By the beginning of the 1930s trade with Germany had resumed, albeit reluctantly, on both sides. The atmosphere was one of economic gloom with high levels of unemployment in Britain and the Great Depression in the United States. It is probably not surprising therefore, that one of the most successful board games of all time, based on property ownership, emerged during this period.

Monopoly was introduced to Britain in 1936 from the USA, where it had been published by Parker Brothers the previous year. Parker Brothers had bought the rights from Charles Darrow, who claimed to have invented it, after the first print of 5,000 copies had quickly sold out. By February 1935 they were sending out 20,000 sets per week. Darrow had based Monopoly on earlier versions of a land-owning game that had been around since about 1900; it is particularly similar to The Landlord’s Game, patented by Lizzie Magie in 1904. The street names in the original Monopoly came from Atlantic City in New Jersey, where Darrow spent his holidays.

Trains remained the must-have toys of the 1930s, but toy companies had to find new ways to sell their products. Meccano introduced its simplest ever set, No.000, for the under-5s in 1932. Other firms used cheap materials to keep costs low and sought out new retail outlets. The best way to sell toys proved to be to link them to a film or a celebrity name. Although this was not the first time that heroes and fantasy characters were used to sell toys, it was the first time that young audiences could be reached in large numbers through the radio and cinema.

Mickey Mouse, Deans Rag Book Co. Ltd, England, c1930 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Following the success of the first talking cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928) featuring Mickey Mouse, Dean’s Rag Book Co. produced the first Mickey Mouse soft toy in 1930. Dean’s was the first company to persuade Walt Disney to market a toy based on the famous cartoon character. US toy manufacturers Fisher-Price and Ohio Art featured Mickey and his friend Minnie Mouse on their tea sets, tin toys, spades and sand pails. In 1937 Walt Disney took the step of licensing Snow White’s image before the film was shown, thus ensuring a demand for Snow White goods long before the film was released later that year.

With her golden curls and twinkling eyes, Shirley Temple captivated cinema goers in the 1930s. In 1932, at the age of three, she starred in her first move, War Babies. Between 1936 and 1938 all the films she starred in were hits. By the age of 8 she was the biggest box office draw in the word. Everyone wanted something with her picture on. She is probably best remembered for singing On the Good Ship Lollipop in the movie Bright Eyes. Shirley Temple was the doll that mothers and daughters could share and which allowed them to into the glamorous world of the young screen idol.

Catalogue front cover, Paul and Marjorie Abbatt Ltd, c1937 copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gary Cross in his book Kids’ Stuff points out that the new toys for boys were now based not on the toy weaponry and construction kits that helped to prepare them for their adult lives, but on the new male fantasy figures who were strong independent men fighting the cause of good against evil. Amongst these are the familiar names of Buck Rogers, Superman, Dick Tracy and Popeye, the forerunners of the 1960s Action Man. While character merchandising was helping to keep the toy industry afloat on both sides of the Atlantic, serious thought was also being given to the design of developmental toys. Progress in this area came about as the result of the new educational thinking concerning children’s intellectual and physical needs.

Firms such as Abbatt Toys, Lines Brothers and Kiddicraft promoted the importance of well-designed educational toys which would help children to learn through play. Artists and child psychologists had been involved in toy design since the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1930s Abbatt Toys and Lines Brothers were two of the firms which employed artists to design toys. Paul and Marjorie Abbatt pioneered commercially produced, purpose designed, educational toys, making them available to families and schools firstly through a mail order service run from their home in Tavistock Square in London and later in their child-friendly shop at Wimpole Street, London, which opened in 1936.

Instruction leaflet, Bayko Building Sets, Plimpton Engineering Co Ltd, 1930s copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hilary Page founded Kiddicraft in 1932. He designed toys himself and wrote several books and magazines such as Nursey World and Playtime in the First Five Years. In the early years he produced wooden toys with educational principles in mind and also imported toys from abroad, such as Russian pyramid rings, a shape sorting toy that he later copied in plastic. He experimented with plastics throughout the 1930s, assessing their suitability as a material for toy production, and made an important contribution to the manufacture of toys for babies by designing a complete range of ‘Sensible’ toys in plastic under the name Bri-Plax, which he produced in 1940. Plastics were very much an experimental material in toy making at the time and the new company was set up to make them in case they failed. In the event, war broke out in 1939, and progress was halted until 1945 when Kiddicraft took over production.

Charles Bird Plimpton set up the firm of Plimpton Engineering Ltd in 1933 to manufacture a new construction kits called Bayko. This was made of Bakelite, a material which had been in use for some 25 years, and steel rods. The rods were inserted into a perforated base and the building elements could then be slid up and down the rods to make houses and other buildings.

Rubber with moulded press studs was used for he first time in 1930 for the production of Minibrix interlocking bricks. They were made by the Premo Rubber Company of Petersfield, Hampshire, which made rubber heels for shoes. Two series of bricks were available, the Tudor and the Modern. The instruction books contained details of real buildings to construct and make up into realistic models. In the soft toy making industry Nylon, invented n the US by WH Carothers and destined to change the way that soft toys were made, was used for the first time in 1938. This was followed by the introduction of polyester in 1941, invented in Britain by JR Whinfield and JT Dickson.