rarities from the Golden Age of Space Toys. New York: Dark House Books, 2001.


views updated May 14 2018


Although the first toys, dolls, and playthings were made at home, created and adapted by children and their parents, toys may have been produced for sale from as early as the sixteenth century. In the succeeding centuries, with Nürnberg at the center of toy production, dolls and toys were created throughout much of what is now southern Germany and the surrounding region. Paris, known for centuries for dressed fashion dolls, also exported dolls to adults and children in Europe and eventually America.

In addition to the toy trade in Europe, toys were used as barter goods with non-Western peoples from an early date. Dolls, or "babies," were among the items recorded by Thomas Harriot and John White as traded with the Native Americans in Virginia in the late sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century mechanical toys were sometimes among the trade items offered by European traders in the African slave trade. The word toy could refer to a wide range of small goods, as opposed to simply children's toys.

The Industrial Revolution and advances in printing and production processes allowed toys to be created more quickly and cheaply. Late-eighteenth-century toy catalogs, such as Georg Hieronimus Bestelmeier's extensive volumes, allowed toys to be advertised, ordered, and shipped over great distances, changing forever the ways in which toys were marketed, sold, and created. The earliest toy catalogs were geared to faraway shop owners who would use catalogs and samples to order toys for their shops. In the nineteenth century rubber, tinned sheet iron, and cast iron were some of the materials newly used in toys once primarily made of wood, fabric, clay, wax, and other materials. By the end of the century technological advances led to mechanized toys such as crawling dolls and steam-powered toy trains. Much of modern life was reflected in new types of children's toys. By the turn of the century, and especially during World War I, toys were increasingly produced in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain, rather than imported from Germany.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s developments in plastics and other synthetics led to the use of these materials in children's toys. By the 1950s and 1960s these materials gradually supplanted other materials as the main components of children's toys. Continuing what had started with children's periodicals, radio and movies, this period also saw the introduction of television commercials aimed at children, allowing toy companies to market their products directly to young consumers in highly successful ways. By the 1970s government safety regulations for toys further altered the toy industry, forcing more of a focus on safety as well as profits.

By the end of the twentieth century China and other East Asian countries led the world in toy exports. By 2001 China produced more than 60 percent of the world's toys. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, computerized toys and video games compete with and sometimes complement traditional dolls and toys. Computerized toys and video games are a huge industry drawing both children and adult players, with many games aimed specifically at teenage and adult audiences. Fueled by both nostalgia and novelty, collectible figurines, dolls, games, and other toys, often associated with the purchaser's own childhood or popular trends, increasingly and self-consciously have been aimed toward adults. Today the toy industry, an international, multibillion-dollar business, serves the needs of kids of all ages.

SEE ALSO Africa; Germany; Industrialization;Slavery and the African Slave Trade.


Cross, Gary. Kids Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Fraser, Antonia. A History of Toys. London: Spring Books, 1972.

Ketchum, William C., Jr. "Toys and Games." In The Dictionary of Art, ed. J. Turner. London: Macmillan, 1996.

Sarah Anne Carter


views updated Jun 11 2018


Toys, or objects whose main intended use is for play, have the potential to enhance development (creative building blocks) or to alter or hinder development (violent video games). Toys are the primary tools of childhood that allow children to extend their play beyond what can be done through imagination, voice, or action alone. The careful selection of toys by adults, as well as mediation of their use, is an important way to facilitate the optimal development of children. As children grow, the use of toys typically changes from simple and physical (banging a block) to representational (pretending a block is a cup) to more complex and mental (playing board games). There tend to be gender differences in toy preferences: many girls prefer relation-based toys, whereas many boys prefer action-based toys. The influences of cultural expectations on these preferences cannot be separated from possible biological influences. There are also great individual differences in toy preferences regardless of gender.

See also:PLAY


Bergen, Doris, ed. Readings from Play as a Medium for Learning and Development. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 1998.

Fleming, Dan. Powerplay: Toys as Popular Culture. Manchester, Eng.:Manchester University Press, 1997.

Goldstein, Jeffrey H., ed. Toys, Play and Child Development. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hughes, Fergus P. Children, Play, and Development. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.



views updated Jun 27 2018

Toys ★½ 1992 (PG-13)

Diappointingly earnest comedy about Leslie (Williams), the whimsical son of a toy manufacturer who must fight to keep the playful spirit of the factory alive after it passes into the hands of his deranged uncle (Gambon). This uncle is a general who attempts to transform the factory into an armaments plant. Leslie receives assistance in this battle from his sister Alsatia (Cusack) and his cousin Patrick (L.L. Cool J). Flat characters; generally falls short by trying too hard to send a message to viewers about the folly of war. Does have extremely vivid and intriguing visuals and special effects. 121m/C VHS, DVD . Robin Williams, Joan Cusack, Michael Gambon, LL Cool J, Robin Wright Penn, Donald O'Connor; D: Barry Levinson; W: Valerie Curtin, Barry Levinson; C: Adam Greenberg.