This was largely an American series about the American toy market, so possibly of limited relevance to British viewers, but it was still interesting to hear about the rivalry between Mattel and Hasbro, two companies set up by Polish-Jewish-American families, and their dominance of the toy retail sector. Moko Lesney, the British firm who invented Matchbox cars, did also get in on the act, although it was extremely annoying that its British owners were portrayed as speaking in American accents and even calling each other “buddy”! A particularly interesting figure was Ruth Handler of Mattel, inventor of the Barbie doll, and how she led her company at a time when there weren’t that many female business leaders around.
Most interesting, though, was the third episode, which went back in time to the late 19th century rivalry between Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers over board games. We learnt that the first American board games were rather puritanical and didactic, and that Milton Bradley first came up with the Game of Life to save his business after he unluckily printed a load of pictures of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln just before the famous beard was grown. I never knew that! And Parker Brothers’ Game of Banking reflected the Gilded Age change in attitudes away from the idea that making big money was somehow anti-religious. That was fascinating, because, in the UK, we tend to think that the business-related Protestant (/Jewish/Hindu) work ethic goes right back. Then came The Landlord’s Game, the precursor of Monopoly, invented by Elizabeth Magie, which reflected the idea of greedy landlords exploiting tenants.
Board games were really big in the 1980s and we had loads of them, and they were probably all of American origin; but I’d never really thought much about the meaning of them and how it reflected American history and culture before. One early board game, very much of the puritanical type, was called Pilgrim’s Progress. Maybe the March family owned a set?
We learnt in the first episode that it was Hasbro who came up with the idea of advertising directly to children, in order to publicise Mr Potato Head, but that Mattel hadn’t been far behind. But the really interesting part was how the toys were adapted in order to fit cultural changes. As the feminist movement evolved, career Barbies were brought out, as was an Afro-American doll as the Civil Rights Movement gained pace. Meanwhile, Hasbro’s GI Joe figure was demilitarised into an adventurer/explorer as the anti-Vietnam War protests made military toys less popular, then became a soldier again in the Reagan years.
The second programme went back to the 1950s, and showed Britain’s Moko Lesney coming up with the idea of toy vehicles – and then, when Matchbox cracked the American market big style, Mattel matched (pun intended) and then overtook them, with their Hot Wheels toy cars. Matchbox toys are way more iconic than Hot Wheels, though! But, sadly for Matchbox, Hot Wheels came to dominate the market, Lesney Products went bust, and Matchbox are now actually owned by Mattel.
Then, in the third and final programme, it was right back to the 1860s to learn about the origins of American board games. And forward to the 1930s. Monopoly, first sold by Parker Brothers in 1936 after they originally turned creator Charles Darrow down, was closely based on The Landlord’s Game, but minus the preachy element. In the 1940s, along came Clue(do) and Sorry, but Milton Bradley hit back in 1960 with an.updated Game of Life.Scrabble was shown briefly, but Trivial Pursuit, strangely, wasn’t mentioned at all.
And then, in the 1980s, Hasbro took over both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Monopoly is apparently still the world’s best-selling board game, and oligopoly is the name of the game in toy/game manufacturing.
So that was the three episodes, and they really did say a lot about how toys reflect society. An unusual and very interesting series.