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.”
The end of the 1970s saw the introduction of the first electronic toys, which would send the industry off in a whole new direction. That made it seem like a logical stopping place, Roberts said.
The exhibit consists of living rooms representing each decade, including a TV monitor showing the commercials from that era. There’s also a garage area for toys not appropriate for indoor play.
Some of the toys will be available for visitors to play with — ah, to demonstrate to their kids.
“You can throw a Nerf ball at a hoop or send a Slinky down the stairs,” Scher said. “We have hula hoops and Hungry Hungry Hippos. The hope is to spark memories as well as give kids a sense of what their parents’ toys were like.”
In preparing a list of “hundreds of toys” that are included in the exhibit, Roberts and Scher took to social media to ask people to write about their favorite ones. Miller’s account of his Ken doll action figure was among the responses.
“That’s what makes this exhibit different,” Scher said. “There have been other toy exhibits, but they were just collections. They didn’t make the connection between the toys and the people who played with them.”
Some of the stories “suggested angles we hadn’t thought about,” Roberts said. One of them concerned Poor, Pitiful Pearl, an anti-glamour doll that was made in the late 1950s. Annie Stanfield-Hagert, who is quoted in the book version of the exhibit, had one as an 8-year-old. She said the doll “was a true friend to a little tomboy with scabby knees and a wish not to have to wear high heels.”
Toys that traced their roots to Minnesota — including Tonka trucks, Cootie, Nerf balls and Twister — were naturals for the exhibit. Scher and Roberts also lobbied for their personal favorites. For instance, Scher insisted on the inclusion of Rat Fink, a plastic model of an insane-looking mouse that supposedly was intended as pushback against the wholesomeness of Mickey Mouse.
“It was one of the quintessential counterculture toys of the ’60s,” he said.
Some of the toys still are on the market and still are raising cultural issues, although those issues might have changed. A case in point: Barbie dolls, which these days draw barbs about creating unrealistic expectations about body image. When the doll debuted in 1959, it ruffled other feathers.
“Barbie was envisioned as a role model for young women who aspired to be adults,” Scher said. “She made girls realize, ‘I don’t have to be a wife and mother. I can have a career.’ Barbie was a game-changer.”