Toys are an underappreciated asset in the world at large. They keep children busy, and that means they’re worth their weight in gold. But it’s rare we ever hear about where a toy comes from or what inspired it. Some of the most popular toys in history were inspired in the unlikeliest ways.
10. Play Doh
Kids have been playing with Play Doh since the 1950s. It’s so ubiquitous that they even marketed a Play Doh scented cologne at one point in time. It’s the colorful sort-of-modeling-clay that every kid has made something out of at least once in their lives. But it was never intended to be a toy. Not originally.
Play Doh for kids came from the ’50s, but Play Doh started its life back in the 1930s. In 1933, Kroger grocery stores contracted Kutol Products soap company to make a product that could clean soot off of wallpaper. People who had coal burning heaters had sooty walls back in the day, so this was a real issue. The result was a simply blend of flour, water and salt, and it worked like a charm. For about two decades, it proved its worth, but then sales began to dwindle. In the modern era, people no longer had sooty walls. No one was burning coal for warmth anymore.
A friend of the family suggested the product would be great for kids and the company rebranded. Today, over 100 million cans of Play Doh are sold every year.
9. Mr. Potato Head
Even if you never had a Mr. Potato Head toy, you’ve seen him in Toy Story movies. He’s one of the most recognizable toys and dates all the way back to 1949. These days it’s just called Potato Head to allow it to be a little more diverse, but the basic idea is the same. That said, compared to the 1949 version, things are a little different.
Back in the day, Mr. Potato Head was missing one key part – the potato head. It was really just a box of features, like mouths and eyes and noses. The potato came from home, and kids literally used a potato to play with it. For over a decade, this was how a child had to play with Mr. Potato Head, until 1963. That year, government regulations forced a change. The parts used to stab into the potato were deemed too sharp and therefore dangerous. The fix would have made them too difficult to stab into a real potato, so the company just included a fake plastic one.
8. Battle Cat
It’s long been known that He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was made as essentially a cash grab. Mattel designed an array of toys and then created the cartoon as a way of advertising them. It was a weekly, half hour commercial for action figures.
When it came to designing the toys, the crew at Mattel had to be creative in terms of recycling. You see, it’s much easier to design toys if you don’t literally have to design toys. You can do this if you have the mold for an older toy and just repurpose it for a new one. Add a new coat of paint, and suddenly it’s a whole new character.
Mattel was trying to repurpose an old line called Big Jim for use with He-Man, but Big Jim was a military-themed line, so all the vehicles were military. He-Man was fantasy-themed. The solution was to take a panther action figure. It was designed for 9.5-inch tall figures, much bigger than He-Man. But it made for a solid horse-sized cat that He-Man could ride, and thus his trusty mount Battle Cat was born and the company didn’t have to pay to cast any new molds.
7. Mortal Kombat
One of the most successful video game franchises of all time, Mortal Kombat has spawned action figures and movies and cartoons. Known for an almost baffling level of brutality, it has endured in pop culture since 1992. Incredibly, it started as something entirely different.
The team that developed Mortal Kombat consisted of just four guys. Their initial goal was not Mortal Kombat, but Universal Soldier. They wanted to make a game based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, featuring a digital version of Van Damme.
The licensing fell through for the game, but the team decided to stick with their plan, just with a few tweaks. Van Damme was replaced with Johnny Cage, a parody of the Hollywood martial artist, and they leaned into old school kung fu movies and some Chinese mythology, as well as over the top violence. The end result was Mortal Kombat, and clearly it was a good idea on their part.
Speaking of video games, is any character more well known in the gaming world than Mario? Most of us know him today as a plumber who spends an awful lot of time in a bafflingly dangerous world full of mushrooms, turtles and princesses, but it wasn’t always so.
In the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Shigeru Miyamoto was designing video games and came up with a hit in Donkey Kong. He needed a character to face off against the titular ape, and thus, “unnamed player character” was born. When the game was released in North America, they called him Jumpman. Because he could jump.
Miyamoto wanted Jumpman, later called Mr. Video, to be a sort of protagonist throughout a series of games, like a signature for the company. At the same time, the Nintendo of America warehouse was having issues with their landlord, a man named Mario Segale. He was demanding his back rent and allegedly got into an argument with Nintendo of America President Minoru Arakawa. Arakawa offered up “Mario” as a name for their character.
Segale was aware he inspired the character and apparently never made a big deal out of it for the rest of his life, though he did once joke that he was still waiting for his royalty checks.
Depending on who you ask, Monopoly is either the best board game ever or the worst. There’s no denying its popularity though, and there are over 300 different licensed versions of the game. Considering the game seems to wallow in the joys of capitalism, it makes sense that you can buy so many different versions. And it’s also ironic, given how the game started its life.
The man credited with bringing Monopoly to the world was Charles Darrow, who, by all accounts, was less an inventor and more of a thief. Darrow had been playing board games with friends back in 1932 when they introduced him to a game he’d never played before that didn’t really have a name or written rules. He liked it so much he asked his friend to write out the rules for him. He then “invented” the game himself and sold it to Parker Brothers.
The game was obviously not Darrow’s to sell. What he had stolen was actually The Landlord’s Game, invented and patented nearly 30 years earlier by a woman named Lizzie Magie. In her version of the game, there were two sets of rules. One similar to modern Monopoly, but another that was basically the opposite and celebrated anti-capitalist gameplay. It was intended as a tool to teach why monopolies were actually bad.
When Parker Bros learned that Magie held a patent on the game, they bought it off of her for $500. The game went on to make the company, and Darrow, millions.
4. Super Soakers
In the 1990s, if you planned on having fun outdoors in the summer, you needed a Super Soaker. It was the ultimate squirt gun, a high powered tool of aquatic destruction complete with ever more impressive water reservoirs to ensure you’d deluge everyone in the neighborhood.
The Super Soaker stood out from previous guns with its pump action pressure technology to ensure you could build up a powerful blast. It seemed revolutionary and, in fact, its origins were nearly out of this world. The gun was designed by NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson, a man who took part in the Galileo mission that sent a probe to Jupiter.
Johnson was working on a project for NASA in his own home and it involved refrigeration systems that used water instead of more dangerous chemicals. He had a hose hooked up and accidentally shot a burst of water across the room. That was his moment of inspiration. The blast of pressurized water seemed like it would have made for a cool toy, so he filed it away for later.
As the years went by, he divided his time between aerospace engineering and designing the best squirt gun he could. It took him seven years of hustling to get the toy on shelves and it ended up making over $1 billion.
3. Troll Dolls
What era do you remember Troll Dolls from? Was it the ’90s? Maybe the ’80s? The ’70s? Believe it or not, these toys were actually one of the biggest toys of the 1960s, but they keep making comebacks decade after decade. There were even two Trolls movies, the most recent one in 2020.
While the design of the dolls has gone through some changes from the ’60s to the present, the dramatic hair and exaggerated facial features have been staples of the design the entire time. And while some toys are designed from the ground up to be mass produced for kids in the hopes of reaping a windfall, that was not the origin of the Troll.
Danish baker (or fisherman, a snow shoveler depending on which biography you read) Thomas Dam created the first troll doll in 1959. He made only one, hand carved from wood, as a gift for his own daughter because he couldn’t afford a Christmas present. Other kids in town saw the doll and wanted one of their own so Dam went into production. In the ’60s, he had a company producing them out of plastic.
Another version of the story says he just carved the dolls for kicks and his wife convinced him to take them to town to sell and they took off. But all versions seem to indicate it was just a passing fancy of a man who had some spare time and skill carving wood, that turned into one of the biggest toys of the last century.
Next to the Pet Rock, you’d be hard pressed to find a more basic toy than Slinky. It’s a spring. And most people know you can get a child to play with damn near anything, from a set of keys to an empty box, so a spring isn’t really a farfetched idea for a toy. But the origin of the Slinky is one of those happy accidents from an unlikely source.
In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard James was working for the Navy. His job was to find a better way to secure equipment on boats at sea. He was using coiled springs to see what he could come up with and dropped a bunch of them by accident. He watched a spring tumble end over and was inspired.
James told his wife, and she came up with the name Slinky. He started a company and by 1945, Slinky was on store shelves everywhere. Now, over 360 million Slinkies have been sold.
1. Jack in the Box
A jack in the box is a toy you don’t see all that often these days, due in no small part to the fact clowns are unappealing to most everyone. The basic idea seems simple: a small box with a crank that plays a fun tune until a clown pops out. But the origin of the jack in the box is a little more sinister than all that.
Jack in the boxes date back to the 12th century when Sir John Schorne claimed to have trapped the devil in a boot. Who would have predicted that? Schorne allegedly had the ability to heal people, and that power came from his imprisoned devil. This started the tradition of the jack in the box.
In France, the original jacks in the box were said to be called diable en boîte, or “devil in the box.” Their purpose? To lure in demons and trap them inside. Whether or not that’s true is still up for debate.
The first appearance in writing of the term “jack in the box” was all the way back in 1563, when it was used to describe a kind of fraudster who sold people empty boxes that were supposed to have goods inside.
Whatever way you slice it, the origin of a jack in the box is pretty dark compared to the goofy toy it later became.