Toys Are Us

Vicki Fong
May 01, 1998

It all began with Barbie.

Toys used to be "conveyors of messages between adults and children," says historian Gary Cross. They no longer are.

They used to be "child quieters"—in the 1890s.

Or, in the 1910s and '20s, "American industry in miniature"—the Erector sets that introduced boys to business and technology, the cast-iron horse-and-wagon toys that opened the world of transportation; the baby dolls that made girls anticipate motherhood, the rag doll kits that taught them sewing skills, even the expensive china dolls that encouraged fashion and care of delicate things.

Comic books, along with children's radio and TV, prepared for the transformation. Toymakers began making toys, based on children's heroes Shirley Temple or Buck Rogers, that encouraged fantasy play. And since the mid 1950s, they marketed the year's new toys directly to children.

"As gender stereotypes and traditional values came under fire in the 1960s and "70s, parents grew less certain that their childhood toys were the best for their children," says Cross, who studied toy catalogs, advertisements, business reports, memoirs, and the history of playthings to compile his book Kids Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. "In the resulting vacuum, fantasy action figures and dolls popularized by TV cartoons and movies took hold."

Barbie was (and is) one of the biggest. A plastic version of the popular 3-D paper doll sold to display the latest fashions, Barbie redirected doll play. A doll no longer needed to be nurtured, a girl was no longer its Mommy. Nor was Barbie a Mommy herself. "Barbie was what the little girl was not," Cross says, "but even more, what her mother was not. Barbie changed the whole look of the way dolls should be." But she hardly taught girls to shed sex stereotypes. Girls who played Barbies "got an education in going to the hairdresser," Cross says, "or shopping for the perfect dress. Barbie taught that freedom meant consumption. She tapped into girls' imaginations to create a drive for consumption."

In general, Cross says, "Today's toys replace traditional ideas about gender with a magical, technological violence for boys and a fashion fantasy for girls. These new playthings have not eliminated sex-role training. They have only made male heroism more fantastic and the emphasis on girls' appearance more obsessive."

Most children have little money of their own, and parents are not forced to buy toys. Yet spending has grown more than 300 percent since 1980. Perhaps toy-dollars ease parents' guilt over a decline in family time, Cross theorizes. "We cannot use toys as substitute for guiding and raising the next generation," he warns. "Toys embody messages from one generation to the next. Especially in an age of mass consumption, the adult messenger must give meaning to the things of play. Parents should be concerned about the impact of fantasy toys and their marketing on their children, who need positive guidance to learn how to make choices and decisions.

"Families need to find playthings that give our children a connection to the past, and a constructive but also imaginative view of the future, and to encourage manufacturers to produce them."

Gary Cross, Ph.D., is professor of history in the College of the Liberal Arts, 108 Weaver Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-0181; His book, Kid's Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood was published in 1997 by Harvard University Press. Vicki Fong writes for Penn State's Public Information Office.

Last Updated May 01, 1998