The Greatest Toys Since 1900, Part I: 1900-1949

Looking back at the best toys since the turn of the 20th Century.

Troy Brownfield's son Conner in a Radio Flyer toy wagon

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Of the thousands of toys given to American girls and boys over time, what are the greatest? This writer, a lifelong toy collector and longtime toy columnist, decided to tackle that massive question. We’ll start at the year 1900, we’ll exclude board and card games (surely worthy of their own list), and we’ll exclude athletic equipment. Not every selection may be your particular cup of pretend tea, but each one was chosen according to The Tom Morello Scale of “impact, influence, and awesomeness.” Here are the Greatest Toys from 1900 to 1950.

Honorable Mentions: The Top and the Yo-Yo

A plastic toy top, and an Ancient Greek painting of a boy playing with a yo-yo
Left: A toy top (aastock / Shutterstock); Right: Boy playing yo-yo. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 440 B.C. (Photo by Bibi Saint-Pol; Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The top is one of the oldest known toys, having existed for thousands of years. Variations of the top have been found in archaeological excavations. Different versions, like the dreidel, have significance to different cultures. It transcends the time period under examination, but it definitely bears mention.

Believe it or not, there’s a Greek vase painting from 440 B.C. that shows a kid playing with a yo-yo. The modern version began manufacture in 1928 when Pedro Flores opened the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company in California.

1901: The Lionel Electric Train

Photo of a toy train on rails
(Dominick Corrado / Shutterstock)

Wooden toy trains have been around almost as long as trains themselves, but Lionel opened up a new world of play with the first electric train set. The first set was intended to be a store-front display attention getter. The thought was that the moving cars would catch the eye and bring in shoppers. It did, but they wanted to buy the actual train. Though the company has changed hands many times over the decades, Lionel, LLC still sells trains, holding about 60 percent of the market on the popular O gauge (scale) trains and accessories.

1903: The Teddy Bear

A teddy bear peeking out from behind a door.
(Kidsada Manchinda / Shutterstock)

Some historical figures could be called larger than life. Teddy Roosevelt was larger than several lives. Adventurer, soldier, lawman, cowboy, conservationist, writer, and, oh yeah, president among other things, Roosevelt had legends spring up around him everywhere he went. One in particular came out in a story where Roosevelt refused to allow a tethered bear to be shot during a hunt. The story morphed through various iterations, including one where he protected a bear cub. Morris Michtom saw an editorial cartoon depicting that story and hit upon the idea of selling stuffed bears named after the president. After sending him one and asking for permission to use his name, Michtom dubbed the new toy “the Teddy Bear.”

1916: Lincoln Logs

A vintage advertisement for Lincoln Logs, depicting a mother and her children playing with the building toy
Lincoln Logs ad from the October 1, 1923 issue of Child Life. (Click to Enlarge)

Sticking with the idea of toys that share names with presidents (no, Trump: The Game won’t be making the list), we come to the popular building toy. They were invented, appropriately enough, by John Lloyd Wright, son of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. While some suggest that the name came from a clever play on “linkin’ logs” and others note that elder Wright’s original middle name was Lincoln, the toys may have been named Lincoln Logs to suggest patriotism during World War I. The original set did come with plans to build Lincoln’s childhood home and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Today, Lincoln Logs and their distant cousin Tinker Toys are owned by K’Nex, whose eponymous line is the spiritual successor of the Erector Set.

1918: Raggedy Ann

A vintage advertisement for Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls
Raggedy Ann & Andy Ad from the September 1, 1935 issue of The Country Gentleman.

Raggedy Ann was one of the first toy tie-ins; that is, the doll was conceived to go along with another product. In this case, a book. Johnny Gruelle created and patented the doll in 1915, but it went to market in 1918 with the publication of Raggedy Ann Stories. Two years later, Gruelle released Raggedy Andy Stories alongside a doll for Ann’s brother, Andy. Between 1918 and his passing in 1938, Gruelle wrote and illustrated 21 Ann & Andy books; after he died, many other stories that he had already written continued to be illustrated by other artists. The books and the dolls sold millions of copies; today, Ann and Andy’s master license is owned by Hasbro/Playskool, and the plush dolls are made by Aurora World, Inc.

1927: Radio Flyer

Troy Brownfield's son Conner in a Radio Flyer toy wagon
Cute kid in Radio Flyer wagon, 2006 (Photo by Troy Brownfield)

The toy wagon was nothing new in 1927; people had been hand-making wooden versions for years. One such builder was Antonio Pasin, who sold his wooden wagons to toy shops starting in 1917. By the late ’20s, demand was too big for his company to keep up, and Pasin was struck by inspiration. Taking a cue from the auto industry, Pasin hit upon the idea of mass producing stamped-steel wagons. He dubbed the little red wagon the Radio Flyer in honor of two other innovators: inventor Guglielmo Marconi  and pilot Charles Lindbergh. Pasin’s company renamed itself Radio Flyer in 1987; Pasin’s grandson, Robert, is the CEO today.

1938: Plastic Soldiers/”Army Men”

Green Army Men
kai keisuke / Shutterstock

They’re not poseable, but that hasn’t stopped “Army Men” from engaging in countless battles since 1938. Molded in plastic and commonly sold in buckets and bags in a variety of colors (green being the most iconic), the toys were the brainchild of the Bergen Toy & Novelty Company (nicknamed Beton). While some sets had individual painted figures, they began to be entirely green after World War II. The popularity of the Army Men led to many other similar sets being introduced by a variety of companies, including cowboys, dinosaurs, knights, and more. Plastic soldier manufacturers announced in 2019 that they would begin adding Army Women to the mixed bags and buckets in 2020.

1939: View Master

ViewMaster
Alexey Broslavets / Shutterstock

The first stereoscopes were made in 1832; the devices allowed the viewer to see two images unified into a single 3D image. View Master incorporated that technique along with the then-new Kodachrome color film to present vibrant, full-color images. The reels that one inserts in a View Master are made up of seven pairs of pictures; as you advance the reel, each eye sees one photo of the matched pair, which results in the combined 3D effect. Early on, the reels centered on famous locations, but the company later integrated stories featuring famous characters, TV shows, and films. Mattel, the present owner of View Master, has reported that more than 1.5 billion reels have been made.

1945: Slinky

Classic 1970’s Slinky® Commercial (Uploaded to YouTube by Slinky Toys)

It’s already in your head, isn’t it? That’s the longest-running jingle in advertising history, composed in 1962 by Johnny McCullough, Homer Fesperman, and Charles Weagly. The toy itself was invented by Richard T. James, a Navy engineer. He and his wife Betty formed James Industries to make the toys. Upon their divorce in 1960, Richard left the country to be a missionary and Betty became CEO. She ran the company until it merged with Poof Products Inc. in 1998.

1947: Tonka Trucks

A toy truck
MYP Studio / Shutterstock

Some businesses change completely from their original plan. Consider Mound Metalcraft, founded to make gardening tools. Their new building’s previous tenant had patented some toys and pitched Mound on the idea of making some of those, too. Mound went for it, creating a name and logo derived from tanka, a Dakota Sioux word for “big.” That was prophetic, because the success of their metal trucks and construction vehicles was huge. By 1955, Mound would change their name to Tonka Toys. Tonka trucks continue to roll around the world; the company has been owned by Hasbro since 1991.

1949: Silly Putty

A package of Silly Putty
Keith Homan / Shutterstock

There’s actually a lot of science behind Silly Putty. In simplest terms, it’s an elastic solid that’s adhesive, but can also bounce. The material contains ingredients that help it maintain its cohesion, rather than melting in fluid. And hey, it’s fun! There’s some dispute over who actually created Silly Putty, but it was first invented during World War II as the Allies looked for alternatives to rubber, which was in short supply due to the War. It wasn’t used as a toy until Ruth Fallgatter found out about the material and began selling it in her toy store in 1949. Though a variety of knock-offs exist, official Silly Putty is sold in its egg-shaped container by Crayola LLC.

1949: Legos

Lego men and legos
MeskPhotography / Shutterstock

Created by carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen, Denmark’s The Lego Group began making their locking construction toys in 1949, and world conquest followed. Easily one of the most popular toys in human history, more than 600 billion Lego pieces had been produced by 2015. That same year, business valuation consultancy Brand Finance identified Lego as the world’s most powerful brand. Lego has proven durable enough to result in an ongoing line of video games, board games, TV series, films, stores, and theme parks. And durable is certainly the right word; a 2012 experiment determined that you could stack 375,000 Lego bricks atop one another before the bottom one succumbed to pressure and broke. The construction toys follow rigid quality standards.

Featured image: Courtesy of Troy Brownfield

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Comments

  1. What great memories these toys bring back I asked my mother to teach me to sew to make sleeping bags for my army men

  2. I was born in 1942 and I remember all of these wonderful toys. My cousins and I spent many days and evenings playing outside with different things. My having polio just meant that they would sometimes have to toss a toy to me, NO quarter was given! Even the dirt was great fun to build tinker toys and Lincoln logs made good towns, mud pies were made in old tin cans that the boys flattened out for us girls. Thank you for the wonderful memories.

  3. I am 72 years old, and I regularly play with my 3 tops, 2 sets of Lincoln Logs, battery-operated train sets, 3 sets of Tinker Toys, 4 teddy bears, several rag dolls, plus many wind-up toys, kaleidoscopes, and paper dolls and paper-craft dollhouses. I also collect children’s books and frequently read them over and over again. In these times, all these goodies keep me cheerful (and sane!) in my home. Blessings on all their inventors.

  4. I remember everyone of these toys. We worked many of them with our hands. Today children work their electronic gadgets with their fingers. I think we had the opportunity to use our imaginations more. Also I believe Gilbert made a chemistry set that was exciting mixing chemicals ane waiting for the reactions.

  5. Hello Tim,

    I thought long and hard about the Erector set, but ultimately went with Lincoln Logs. You might notice that I mention Erector sets in the Lincoln Log entry. That IP, along with the Logs and Tinker Toys, are all owned by K’Nex now, which is the modern successor of the Erector set.

    Thanks for reading!

  6. I’m surprised that the Post didn’t include the Erector Set. A.C. Gilbert was an Olympic pole vaulter in his youth, a Yale University graduate with a doctor’s degree and an amateur magician. He began his manufacturing career with producing magic apparatus for the trade. He traveled to NYC frequently via the New Haven Railroad and came up with the idea of producing toy girders similar to the overhead structures carrying power for the electric trains. He and his wife cut out cardboard girders at home and thus began The A.C. Gilbert Company’s Erector Set toy. This was in 1913.

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