50+ Years of Favorite Plastic Toys

With pen and paper in hand, we sat by the fire sipping hot chocolate, scribbling out our Christmas wish list for Santa. We’d pondered, stared at the flickering flames for a moment, and then excitedly jotted down another potential joy-bringing item. The planning and dreaming that filled our minds with hopeful anticipation was almost as fun as the morning when the gifts were revealed. 

From mid-last century through the decades that followed, as young-uns made their Christmas lists, more and more items on those lists were made of plastic. Prior to that time, in the early twentieth century, most toys on children’s lists were made of wood or metal.

In the early years of the 1900’s, the favorite toys of our grandparents and great grandparents included cuddly surprises like the Teddy Bear or the Raggedy Ann doll. Then, topping the list of favorite metal toys were the Erector Set, a Lionel train set, or a red Radio Flyer wagon. Wooden toys were also high on many-a-child’s list. One of those all-time-favorites from one hundred years ago was the yo-yo, hand-carved from a single piece of wood.

Celluloid

The first plastic used in toys was celluloid. According to Science History, “Celluloid, developed in the late 19th century, launched the modern age of man-made plastics… celluloid became an everyday material, just like the hundreds of plastics that would follow after World War II.”

The word “plastic” comes from the Greek word for “molded.” The word means something that is capable of being molded or shaped. In nature, there have always been plastic materials. Rubber, amber, and even glass, which is moldable at high temperatures, are types of plastic by the definition of “to be molded.”

Celluloid was the first synthetic plastic. It was invented in 1863 by John Wesley Hyatt in upstate New York. Hyatt was a printer by trade and the son of a blacksmith. The celluloid product Hyatt created was in response to an advertisement that offered an incredible $10,000 for a substitute  that could be used in the place of elephant tusk ivory in the production of billiard balls.  Billiards was becoming increasingly popular and the expense of obtaining African ivory was also increasing. 

Before long, celluloid was used in many popular products, from beautiful handles on hairbrushes and mirror sets that adorned a lady’s dressing table to cufflinks worn by gentlemen. “The first plastic toys made of celluloid appeared late in the 19th century. It was not until World War II that plastic toys became firmly established.” (Plastics – The Mag). In time, celluloid was discovered to have several drawbacks. Celluloid was flammable, could be fragile, and its surface cracked and deteriorated over time. It was used in manufacturing for decades, but was not the ideal plastic material.

Bakelite and Catalin

There was a  later contemporary of celluloid that began to increase its share of the market. It was called Bakelite. Produced in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Bakelite (and Catalin, another trade name for a similar product) was used in the production of toys, jewelry, trophies, and more. According to Amelia Danver, “Leo Bakeland created the world’s first entirely synthetic plastic called Bakelite. This marked the start of the modern plastics industry.”

When Bakelite’s patent ran out in 1927, The American Catalin Company picked up their process, using the same chemicals, but added no fillers. Instead of the dark and dreary plastics made by Bakelite, the Catalin products were translucent and could be made into a variety of bright colors. Catalin products were made from 1928 until World War II.

Before World War II, surprisingly, Germany was one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers. The United States imported vast numbers of toys from the European nation. But, as the political climate deteriorated, those large numbers of imports ceased. And American manufacturers stepped in to take the leading role. One of the leaders was a small company who had been founded in the 1930’s called Fisher Price. Fisher Price began in 1931 when its four founders took 16 of their wooden toys to the American International Toy Fair in New York City. Their toys were a hit at the fair – especially their Dr. Doodle.

By the late 1940’s, Fisher-Price was barely ten years old. They became the first company to produce their entire product line from plastic. It was such a raging success that their competitors, like the Ideal Toy Company, adopted their business model and produced a whopping three million plastic phones in just a few months.

“In the early 1950’s, Fisher-Price identified plastic as a material that could help the company incorporate longer-lasting decorations and brighter colors into its toys. ‘Buzzy Bee’ was among the first Fisher-Price toys to make use of plastic. By the end of the 1950s, Fisher-Price manufactured 39 toys incorporating plastics.” (Wikipedia)

Plastics in Toy-making Today

Today, plastics are used in most of the best-selling toy products of all time. Thirteen of the fifteen best-selling toys of all time are made of plastic. 
  1. Barbie – plastic
  2. Yo-yo  – plastic
  3. Easy Bake Oven – plastic
  4. Radio Flyer 
  5. Silly Putty
  6. Transformers – plastic
  7. G.I. Joe – plastic
  8. Hot Wheels – plastic
  9. Etch-a-Sketch – plastic
  10. Lego – plastic
  11. Mr. Potato Head – plastic
  12. Hula Hoop – plastic
  13. Star Wars Action Figures – plastic
  14. Rubik’s cube – plastic
  15. Super Soaker – plastic
So, roll back the clock to when you were a child making your Christmas list. Which plastic toys were on your lists? Here are some of the most popular toys from each decade of the last century. Our guess is that you owned many of these, and maybe even still have a few tucked away in a closet or attic somewhere. For a substance that some think of as “artificial” or “synthetic,” plastic has managed to create some real, and lasting, and very natural memories.
 
Vintage Army Men
Vintage Army Men
Photo credit: Pinterest
American Plastic Bricks
American Plastic Bricks
Photo credit: eBay
Tea-Time Dishes
Tea-Time Dishes
Photo credit: Etsy
  1. Army men
  2. Elgo plastic bricks 
  3. Tea sets

Top Plastic Toys from the 1950’s 

Vintage Color Forms
Vintage Color Forms
Photo credit: Etsy
Vintage Corn Popper Toy
Vintage Corn Popper Toy
Photo credit: Pinterest
Vintage Gumby
Vintage Gumby
Photo credit: Pinterest
  1. Colorforms
  2. Corn Popper
  3. Gumby
  4. Hula Hoop
  5. Mr. Potato Head

Top Plastic Toys from the 1960’s 

Vintage Barbie
Vintage Barbie
Photo credit: Pinterest
Vintage GI Joe
Vintage GI Joe
Photo credit: eBay
Vintage Mouse Trap Game
Vintage Mouse Trap Game
Photo credit: eBay
  1. Barbie Doll
  2. G.I. Joe
  3. Mouse Trap
  4. Etch-a-Sketch
  5. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots
  6. Troll Dolls
  7. Easy Bake Oven

Top Plastic Toys from the 1970s 

Vintage Speak Spell
Vintage Speak Spell
Photo credit: eBay
Vintage Shrink Dinks
Vintage Shrink Dinks
Photo credit: Etsy
Vintage Star Wars Action Figure
Vintage Star Wars Action Figure
Photo credit: Pinterest
  1. Baby Alive
  2. Big Wheels
  3. Nerf balls
  4. Shrinky Dinks
  5. Speak & Spell
  6. Star Wars Action Figures

Top Plastic Toys from the 1980s

Vintage Ninja Turtles
Vintage Ninja Turtles
Photo credit: Etsy
Vintage Glo Worm
Vintage Glo Worm
Photo credit: eBay
Vintage Nintendo
Vintage Nintendo
Photo credit: Pinterest
  1. Atari game console
  2. Strawberry Shortcake
  3. Space Legos
  4. Transformers
  5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  6. Rubik’s cube
  7. Lite Brite
  8. Glo Worm
  9. Moon Shoes
  10. Little People
  11. Rainbow Bright
  12. Simon
  13. Game Boy
  14. Nintendo (NES) 

Top Plastic Toys of the 1990s

Vintage Dream Phone
Vintage Dream Phone
Photo credit: Pinterest
Vintage Hungry Hippos
Vintage Hungry Hippos
Photo credit: Pinterest
Vintage Tamagotchi
Vintage Tamagotchi
Photo credit: Pinterest
  1. Super Nintendo
  2. Tamagotchi
  3. Buzz Lightyear
  4. Polly Pocket
  5. American Girl Dolls
  6. Marble Run
  7. Perfection
  8. Hungry Hippos
  9. Dream Phone

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