The Minnesota History Center is taking a serious look at children’s playthings from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
A year before G.I. Joe made his debut, 7-year-old Gary Frank Miller was so desperate for an action figure that he decided to make his own out of a Ken doll (better known as Barbie’s boyfriend).
“I saved up my allowance money and went with my mom to Noble Drug in Robbinsdale to get my superhero,” he recalled. “However, I was too embarrassed to go up to the counter to buy it myself. It was a doll, for goodness’ sake! So Mom took my $3.25 and completed the transaction while I watched from a safe distance.”
When the first G.I. Joe figures finally reached the stores, the heavily armed commando made “the world safe for democracy and dolls safe for boys everywhere,” he said.
Miller’s story is included in “Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” a book that accompanies an exhibit with the same name that opens Saturday at the Minnesota History Center.
A confluence of nostalgia and social science, the exhibit looks at how the toys we play with reflect the times in which we live.
“Toys offer a great look into culture and history,” said Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer. She and Adam Scher, the center’s senior curator, put the exhibit together and co-wrote the book.
“Toys and popular culture are intertwined,” she said. “We hope to spark memories for visitors, but also to get them talking about how toys reflect the rhythms of American life.”
The three decades the exhibit covers encompass a unique era in the development of toys and society.
The toy business boomed like it never had before. It was fueled by the vast baby boomer market of toy-hungry kids, the development of faster and cheaper manufacturing technologies (such as plastic injection molding) and the ubiquitous spread of TV and its powerful advertising.
At the same time, the fabric of American life was changing. Gender roles were challenged, racial stereotypes confronted and authority questioned.
The toy manufacturers kept a close eye on society. The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik saw a jump in the release of science kits. When NASA took the lead in space exploration in the 1960s, astronaut toys took center stage. And when the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, it was marked by the release of the Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit.
“Talk about a toy being a reflection of its culture,” Scher said of the kit, which included tests for air and water pollution.
Pink train derails
But sometimes the toymakers missed the mark. An example is included in the exhibit: A pink electric train aimed at girls was a no-go.
“Girls wanted to play with realistic-looking trains, just like boys,” Roberts said. “There was a lot more fluidity in how the toys were used than was reflected in the marketing.”
Scher agreed. “There were boys who played with Easy-Bake Ovens who grew up to be chefs,” he said. “And there were girls who played with Erector Sets who grew up to become engineers.”
The marketing of the toys evolved with the times, and that’s also part of the exhibit.
“We’ve seen gender roles change in the ads,” Roberts said. “The early Erector Sets always had boys working with them. By the ’60s, boys were still using them, but now there were girls standing off to the side. When we get to the Legos in the 1970s, they feature girls and boys building with them.”