Plastic toys are all around us today – but they’re actually a relatively new addition to the toy world! While some plastic toy lines such as Barbie dolls or G.I. Joe action figures are part of our cultural landscape now, even the iconic Barbie hasn’t hit the big 1-0-0 yet.
Join us as we discover the origin of plastic toys:
The Origin of Plastic Toys
Pre-World War II vintage toys were made from wood or metal with pricier toys and collectibles made from porcelain, ceramic, or ivory. However following World War II there were global shortages of metal and wood leading to toymakers seeking out cheap alternatives so they could mass produce toys and take advantage of the new post-war consumer culture.
Technological advancements in post-war scientific research quickly led to the invention of new materials like thermosetting plastics and new polymers like polystyrene and polyethylene. These could be quickly, cheaply, and easily dyed or moulded, making them perfect for mass production.
As Germany – which had been the leading global toy manufacturer prior to the war – was still recovering, the USA quickly filled the void with companies like Hasbro and Mattel gaining worldwide popularity.
Brand Showcase: Hasbro
Hasbro was originally founded in 1923 and started out as a textiles and stationery supplies company. The company switched to toymaking in the early 1940s and quickly embraced plastic toys post-World War II. The company has since produced dozens of plastic toy franchises including Mr. Potato Head, My Little Pony, and Littlest Pet Shop.
Maker: Hassenfeld Bothers Incorporated (Hasbro)
Year of Make: 1964
Material: Plastic, Fabric
Country of Origin: United States of America
Hasbro’s most popular plastic toy is definitely the G.I. Joe action figure. The original G.I. Joe (like this G.I. Joe – Action Soldier) came in 4 builds to represent the 4 branches of the US Armed Forces, and his appearance has changed over the years in response to societal attitudes regarding war and the military.
While this toy is not on display at our museum at the moment, we do rotate our displays every 6 months so keep your eyes peeled for more! G.I. Joe fans can also view a selection of G.I. Joe toys at our seasonal exhibition UNBOX Presents: Toy Figurines.
Brand Showcase: Mattel
The other biggest name in the plastic toy industry is definitely Mattel. Founded in 1945 the company started out selling picture frames before moving onto dollhouse furniture and finally toys. Notable plastic toys by Mattel include Barbie, Chatty Cathy, Hot Wheels, American Girl, and Polly Pocket.
Maker: Mattel, Inc
Year of Make: 1959
Material: Plastic, Vinyl
Country of Origin: Japan
Arguably the most influential plastic toy till date, Barbie has been a staple of Mattel’s wheelhouse since the first Teen-age Fashion Model was introduced in 1959. An estimated 350,000 Teen-Age Fashion Model dolls were sold in its first year of production alone!
Featuring a black and white swimsuit designed by Mattel fashion designer Charlotte Johnson, Barbie stood out amongst other children’s toys with her fashion-forwardness. A fun fact you might not know is that many early Barbie dolls were manufactured in Japan and their outfits hand-stitched by Japanese homeworkers! This was due to the low cost of Asian labor during that era, although Mattel has since diversified their production line.
Fans of Barbie can view a huge exhibition of this iconic doll in our UNBOX Presents: Toy Figurines event as well, featuring Barbies from the 1950s till today.
Plastic Toys Today
While plastic toys are still commonplace today, attitudes are now changing due to environmental and health and safety concerns. These concerns range from potential toxins to the inability to recycle multi-part plastic toys. New innovations in the industry have sought to resolve these issues, from the introduction of bioplastics to some toy lines completely eliminating plastic materials or packaging.
Regardless, plastic toys remain an important testament to the changing toy and memorabilia landscape over the years as well as a peek into larger historical events. Pay a visit to our toy museum in Singapore to see more of your best loved plastic toys or book a guided tour to our UNBOX event for a deeper dive into your favourite vintage and contemporary figurines.