At the end of the 1960s Britain’s toy exports were doing well, but manufacturers had issues to face. In 1961 the British Standards Institute issued stringent new regulations including restrictions on celluloid, bans on sharp edges and toxic dyes, and standards for secure fastenings on soft toys. Further levels of control of celluloid and the use of lead paint were introduced in 1966. Most toys would now be made principally from plastics.

A debate was also going on concerning the need for a more professional approach to toy design. In a paper delivered to the Royal Society of Arts in November 1967, Edward Newmark, Director of James Galt and Co. Ltd, argued that work down by child psychologists on the importance of toys as educational aids had given the toy industry a social responsibility which it was only just beginning to understand. Considering the importance of Froebel, Montessori and the rational educational theories of Richard and Maria Edgeworth, he argued that the British toy industry had “an opportunity to establish a world-wide reputation for making properly thought out, professionally design, beautiful modern toys that fulfil their true function of satisfying the play needs of children”.

Barbie doll, Mattel Inc, USA and Japan, 1960 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The National Association of Toy Retailers launched the Toy of the Year Awards in 1965, with the first award going to Mettoy’s James Bond Aston Martin car. Subsequent awards went to Action Man, Spirograph, Sindy and Hot Wheels cars, of which 16 different models were produced in 1968. This awards system was to prove a useful guide to assessing trends in toy popularity and continues to do so to this day.

Two of the century’s most iconic dolls first appeared in or just before the 1960s. The Barbie doll was first, launched by Mattel in 1959 at the New York toy fair wearing a black and white striped bathing suit. Her look is based on an earlier German doll named Lilli, and has proved controversial. The British version was Sindy: made in 1963 by the Pedigree Doll Company and marketed as ‘the doll you love to dress’, she took her look from the fashion world. Sindy was a modern girl, starring in her own television commercial. Barbie and Sindy took the toyshops by storm. They could not have been more different from the sturdy, if loveable, dolls of the 1950s and it was probably no coincidence that this was also the era of Mary Quant mini dresses modelled by super thin models Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy.

A major marketing opportunity for the toy industry came about as a result of the wealth of science fiction features on television and in the cinema, and by the real-life, sensational achievements of the American and Russian space explorations taking place at the time. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, followed by the first Moon landing, made by Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. Dr Who and the Daleks began fascinating and frightening the nation’s children in 1963, followed by Stingray and Lost in Space in 1965. In 1966 came Thunderbirds, Star Trek and The Invaders. Thunderbirds eclipsed all its rivals, and the variety of its sets and vehicles provided manufacturers with a wealth of marketing possibilities. There were Pelham puppets of the Tracy family, Dinky secured the die-cast rights to make the Thunderbirds themselves, Lone Star made a rifle, and a water pistol was available at most corner shops for a few pence.

Spirograph, Denys Fisher Group Ltd, France, 1965 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The 1960s was also a good time for quirky new designs, with novel games and toys such as Twister, Magic Roundabout, Etch-a-Sketch, the Trolls, the Gonks and Airfix’s Betta Bilda attracting interest. Spirograph, an educational drawing toy, was designed by Denys Fisher, a British electronics engineer who invented it while researching a new design for bomb detonators for NATO. The aim of the toy, launched in England in 1965 and in the US in 1967, was to encourage creativity in children.

The 1960s was a time of change; television and cinema produced instant demand and the toy industry advertised and presented their products in attractive packages. The US, which already understood the mechanics of good marketing, was playing a major part in the toy world. Globalisation had begun, and the toy industry would face considerable challenges in the next decade.