Toy Stories: Combination of Luck and Skill that gave Birth to some of our Favorite Games
By: William Shaw
The toy that lurks within that gaudy paper is this year’s attempt to become the one that works its way into our family’s hearts.
To that purpose, it has probably been meticulously researched by a marketing department. Patents will have been pored over. Design engineers will have costed materials, tested prototypes. Focus groups of children will have been carefully observed playing with it. Earnest discussions about gender will have taken place.
Men from the industry will tell you proudly, ‘The days of going in and showing a papier mâché prototype are gone.’
They may be overlooking one thing: the games that come back, year after year, are often the ones with a story that is inevitably more rough-edged than that. The toys we love most are often labours of love, desperation, skulduggery and sometimes pure fluke. And sometimes the story behind its creation is as entertaining as the toy itself…
SCRABBLE One thing the history of games teaches us is the upside of economic downturns. Many of the greatest classic games were produced out of the desperation and sheer boredom of the 1930s. The inventor of Scrabble, Alfred Butts, declared: ‘If there hadn’t been any Depression in the Thirties, there wouldn’t have been any Scrabble.’ He was an out-of-work architect with way too much time on his hands doing crosswords when he dreamt it up.
The germ of the idea struck him in 1938 when reading Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Gold Bug, in which the protagonist solves a symbol-based code by calculating the frequency of occurrence of letters in the alphabet – the letter ‘e’ being the most popular. Butts set about counting all the letters on the pages of the New York Times to evolve a game which he called Lexiko.
Not that it did him any good at the time. Maybe it was the name. Butts struggled for more than 10 years, cutting sheets of plywood to make tiles, failing to persuade games manufacturers to take it on. He finally gave up after the Second World War, selling the idea in 1948 in return for a small royalty to a young man called James Brunot.
Brunot had tired of commuting to New York and was looking for a business that would give him an independent life. Brunot decided it would be better called Scrabble and worked to market it until the Scrabble craze struck in the 1950s, providing the inventor, Butts, with a nicely unexpected income for the rest of his days.
LEGO While Alfred Butts was counting letters, Ole Kirk Christiansen, the 13th son of a poor Jutland famer, was staring disaster in the face on the other side of the Atlantic.
Trained as a carpenter, he had lost his furniture shop in the financial crisis. To make a living, he turned to smaller artefacts – wooden toys – naming his new company Lego, from the Danish leg godt, meaning ‘play well’. In 1949 the company acquired a licence to make the plastic bricks from the British company Kiddicraft. It was Ole’s son Godtfred who revolutionised the design in 1958, adding the hollow tubes at the bottom end of each brick which made them versatile, light and tight-fitting. The remarkable consistency of the toy’s manufacture means that a brick made in 2008 still locks perfectly with one made 60 years ago.
MONOPOLY Another Depression story: the daddy of them all was, Parker Brothers used to claim, ‘invented’ by a humble struggling unemployed salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania called Charles Darrow who, according to the official account, ‘One evening in 1930 sat down at his kitchen table… and sketched out some of the street names of Atlantic City on the round piece of oilcloth that covered the table. As he devised the game board, pieces, play money and other equipment, he taught his wife and a circle of friends the game that would eventually make him a world traveller, gentleman farmer and millionaire.’
Hurrah! Much is made of the struggles the plucky Darrow endured to bring his game to the American public, selling handmade copies to friends at four dollars a pop, hawking it around Philadelphia department stores. When Darrow tried to interest them in the game, the company Parker Bros were sniffy, telling him the game contained ’52 fundamental errors’, including the fact that it took too long to play and had no clearly defined objective. But then a family friend of the Parker Bros owners started enthusing about how her friends were all playing this new game, and in 1935 the deal was struck. Within a month of manufacture Parker Brothers were producing 20,000 copies a week. It’s a real rags-to-riches story of American entrepreneurship.
But not strictly true.
Monopoly was, in fact, the creation of an earnest young Quaker woman called Lizzie J. Magie, who in 1904 patented what was then called The Landlord’s Game. Magie was an enthusiastic supporter of the Quaker tax reformer Henry George. She created the game as a demonstration of the evils of property ownership: as players toured the board, property-owners extorted money out of their fellow citizens.
While this doesn’t sound as much fun as Darrow’s, her game contained most of the elements Darrow would later present to Parker Bros as his own. The game spread among Quakers who passed it on with the zeal of modern internet file-sharers. It became commonplace to write the names of local streets on one’s own version. The name was transformed from The Landlord’s Game, to Auction Monopoly, to, finally, Monopoly.
Whatever it was called, it clearly left an impression on players, which would prove useful when the matter came to the attention of the law courts, years later. It transpired that a certain Charles E. Todd, who ran a hotel in Germantown, Pennsylvania – where Charles Darrow had been a regular – had been introduced to the game by Eugene and Ruth Raiford.Todd later recalled: ‘The first people we taught after learning it from the Raiford’s was Darrow and his wife Esther. They had never seen anything like it and showed a great deal of interest in it. Darrow asked me if I would write up the rules and regulations and I wrote them up and checked with Raiford to see if they were right.’
Those rules would be remarkably familiar to any modern Monopoly player, right down to the exact fees paid for landing on railway stations and the colour of the Community Chest cards.
Soon after the game began to sell, though, the truth of Monopoly’s origins dawned on Parker Bros. To their dismay they found Darrow wasn’t the only person who claimed to have invented Lizzie Magie’s original game, either. Forced to hastily buy out other versions, for a while the president of the company, Robert B. M. Barton, even ran about purchasing old copies of Magie’s creation, supposedly for their ‘small museum of old and original games’, while Parker Bros maintained Darrow’s protective fiction.
And Magie herself? She was thrilled to bits when Parker Bros offered her $500 for the patent, believing the company would market The Landlord’s Game and that her progressive theories would ‘spread to the people of the country’.
Alas, no. They sold a few hundred copies, and then discontinued it. An estimated 750 million people have played Darrow’s version, proving that greed and monopolism really are what wins the game.
The irony is that the full details of this story only emerged when an economics teacher named Dr Ralph Ansbach created Anti-Monopoly, somewhat in the spirit of Lizzie Magie’s original, to demonstrate the perils of monopolies. He found himself being sued, in 1974, by Parker Bros’s then owners General Mills Fun Group. It took Ansbach 10 years, during which – in true Monopoly-style – he had to remortgage his own house to prove that Parker Bros were attempting to exercise an unfair monopoly over a game which had once been shared like chess or draughts.
Ansbach won the case in the Supreme Court and went on to sell half a million copies of his own game that year. But now, Anti-Monopoly is all but forgotten; Darrow’s greedier game wins hands-down.
BARBIE If ever a toy defined the changing psycho-sexuality of girlhood in the 20th century, it’s Barbie. She was the curvy brainchild of businesswoman Ruth Handler, who figured that all the dolls her pre-teen daughter played with were absurdly babyish. Her husband, Elliot Handler, was, as it happened, the co-founder of Mattel toys, an ambitious new toy company.
Elliot was sceptical about the idea of a grown-up woman doll. ‘Frankly,’ Handler said later, ‘I think they were horrified by the thought of wanting to make a doll with breasts.’ But Ruth returned from a shopping trip in Switzerland with a saucy German doll called Bild Lili: Lili was a spin-off from a semi-pornographic adult cartoon in the German newspaper Bild, originally sold to men as a novelty in tobacconists. (It wouldn’t be the first toy to have unsavoury beginnings. After all, the Teddy Bear was invented as a result of a bear-hunting trip by Theodore Roosevelt.) Grudgingly, Elliot and his company agreed to develop the idea.
The project was handed to Mattel’s Jack Ryan, with instructions to make the doll ‘less like a German street-walker’. Whether Ryan achieved that is a moot point among feminists. A red-blooded male who would later marry Zsa Zsa Gabor, he was responsible for her biologically unfeasible shape and the bendy joints that made her so disturbingly pliable. It’s curious to look back and see how they navigated the topography of desire. Teetering legs and pointy bosoms were fine. But when the prototypes returned from Japan with nipples, Ryan patiently filed them off. The Japanese had not understood the subtleties of western sexual iconography.
Ryan was the perfect man to create the image of Cold War woman. A Yale graduate, he had previously worked designing Sparrow III and Hawk missiles. (Barbie wasn’t the only bonus of the arms race: the British inventor Denys Fisher says he created Spirograph while working on designs for Nato bomb detonators.) It was launched in 1959; Sears Toys refused to stock it at first. In pre-launch marketing tests, one mother declared, ‘I wouldn’t walk around the house like that.’
The marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor didn’t go well. One story goes that when their marriage was falling apart Ryan took apart the Rolls-Royce he’d given her as a gift, piece by piece, then refused to put it back together.
Jack Ryan is also famous for pioneering the pull-string voicebox. He was so keen on them he even fitted them to the stone lions that surrounded his Bel Air mansion. The voicebox proved a disadvantage in later years though. In the 1990s, the self-styled Barbie Liberation Organisation – the BLO – was outraged to find Teen Talk Barbie saying, ‘Math class is so tough.’ To reeducate Barbie, they organised a campaign swapping GI Joe and Barbie’s voices, forcing Barbie to growl instead ‘Vengence is mine,’ and ‘Dead men tell no tales.’
A generation of young American males, hearing GI Joe trill, ‘Let’s plan our dream wedding!’ were never the same again.
TWISTER Another toy with a whiff of scandal, it was patented in 1966 by two Americans, Chuck Foley and Neil Rabens, who fell into obscurity after – according to Foley – accepting a relatively small payment for what Foley claims was their idea. (One Reyn Guyer, the creator of Nerf Ball, says he invented it, and he’s the one who ended up with the cash).
Milton Bradley, the games company, was dubious about a game that had so little to it and that used humans as the playing pieces. That was, however, to be its selling point. That became clear that May after chat show host Johnny Carson played it live on TV with the actress Eva Gabor – the younger sister of the aforementioned Zsa Zsa. The sight of Eva on all fours in a low-slung dress with Johnny Carson contorting over her was enough. It was, complained competitors, ‘sex in a box’. And thus the game became the runaway craze of 1967.
MECCANO If you’re troubled by the amoral world of American games, turn instead to Britain’s Frank Hornby, possibly the greatest children’s inventor in history. Filled with a sense of moral purpose from reading Samuel Smiles’s backbone-stiffening work Self Help, he set about inventing a series of toys that would engage young boys the world over, turning their minds away from wantonness in favour of industry and manufacture. His first success was Meccano, created in 1900 after he’d played around making toys for his sons with scrap metal. (The toy was shamelessly copied by the American A. C. Gilbert, who called his version Erector.) Hornby went on to create Hornby model railways and Scalextric, and to become a Conservative MP for Everton.
SUBBUTEO Less morally upright was Peter Adolph, a chancer and QPR fan from Tunbridge Wells. Subbuteo – or a game remarkably like it – had been created in the 1920s, under the name NewFooty, but as its owners had neglected to register a patent, Adolph considered the goal was left unguarded and set about making his own prototype in 1946, using turquoise plastic buttons from his mother’s coat with washers shoved inside to weigh them down.
With only his button prototype to go on, Adolph placed an advert in Boy’s Own, announcing the creation of his game. The story Adolph liked to tell is that he then disappeared on holiday and arrived back to find over £7,000 in 7/6d postal orders waiting for him at home before he’d made a single set. Believe that if you will. The first sets were issued with a piece of chalk to draw your own pitches with.
It succeeded despite the strange name. It’s a play on the word ‘hobby’. An ornithologist, Adolph liked the fact that the Latin namefor the hobby falcon was falco subbuteo.
Adolph was also interested in birds of another feather; he was famously a womaniser, a heavy drinker and a collector of fast cars who fancied himself as a bit of a Bond figure and liked to tell the story of how he was once challenged to a duel during a toy trade fair in Belgium.
SLINKY Just as everyone is mistakenly inclined to believe they have a novel in them, many believe they have a game just waiting to get out. For all these success stories, there are a million tortuously conceived failures.
If you’re lucky though, you don’t even have to try. Take the case of the Slinky. It’s a spring. That’s all. It was discovered accidentally in 1943 by marine engineer Richard James when a torsion spring used in a meter fell off his desk and ‘walked’ across the floor. Excited, he took it home to his wife Betty, saying, ‘I think I can make a toy out of this.’ It was Betty (inset) who christened it Slinky; together they formed the James Spring & Wire Company and went on to make their fortune.
The husband and wife team fell apart in the Sixties, when Richard flipped out and ran off to Bolivia to join a cult. Betty soldiered on alone, inventing the Slinky Dog that starred in Toy Story. She died this November, having sold 300 million Slinkys, enough to girdle the earth about 150 times – if stretched correctly.