While holiday shopping recently, I wondered about the invention stories behind many toys in the store aisles. Previously, I'd conducted a little toy research for the Invention at Play exhibition and always found the back stories interesting. In light of the Museum's 50th anniversary this year, I decided to find out more about toys born specifically in 1964. And it turns out that “G.I Joe,” the iconic action figure, was introduced to the market 50 years ago by Hasbro (short for Hassenfeld Brothers, the company's founders). Watch the commercial in which G.I. Joe debuted.
Briefly consider the historical context of his birth. This was the height of the Cold War; the Cuban Missile Crisis was recent history and the Vietnam War was underway. The “military-industrial complex”—a phrase coined by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961—greatly influenced American culture. G.I. Joe reflected an ongoing interest in war-related play among young boys, providing them essentially Barbie's male equivalent under the guise of being an "action figure" rather than a "doll." [Note that Barbie was already the big seller for Mattel, Hasbro's competitor.] Named using a generic term for American soldiers that was popular during World War II, the G.I. Joe toy originally came in four versions representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.
So who invented G.I. Joe? Although Stan Weston is sometimes credited as bringing the idea to Hasbro, official credit is generally given to Hasbro executive Don Levine, a Korean War veteran, who led the team that developed this 11 ½” action figure with 21 moving parts. (Check out the cool drawing for a “toy figure having movable joints” filed by Hasbro employees Samuel Speers and Hubert O’Connor as part of their 1964 submission for US Patent #3,277,602, which was awarded in 1966.) G.I. Joe quickly became a hit on the toy market.
Interestingly, also in 1964, rival Mattel introduced G.I. Joe’s counter-culture female equivalent: the beatnik “Scooba-Doo” doll. She was marketed as a "singin' swinger" who wore a striped dress, tights, and beads, and had a pull string that prompted her to sing and say things like "I dig that crazy beat" or "play it cool…don't be a square." She must have been unpopular as she seems to have disappeared quickly and there is scant information online today (the official Mattel site doesn't mention her at all).
Although G.I. Joe’s popularity faded as the controversial Vietnam War wore on, and he was temporarily removed from the market in the late 1970s-early 1980s, he has since become one of the most successful and well-known action figures featured in movies and video games. Ten years ago, G.I. Joe was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame alongside Scrabble and the rocking horse. I’m happy to say that G.I. Joe was just joined in the Hall this year by the Rubik’s Cube (the subject of my previous blog post) as well as his cousins, the “Little Green Army Men.” Most likely, you or someone you know will give or receive one of these classic toys as a gift this holiday season!