10. Barrel of Monkeys
It’s been nearly 50 years since Lakeside Toys launched the game that’s “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.” Even so, these little guys still dangle prominently from Hasbro’s home page. Before Lakeside was acquired by Milton Bradley (and later Hasbro), one of its freelance designers, Jackie Elias, pitched a pub game in the hopes of landing a major client: Anheuser-Busch. The concept of the “barrel” (as in beer barrel) was easy for August Busch III to swallow, but when he saw the linked, mini-Anheuser Busch eagle symbols in the barrel, he declared that Elias had “bastardized the family insignia!” Client lost. Generations of fans gained. Inspired by an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Elias re-fashioned the pieces into monkeys. Today, this game also has a surprising use: to model abstract computer science and genetic concepts.
The “unassuming” Slinky’s compelling story can be traced to engineer Richard James. During World War II, James was tasked by the U.S. Navy to produce specialized springs, which would support onboard instruments in even the choppiest waters. During an experiment, he accidentally knocked one of the springs off a shelf and was mesmerized by how the spring responded: It appeared to “walk” — flopping in an arc, recoiling and eventually “standing” upright. In that same year, James and his wife, Betty, who gave the toy its name, demonstrated the new invention at a Gimbel’s department store. They sold 400 Slinkys in 90 minutes. During its 50th anniversary in 1995, it was reported that more than 250 million Slinkys had been sold worldwide. Like the Barrel of Monkeys, MIT reports the Slinky, too, has many surprising practical applications: aside from a prop for high school physics teachers around the globe, troops have used it as a mobile radio antenna during wartime and it holds the distinction as being one of (if not the only) toy used in space, as NASA has applied it to zero-gravity tests onboard shuttles.
8. Easy-Bake Oven
In his regular line of work, Ronald Howes invented sophisticated defense devices, but his most famous invention is the mix-and-bake device that turned generations of children into mini-chefs. Inspired by Big Apple pretzel vendors, Howes developed the Easy-Bake in the early 1960s and later sold it to the Kenner Toy Co. Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006, more than 23 million ovens have been sold and more than 140 million mixes have been baked since 1963. The oven even inspired true gourmands, who created cookbooks featuring sophisticated dishes like wild mushroom flan in such a seemingly simple appliance. In recent years, the oven-toy has received negative press as, following design changes, millions of ovens were recalled.
7. Mr. Potato Head
What better way to get your children to eat their vegetables than to stick some plastic eyes and a funny moustache on their otherwise less-than-appealing potato? At least that was George Lerner’s rationale for creating Mr. Potato Head — he just wanted kids to eat their veggies! The first Potato Head kits consisted of basic facial features that were applied to healthy foods (yes, this was a case of being encouraged to play with your food!). Though the embedded video is not the “original” commercial, the first Mr. Potato Head TV spot is credited as the first-ever television ad for a toy, in 1952. Thanks to the ad, in its first two months Mr. Potato Head generated more than $4 million in sales. In another year, Hasbro would debut Mrs. Potato Head, who was followed by siblings Spud and Yam, potato pets, cars and trailers. Mr. Potato Head cultivated a whole new following in 1995 when comedian Don Rickles lent his vocal talents and the tuber came to life in the hit Toy Story.
These handheld devices featuring 3-D slides were not always “child’s play.” In fact, the viewer started as an alternative to postcards for tourists who wanted to capture picturesque places. Photography buffs Harold Graves and William Gruber worked out a deal to produce the viewer in 1938, and a year later it was introduced at the New York World’s Fair. But the viewer didn’t really hit its stride until a couple of decades later when competitor Tru-Vue, which held the licensing rights to Disney Studios, was acquired. With the addition of Disney characters, sales of the View-Master skyrocketed. Through the years, disks have been made for blockbuster movies such as E.T., many TV shows and even for U.S. military training purposes. In 2009, there was even talk of a family-friendly View-Master movie.
What a difference 40 years make. In 1967, when the Lite-Brite got its start, it came with simple grids and pegs in eight different colors. In recent years, Lite-Brite creations have graced designer Tory Burch’s windows in 46 seasonal displays featuring 2 million pegs and requiring more than 4,000 man-hours to design. Not to mention, in its latest incarnation, Lite-Brite has gone mobile. Courtesy of the iBrite, this app allows you to download the modern, virtual version of this beloved vintage relic onto your iPhone or iPad. Through the years, the patterned sheets whereby the bright pegs are applied have also become increasingly sophisticated, featuring the likenesses of other vintage toys (like Mr. Potato Head) as well as characters from Scooby Doo to Star Wars.
French auto mechanic Arthur Granjean probably couldn’t imagine that the mechanical drawing toy he invented in 1959 would become the lasting, worldwide obsession that it is today. After all, Granjean’s device was passed over by many toy manufacturers before Ohio Toy Co. decided to take a chance on the tool that, as the 1960s commercial proclaims, “Writes like magic — with no mess!” The company’s $25,000 investment has more than paid off. Not only did the Etch-A-Sketch explode on the scene during TV spots during the 1960 holiday season, but a Google search of Etch-A-Sketch contests returns more than 400,000 results. It seems everyone from burger chains to universities to state governments has sponsored competitions to recognize works designed on this stylus-and-plastic-screen creation.
We have Johnny Carson to thank, in part, for putting the mat that puts our flexibility to the test in a more “adult” light, as well as for putting the game on the map in the first place. Patented by Charles Foley and Neil Rabens in the 1960s, Twister became the talk of the country in 1966 when Carson famously featured the game on The Tonight Show. The comedian was pitted against screen legend Eva Gabor and, as one might imagine, many contortions and suggestive comments from Carson ensued. It’s been reported that 3 million people rushed to their stores for the game following that show. Since that time, Twister has inspired both adoration and revulsion (critics have criticized it as “selling sex in a box”). No matter which side of the mat you stand on, Twister became a cultural symbol of the more liberated latter part of the 1960s. It has also been the center of many Guinness-worthy attempts, usually with university groups attempting to host the biggest Twister game ever for both glory and charity.
What makes a toy legendary? It helps to be named “Toy of the Century,” as Fortune Magazine christened Legos in 2000. And it doesn’t hurt that your once-simple product has spawned amusement parks in four countries. Legos, from the Danish “leg godt” for “play well,” have garnered these achievements and then some. The Legos story dates to 1947 when carpenter Ole Christiansen fashioned interlocking red-and-white blocks, which child development experts later proclaimed as the “ideal toy,” given their ability to encourage and refine construction, organizational and reconfiguration skills. According to the Lego Co. site, seven Lego sets are sold every second. If all the Lego bricks were distributed evenly to every person on the planet, each of us would get 62 bricks. If you were to take all the bricks sold in just one year and lay them end-to-end, they would encircle the globe more than five times. If that’s not enough interesting factoids for you, a mathematician discovered there are more than 915 million ways to combine just six bricks (it was formerly thought you could only combine the six pieces in a paltry 102 million different ways).
Barbie has been adored by millions of young girls in the past half century, but she's also generated more controversy than any toy on this list. Ruth Handler got inspiration for Barbie from her daughter who was, fittingly enough, named “Barbara.” Handler saw her playing with paper dolls and thought about how much more fun it would be for girls to play with 3-dimensional dolls. Most of the dolls at the time were fashioned after babies, so the woman who would later help to create Mattel revolutionized the doll world again by making her creation much more grown-up … not to mention, fashionable. The first Barbie TV spot, which aired the year the doll was launched in 1959, reflects the era as well as the preoccupation with fashion. Over the years, Barbie has managed to remain fashion-conscious but she has also evolved to take on much more commanding roles, including that of Air Force fighter pilot and U.S. presidential candidate (though never president). The gal can’t keep a job, though. The National Toy Hall of Fame reports she has changed careers some 75 times. She also has defied mere mortal status, in that, since the early 1980s, Barbie has been a Latino, African-American, Eskimo and native Hawaiian islander, among other races, ethnicities and nationalities. It’s also been suggested that she defies “mere mortal” status in other ways, with some arguing that, given her extreme proportions, Barbie would not be able to stand if she were a real person. In conjunction with Barbie’s 50th birthday, the BBC reported that if Barbie were to come to life, she would stand 7’6” — 2 inches shorter than the world’s tallest woman — and boast 40-inch hips, a 28-inch waist and a 37-inch bust.