By the beginning of the 1980s a host of difficulties had arisen for British toy manufactures: poor economic climate, increased imports, the rising price of raw materials and increased labour costs led to the collapse of Lesney, Mettoy, Berwick Timpo and Airfix among others. Eventually these were absorbed by companies in the US and the Far East. Some British companies including Britains, Spears, Hornby, Waddingtons, Galt and Cassidy Brothers managed to survive, while others were just beginning.
Torquil Norman started Bluebell Toys in 1983, his first project being the now famous Big Yellow Teapot House. This was one of the first ‘container’ houses which broke away from the traditional architectural style of dolls houses in favour of a bright and colourful design. He is also known for the Big Red Fun Bus and Big Jumbo Fun Plane, Polly Pocket and the Mighty Max range, as well as the invention of the plastic lunch box.
Computerised games proved completely addictive by the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, becoming the fastest growing part of the toy industry and occupying a substantial part of many childrens leisure time. The technology was available to manufacture the first interactive ‘speak and spell’ toys, bringing fun to learning by ‘talking’ to children. These included Alphie, the Electronic Robot and the V-tech revolution with its ‘first’ computers for pre-school children. These new educational toys happily co-existed with the more traditional learning toys manufactured by Galt, and Living and Learning among others. The market for pre-school toys was growing rapidly, particularly in the US.
Various surreal, cute fantasy figures, which came in groups or families, were loved by children in the 1980s including Sylvanian Families, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Wuzzles and the Smurfs. Care Bears were large, cuddly and unthreatening, offering comfort at times when parents or carers could not, as did the hybrid Wuzzles, which were mixtures of animals, birds and insects. There was a choice of characters within each group and the choosing of a particular one allowed children to feel important. Fantasy toys were perhaps especially appealing as grown-ups did not understand them.
An interesting development during the 1980s was the beginning of toys becoming collectables for adults. This was partly for investment reasons, with toys increasingly being sold at auction, and partly because adults bought things that they could not have afforded as children, often to share with their own families. Cabbage Patch Kids, although aimed at children, also attracted adults, with stampedes of people trying to buy them after their launch in 1983. Sales figures of 20 million by the end of 1984 speak eloquently for the brilliance of a marketing campaign which turned a basically ugly doll into a loveable orphan found in a cabbage patch, waiting to be adopted by a caring person.
Other crazes include the Rubik’s Cube, invented by Erno Rubik, a lecturer of interior design in Budapest. The first cubes were sold in local toyshops in 1977 before Ideal Toys brought the cube to the West in 1979. The toy won prizes for outstanding inventions in Hungary and 1981 became an exhibit in the New York Museum of Modern Art. For about two years (it won the Toy of the Year award in 1980 and 1981) people grappled frenziedly with the puzzle, usually without success. Eventually demand dried up as almost everyone had one.
Transformers were robots which could be changed into weapons or vehicles and vice versa. The idea originated in the Japanese inspired series of Micronauts, released under licence in the US in the late 1970s. The early versions did not caption children’s imaginations until Hasbro came up with the idea of creating stories around them: Transformers The Movie, set in 2005, was released in 1986 and the craze for the toys began.
The popularity of sci-fi toys linked to films and cartoons like Star Wars and Masters of the Universe was demonstrated by the huge amount of merchandising at this time. Masters of the Universe first appeared in the early 1980s as a toy line developed by Mattel, with the initial idea being to create an action figure range from the Conan the Barbarian film. The marketing department deemed Conan an unsuitable role model for small children however, so He-Man and Skeletor were born.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were another popular toy in the late ’80s, possibly because they were so different from the action heroes that children were used to. The anthropomorphic turtles lived in the New York sewers, ate pizza and fought criminals using the ninjutsu they were taught by their rat sensei. Parents did not like them.
Many of the new toys horrified those who felt that war play was a threat to childhood. Movements such as Peace Through Play were founded to campaign against war toys.