At Play on The New Frontier: The Toys of the 1960s, Part Two
by: Michael Kabel
The toys of the 1960s were a bonanza of playability, innovation, and – perhaps best of all – lots of details, color, and cool style. The Sixties were the decade that introduced a lot of toys and games that would go on to become perennial childhood favorites, for boys and girls alike.
The following five toys are just some of the thousands of toys, games, and kid-friendly activities to debut between 1960 and 1969. There are plenty more not on this list (or in its first part, presented elsewhere on this site), and the ranking is by no means scientific or intended to show one toy as better than the other. How could one toy be better than another, when every childhood is unique, anyway?
5. Major Matt Mason – From the moment President John Kennedy promised an American would walk on the moon by the end of the 1960s, America had "Moon Fever." Major Matt Mason, an Air Force officer who lived worked on the moon, was Mattel’s 1968 entry into the accompanying national craze for astronaut figures.
Mattel based their designs on actual NASA concept art and illustrations published in Life, Air Force, and Jane's magazines. For subsequent assortments, the series took on a more science fiction turn, including three additional fellow astronaut characters and a spectacular "space station" lunar base playset.
The line was cancelled as interest in the space program waned in the 1970s, but the toys are still considered precious artifacts and treasures of the Space Age. A Major Matt Mason figure accompanied Senator John Glenn on his 1998 space shuttle mission to Earth orbit.
4. Etch A Sketch – Only in America would children learn to love scraping aluminum shavings off a glass screen. The Etch A Sketch, with its manually operated stylus and broad, child-friendly screen, first debuted in 1960 following its discovery at the European Toy Fair by The Ohio Art Company. The perfect time-filling accessory for children on long road trips and kept inside on rainy afternoons, the uncomplicated toy became popular for its sturdy construction and unlimited use. Though it's undergone several modifications and upgrades over the years, the original remains the beloved favorite.
3. Suzy Homemaker Collection – A line of toys and accessories so politically incorrect they boggle the mind, yet its innovations and attention to detail demand a second look. Suzy Homemaker was basically a line of working appliances done to resemble the modern style circa 1968 (i.e., lots of pastel and chrome, with straight lines and contours.) They usually stood about 20" tall and ran on the old supersized D-cell batteries or plugged into a wall jack. The twist was, they really worked: the stove used a light bulb to bake, the popcorn popper made popcorn, and the dishwasher used water. Even the iron lit up.
As you can imagine, the line plummeted in popularity once Americans started taking gender equality seriously during the 1970s. Today, a new line of Suzy Homemaker brooms and mops have replaced the appliances, teaching a fresh generation of girls the pride and joy to be found in housecleaning.
2. Hot Wheels – For a generation of American boys (and girls), Hot Wheels drove their dreams of car ownership. Debuting in 1968 with a stylish assortment of 16 die cast metal cars supercharged with realistic details and moving parts, the line eventually grew to include thousands of cars, motorcycles, boats, and virtually every other kind of modern transportation. Actual car designer Harry Bentley Bradley designed the line's original die castings, including the very first release: a midnight blue custom Camaro.
Mattel estimates more than 41 million children have bought the low priced yet sturdily made cars. The Hot Wheels line continues to this day, and adult fans represent possibly the most devoted and persistent breed of modern toy collectors: aficionados are known to visit retail chains once a day for weeks, hoping to catch the latest releases. The line also includes playsets such as garages and racing tracks built to the cars' 1:64 scale.
1. G.I. Joe – It's not any toy line that inspires three generations of children towards defending freedom and protecting America. G.I. Joe first hit the retail beachhead in 1964 as a 12" "action figure" (maker Hasbro refused to refer to the toy as a "doll," for fear of alienating the toy's male target market.) With precise detail and realistic facial features, "America's moveable action man" was the first of its kind to include moveable joints. By 1969, however, America's disillusionment with the Vietnam War effectively killed interest in military-themed toys. The toys became more adventure-oriented, while the military aspect faded into the background.
Following a lull in the 1970s, the line was re-imagined and re-tooled for the Reagan-era in 1982. Now a strike force of anti-terrorism experts with code names like Snake-Eyes, Hawk, and Short Fuse, the line lasted throughout the decade and into the 90s, introducing hundreds of action figures, vehicles, and play sets into American homes. The largest was an aircraft carrier that measured over six feet long!
Recently a new revival of the franchise has returned the characters from the 80s in both classic and updated variations. Collectors and fans hold conventions (featuring original figures exclusive to the event) while vehicle and playset parts are bought and traded daily online. A comic book continues their adventures, while rumors of a live-action movie continue to bolster interest in the franchise.