Britain was far from wealthy at the start of the 1950s and materials were still in short supply. There were restrictions on imports, and rationing continued to be a problem for all industry. There were bright spots in the gloom for British toy making however, as an article by Roger Coleman in the Council of Industrial Design’s magazine Design, published in December 1957, describes:
“Although a number of the larger toy manufacturers now operating enjoyed a healthy existence before the war it was not until comparatively recently that the industry on its present scale became so firmly established. It has an annual turnover of somewhere between £34-35 million, compared with a pre-war figure of approximately £3 million; and the export trade now accounts for some £7 million, about 21 per cent of total production. No doubt that the German toy industry – by popular tradition the most ingenious and creative – was out of action during, and immediately after the war, created a stimulus to British manufacturers to expand at home.”
At home the demand for toys increased rapidly, probably fuelled by the shortages that families had suffered for so long. Children still played with the toys that their parents had played with; chunky realistic toys like teddy bears, guns, building kits, scooters, dolls, dolls’ houses and tea sets. Model vehicles were the top sellers and the production of die-cast toys was huge business on an international scale. Products such as Lesney’s Matchbox series (1954) and Mettoy’s Corgi cars (1956) were leading the world. Although retailers had been sceptical at first, the public appreciated the quality and detail that had gone into the manufacture of these small toys. They were also portable, relatively inexpensive, and collectable.
In 1957 Scalextric caused a sensation at the Harrogate Toy Fair. Invented by Fred Francis, the cars ran on grooves, not rails, picking up the electric current from beneath the groove with the aid of a ‘gimbal’ wheel. 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. Another important name in the toy world was that of Airfix. Founded in 1939, the London-based business originally sold cheap air-filled rubber toys before buying one of the new injection moulding machines, initially to make plastic combs. Their first kit was a model of Sir Francis Drake’s vessel the Golden Hind and the first model of an aircraft, the Spitfire Mk1, appeared in 1953.
Plastics offered an opportunity for those manufacturers who were willing to take the risk of investing in the expensive machinery that was needed. Injection moulding forces liquid plastic into moulds or pre-set forms. Cheap and fast, it did away with the splinters and sharp edges of die-cut wood, pressed steel and tin. Plastic had been regarded with some suspicion because of its association with cheap imports from the Far East, but had proved its worth in toy manufacture in the 1940s. In a letter published in the Games and Toys magazine in June 1954 Hilary Page, Managing Director of Kiddicraft Ltd wrote:
˜When I decided to start using plastics for Kiddicraft ‘Sensible’ toys in 1936, my co-directors were certain that I should ruin the business with this new-fangled material, and that persuaded me to form a new company, British Plastic Toys Ltd, through which to experiment with these new toys. Mothers took to plastic toys immediately because of their hygienic properties and because they could be washed indefinitely.”
With doubts now allayed, large bright colourful hygienic and safe toys began to be made relatively cheaply for the pre-school market in particular. Given the considerable advantages that came with plastics, it was inevitable that it would only be a question of time before it became the material of choice for toy production on both sides of the Atlantic. In the soft toy world, synthetic fibres were also causing a revolution with polyester, Terylene, Orlon, Dralon and Acrilan being used in the making of soft toys and stuffing.
The toy making industry was in a healthy state and the advantages of new materials had been established, however there was concern about falling standards from some quarters. The British Toymakers Guild was founded in 1955 to promote well-designed, good quality handmade toys as a counterbalance to the plethora of mass-produced toys that were seen to be taking over the market. The guild continues to flourish in the 21st century.
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. Furthermore, growing concerns about toy safety in general were forcing firms to rethink some of their products. The concern over the potential health hazard of lead gradually induced firms like Britains to switch to plastics. Soft toy makers had to be scrupulous about the safety of their own products, and all imports of dolls and soft toys had to be tested for hygiene.
New toys 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. His first version was Lexico and later Criss-Crosswords, neither of which were successful. It took off after 1945 and the game was patented with the new name of Scrabble in 1948. The first sets available in Britain were made by JW Spears and Sons in 1953.
The US had not been as heavily involved in the war as other nations and was in an economically powerful position in the 1950s. Large companies such as Hasbro, Fisher-Price, Mattel and other were expanding and making use of advertising potential. 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.
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. Muffin’s origins are uncertain, but it seems he had been on the shelves of Hogarth Puppet Circus before being used by Annette in For The Children. 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.
Also during the 1950s, children’s fascination with the unknown was fuelled by comics like Eagle, and films like Godzilla (1955) and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). 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.