Jenny Lind Doll: In 1850, the circus promoter P. T. Barnum arranged a two-year American tour for the soprano Jenny Lind. For several decades after “Lind mania” swept the country, little girls played with dolls made to look like the “Swedish Nightingale.”
Bébé Doll: Over the course of the 1800s, grownups increasingly romanticized children as beautiful, unspoiled innocents. Not surprisingly, doll fashions changed, too. French doll makers produced childlike “bébés” with the rosy complexions, big almond-shaped eyes, and full cheeks of young children.
Barnum’s Menagerie: American children first saw wild animals from faraway Africa and Asia in moving menageries, traveling circuses, and early zoos. Exotic elephants, lions, tigers, zebras, giraffes, and other creatures populated kids’ make-believe stories about being big-game hunters, lion tamers, zoo keepers, and adventurers. Playing circus or safari with these huge, unfamiliar animals let kids play through their fears of everything big, scary, and unfamiliar.
Yellow Kid: “Hogan’s Alley,” an 1890s comic strip, starred the Yellow Kid, a mischievous street urchin from the grimy, crowded tenements of New York City. Images of the Yellow Kid sold products like chewing gum, cigar boxes, cigarettes, crackers, stationery, and postcards. Later characters like Mickey Mouse and Charlie Brown became pitch men in the mold of the Yellow Kid.
Martha Chase Doll: In 1899, Rhode Island’s Martha Chase began to make soft, cuddly dolls to replace fragile European imports that she thought too heavy and hard for child’s play. Chase objected to mechanical dolls, too, because she felt the walking and talking should be left to the child’s imagination.
Raggedy Ann Doll: Johnny Gruelle created Raggedy Ann Stories in 1915 and introduced Raggedy Andy in 1918. Gruelle’s 25 Raggedy Ann books told stories of adventure and magic that entertained children as they also learned messages of kindness and generosity. The soft, huggable Raggedy dolls inspired successive generations to create their own Raggedy Ann and Andy stories.
Bye-Lo Doll: In 1923 the Bye-Lo baby doll started a revolution. Based on a sculpture of a three-day-old infant, the doll—designed by Grace Storey Putnam—offered realism in its squinty eyes, its squishy face, and the odd shape of its head. Little girls loved it. Retailers dubbed it “the Million Dollar Baby,” and many other doll makers rushed their own infant models to the market.
Panda Bear: Although American children had played with teddy bears since the early 1900s, the panda bear entered the playroom only after specimens of the exotic animal from China debuted at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 1937.
World War II Douglas MacArthur Doll: After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the United States focused its attention and energy on the conflict that engulfed the world. Toymakers joined the war effort, too. To boost patriotism and honor sacrifice, they churned out unprecedented numbers of soldier figures and uniformed dolls. Many children coped with the traumas of war by using play to act out battle scenes and military ceremonies.
Barbie and Friends: Barbie, a teen-aged fashion doll, burst onto the toy market in 1959, and because she embodied girls’ make-believe about style, grown-up activities, and friendship, she became the most successful doll ever. Because playmates need playmates, Mattel added Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, friend Midge, and a sister named Skipper. Later, more diverse companions joined in the play. Christie, Barbie’s first black friend debuted in 1968.
G.I Joe Action Figure: When Hasbro introduced G.I. Joe—the first action figure—in 1964, he stood out from toy soldiers packaged by units, companies, or regiments. He came by himself, with most accessories sold separately. This followed the Barbie model of merchandising, with uniforms substituting for swimsuits, weapons taking the place of handbags and shoes, and the jeep replacing the convertible.
Star Wars Action Figures: The record-setting box-office success of Star Wars, released in 1977, guaranteed the phenomenal popularity of Kenner’s toys based on the movie fantasy. Star Wars action figures made other toy makers scramble to team up with popular movie, television, and other licensed properties.
Transformers: Hasbro first offered Transformers, a toy line of action figures that change their shapes, in the mid-1980s. Marketed with an elaborate back story revealed in comic-books, television series, animated and live-action movies, games, consumer goods, and even its own cereal, the line has grown through many series and hundreds of figures.
Beanie Babies: Toymakers often restrict supply to build demand. H. Ty Warner perfected the maneuver in the 1990s with Beanie Babies. Beanie scarcities stirred up a collecting frenzy, transforming the soft, cuddly toys into a hot commodity. Kids turned into hard-nosed bargainers, trading Beanies’ play value for its street value in cold hard cash.
Uglydoll: First made in 2001, Uglydolls soon became a favorite soft toy for young boys because the 25 characters play tricks, ask many questions, steal snacks, and get into mischief. Young girls probably like them for exactly the same reasons.
Play Pals is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. The GUND Teddy Bear Check-Up area is generously sponsored by GUND®.