Toys reflect major changes in 20th century America

Missouri History Museum in St. Louis exhibits some favorite 'Baby Boomer' toys

by Leigh Elmore


Probably no other genre of collectibles generates as much nostalgia as that of toys. Everyone played with toys as a child. They remind us of our own "age of innocence" and we often project those feelings on to our own children, causing the feeling to deepen.

Mattel's Barbie and Ken dolls dominated the doll market of the 1960s & 1970s. (All photos courtesy Missouri History Museum)

"Toys are timeless," said Sharon Smith, a curator at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, whose current featured exhibit, "Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s," is on display through Jan. 22. St. Louis is the last stop for the traveling exhibition, which was assembled by the Minnesota History Center.

"This is really an exhibit that is aimed at Baby Boomers who grew up in the mid- to late 20th century," Smith said. "But we see that it really appeals to several generations." And from the look of excitement on the faces of the dozens of children who were attending the museum on school field trips recently, Smith is absolutely correct – toys occupy a special place in our imaginations.

Cowboy toys were extremely popular in the 1950s. Hopalong Cassidy was a "singing cowboy."

And, in fact, this exhibit of three generations of toys reflects the dramatic changes that were occurring in American society as a whole, through the advent of television, which revolutionized the marketing of toys along with everyone's view of the world as well. Toys of this era reflected popular culture in miniature and helped introduce children to the "Wild West" of the '50s, the Space Age of the '60s, and in the late '70s to early video games. And throughout it all, Barbie and Ken dolls dressed for success and for fun.

Vintage Mr. Potato Head's extended family included other vegetables but the basic concept remains the same.

"Gumby, Barbie, Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Wham-O, Spirograph, Hot Wheels. The names of popular toys from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s capture the craziness, the joy and the sheer fun of being a kid. But beneath those nutty names are rich veins of nostalgia, memory and history," Smith said. "The stories of the kids who played with these toys, the adults who bought them, the child-rearing experts who judged them and the people who invented them reflect the rhythms of American life."

The slinky remains timeless and is still a favorite.

The exhibit is organized by decade, with life-sized living rooms used as galleries to display the toys. Each living room is based on designs taken from dollhouses manufactured by Louis Marx and Company during the 1950s and Barbie Dreamhouses made by Mattel in the 1960s and '70s.

"This is an exhibit that causes people to start reminiscing," Smith said. And it has helped to draw people to the history museum that might not have attended otherwise. Smith said that in

conjunction with the museum's other featured exhibition, "Route 66 America's Highway," that attendance in three weeks reached numbers museum officials expected only after three months. Popularity of the museum's recent exhibits has helped it to be named "St. Louis's Best Museum" by the Riverfront Times.

"If the exhibit is one where people are stopping and having whole conversations, or tweeting and taking pictures, or wanting to go home and get out their game of Life, then we've done our job," Smith says. "They're thinking about their history."

The 1950's living room features western themed furniture and a vintage TV set.

The 1950's home is modeled after a Marx Tin Toy home, filled with cowboy-inspired furniture. It contains traditional playthings like Betsy McCall paper dolls, a Davy Crockett coonskin cap and Revell model kits. Homes of the post-World War II era were more child-focused as birth rates soared and parents thought more about child development.

The 1960's living room.

The 1960's home, modeled after a Barbie Dreamhouse, features toys reflective of the counterculture: troll dolls, an Ouija board on the coffee table and Twister, which critics at the time called "sex in a box."

The '70s home, also modeled after a Barbie play set, features the Nerf ball ("Throw it indoors ... You can't hurt babies or old people," the packaging said), a McDonald's play set, original "Star Wars" action figures, and the Little Professor and Speak & Spell, representing the emerging computerized toy era.

Yet, through the tumultuous societal changes occurring in these decades, there were some toys that remained pretty much the same, such as multi-colored blocks by Playskool, the Slinky and Cootie and Mr. Potato Head games. Some toys just cry out to be played with no matter what your age and place in history, it seems.

Mr. Machines were some of the first robotic toys.

Of course the influence of television to market toys to children cannot be understated. The television sets that provide the centerpieces to each living room gallery reflect the times in which they were made and the fads they often created.

Not all toys were loved, especially by parents, and the museum doesn't shy away from them. There's a special section devoted to toys considered dangerous or nuisances. Yes, the Jarts, large darts to be thrown outside in the yard, caused some serious injuries. And the parent-hated Super Balls are displayed along with the "Thingmaker" an electric "oven" used to make molded plastic bugs and critters. It caused a few fires along the way.

Outdoor toys of the 1960s displayed in a driveway setting.

Educational toys are fully represented with chemistry sets, Erector Sets, Tinker Toys and all kinds of homemaking toys aimed little girls. "These are toys where kids try to emulate adults," Smith said.

Kids today still love Gumby & Pokey.

The entrance of G.I. Joe in the 1960s changed the way that boys looked at "dolls." No, Smith emphasized, G.I. Joe was not a doll, he was the world's first "action figure," and semantics is everything here. "Why would a boy want to play with a doll?" Smith asks.

If you came of age during these decades, you will find some of the toys that you used to play with and perhaps a part of yourself. "Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s," continues through Jan. 22 at the Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, St. Louis, MO. Telephone



Saralee doll broke the color barrier

As you walk through the "Toys of the '50s, '60s and '70s," exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, one doll stands out in the 1950s living room – Saralee. She was the first mass-marketed doll aimed at African Americans.

Saralee by the Ideal Toy Company

According to Sandy Schneider, docent educator at the museum, Little Saralee's story starts with Sara Lee Creech, a Caucasian businesswoman and social activist living in Belle Glade, FL. After seeing two African American girls playing with white dolls, Creech became concerned because the children had no "anthropologically correct" dolls to represent them. As she said, "If you do it out of choice, it's fine, but to have no choice, that's wrong."

A psychological study at the time showed that in the segregated South of the 1930s and 1940s, children of color chose dolls of lighter complexions over those of darker complexions, Schneider said. This indicated that by preschool age, children of color had accepted society's prejudices regarding skin color. In 1948, Creech set out to change that.

Creech took her prototypes to novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who was impressed that a white woman would take on this project. Hurston must have mentioned this meeting to her friend, Eleanor Roosevelt, because Roosevelt wrote to the Ideal Toy Company that such a doll would be a lesson in equality for young children. Roosevelt actually suggested that she host a tea to announce the doll, and Ideal agreed to start manufacturing her in 1951.

The Saralee doll was on the market from 1951 to 1953, but it never became a commercial success. Sears carried it, but Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue refused to "for fear that it would attract too many black customers," Schneider said.

Not one to let a setback hold her down, Saralee creator Creech continued to work for human rights. She developed day-care centers for migrant farm workers in the 1950s and 1960s, and she testified before a White House conference on day care in 1965. "She possessed the ability to address a need and organize a coalition of prominent people to help her ideas take root,"

Schneider said. In one special case, this collective effort produced a little doll that became the best friend of many children. As Creech said, she didn't set out to make "an African American doll, but an American doll that happens to be black, a doll for all children." Creech died in 2008 at age 91.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

Back to the top

Feature Stories Archive — past articles