What did you play with when you were young?
After the war Britain was far from wealthy. Nevertheless, at the start of the 1950s, the demand for toys increased rapidly, probably fuelled by the shortages that families and particularly children had suffered for so long. Children still played with the toys that their parents had played with, the traditional favourites, teddy bears, guns, building kits, scooters, dolls dolls-houses and tea sets. But new toys were also coming into fashion. Model cars were the top sellers and Britain’s Lesney’s Matchbox series and Mettoy’s Corgi cars were leading the world. Meccano, the construction set toy invented by local man Frank Hornby, was still selling well nearly 50 years after it was released on to the toy market.
With the war recently ended, there were calls on both sides of the Atlantic to ban toy weapons. Boys in particular had for centuries played with weapons of all sorts, improvised or shop bought, playing Robin Hood and Cowboys and Indians as part of everyday life, but during the 1950s such war toys began to be discouraged.
New toys appeared from abroad included Lego, which although launched in 1955 did not make a huge impact until the 1970s when it won the Toy of the Year award three times. From the US came Scrabble, invented by Alfred Butts after he lost his job during the depression of the 1930s. The first sets available in Britain were made by JW Spears and Sons in 1953.
In Britain thousands of families had bought a television set to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and TV swiftly took over from radio as the principal provider of news, entertainment and product promotion for children and adults. The result of this was a demand for toys which the children had seen on the television.
Muffin the Mule was the first of the great stars of children’s television in Britain, making his television debut in October 1946 with Annette Mills. He remained a popular feature in Watch with Mother until 1955 when Annette died. One of the earliest examples of the importance of television in creating demand, British children bought many Muffin toys and novelties which had been licensed by Ann Hogarth and Annette Mills through the Muffin Syndicate.
One simple toy that took over the 50’s market was the Hula-Hoop. All over Britain, children challenged each other and their parents to see who could keep it spinning for longest.
In 1957 Scalextric caused a sensation at the Harrogate Toy Fair. The first set cost £6 and demand was so great that the firm could not cope with number of orders and had to sell out to Lines Bros. At the same time, more and more plastic toys appeared. Mothers took to plastic toys immediately because of their hygienic properties and because they could be washed indefinitely. Manufacturers liked plastic as it was cheap and easy to produce at scale.
Also during the late 1950s, children’s fascination with the unknown was fuelled by comics like Eagle, and films like Godzilla and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Companies Charbens and Cherilea both produced models of astronauts and space creatures in what would prove just the beginning of a huge demand for science fiction toys in the 1960s.