Postwar Plastic Playthings: Affordability, Resources and Military Surplus

I first became interested in the increase of plastic in children’s toys through my own daughter’s toys, especially since my undergrad degree was in Environment and Health, with a fourth year focus on Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) in baby bottles. Throughout my Masters studies, I focused on the central question of why we keep what we do, how we make those decisions, and the ways in which we’ve come to value or devalue certain things. I was struck by the fact that plastic seemed, over and over, to be devalued, where comparatively simple wood toys were considered “heirloom” products. I found myself asking why this was the case, and was unsatisfied with the typical answer: “plastic toys are cheaper.” I reckoned that there had to be more to the story than that—and I was right.

FADA Bakelite radio, 1946, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkThis circuitous route eventually led me to my research fellowship and The Strong’s collection of Playthings magazine, which happens to be the most complete run of the premier magazine of the toy industry in existence. I hoped to be able to answer the very simple question: why do we make the least durable things out of the most durable material? I am especially interested in the rise of the perception of plastic as cheap and disposable, since from 1940 to 1970 there was a sea change in attitude toward the material. Prewar, the things we made out of plastic were beautiful and relatively high end. Bakelite radios and celluloid hand mirrors are just two examples of luxury goods of the 1920s and 1930s. Even the few toys that did incorporate plastic were considered high end. Pool/snooker balls and chess sets were some of the early uses of plastic in the toy and game industry, as well as Lionel Trains (which weren’t inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination).

Toy Ford Thunderbird, 1957, gift of Joseph Cerino, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkIt wasn’t until about 1939 or 1940 that some of the very earliest examples of less expensive goods created out of styrene—notably small toy cars, tea sets, and Christmas ornaments put out by the Ideal Company—appeared. When the United States entered the war in 1941, however, most materials required to make plastic toys, as well as metal ones, were put on the restricted list, and toys returned to being made primarily made of wood and paper. In addition to a restriction on materials, much of the manufacturing capability of the U.S. had pivoted to wartime production. One notable exception was the toy telephone. Although formally introduced in 1945, the Ideal Toy Company began to manufacture toy telephones in 1944 out of the scrap left over from the manufacture of millions of gas masks. Being one of the only toys on the market in the difficult postwar transition period, when companies struggled to pivot back to toy production, Ideal’s telephone garnered a huge market share.

Plastic blocks, 1953–1955 gift of Frank A. Smith, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkIn general, my research has led me to conclude that the companies making plastic toys prewar and plastic parts for wartime applications were able to most quickly transition back to making toys after the war. While restrictions for plastics and rubber were lifted fairly quickly postwar, metals remained on the restricted lists for longer, and then returned to the restricted list with the rise of tensions in Korea. These restrictions resulted in a far greater availability of plastics for manufacture in the immediate postwar years, and many companies which embraced plastics thrived where those that continued to use metals did not. So although the economies of scale that occurred as plastic became ubiquitous during the 1950s did indeed make a less expensive product, it was simple availability of resources to civilian manufacturing that made the economies of scale in plastic toy production possible in the first place. Plastic triumphed in the world of postwar toys because plastic was available when metal was not.