Talk about nostalgia for a baby boomer’s childhood! In her new book, The Boomer Book of Christmas Memories, baby boomer Vickey Kall of San Pedro, California, puts together the secret histories and back stories behind the holiday traditions — and toys — of our early years. In this excerpt, you’ll smile when you think about All Those Wonderful Toys.
Toys — dolls, balls, games and the like — have been around for millennia, but toys as Christmas gifts are a more recent tradition. A Christmas season full of toys displays, toy commercials, and media blitzes — well, that just didn’t exist before the Boomer Era.
The way was paved for this commercial explosion by extraordinary wartime events. Through magazine ads and other outlets, the U.S. Post Office announced that if families wanted their beloved soldiers — who were serving thousands of miles away — to receive Christmas presents on Christmas, they’d better mail those presents early.
How early? In 1943, December 10th was the deadline. By 1944, it was December 1st. This urgency led stores to set up Christmas displays before the month of December even began. The idea was to encourage families to do their shopping and mailing early, but it actually moved the Christmas season back to around Thanksgiving.
After World War II ended, the American toy industry took off. Boomers were the first generation targeted by toy marketers, and toy marketers never looked back.
Here are some stats to put it in perspective: from around 1912, when toy sales accounted for $30-million a year, to the 1950s, the U.S. population rose by about 45-percent. By the 1950s, toy sales topped $1.25-billion — an increase of about 4000%. Today, toy sales comprise about $20-billion in the U.S. annually.
Hasbro ran the first TV toy commercial for Mr. Potato Head, aired on a little East Coast show hosted by a fellow named Captain Kangaroo. That was back in the spring of 1952, when Hasbro — or Hassenfeld Brothers — was known mainly for making pencil cases with Disney characters on them, and doctor and nurse kits. Mr. Potato Head (which did not come with a plastic potato body until the mid-60s) marked their debut as a real toy company.
Mr. Potato Head sales topped 4-million-dollars that year. Game on!
In 1955, The Mattel Company became the first toymaking firm to advertise on television regularly. They signed up to be the sole sponsor of a 15-minute segment of a new show from Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club. The contract was for a year of advertising and cost Mattel $500,000 — almost all of its net worth. No toy company had done anything like that before.
The risk paid off immediately, turning a lackluster toy — the Burp Gun — into a sensation. In three years, Mattel’s annual sales grew to $14-million. The toy world was rocked: toy ads, previously aimed at parents and shown before Christmas, now showed year-round and the target audience was children. Mattel and Hasbro kept getting bigger and bigger, proving that there were plenty of toy customers out there.
We — the Boomer Generation — were those customers … or at least, our parents were. Look at the fifties: men made the money, women made the dinner, and kids made believe — with Howdy Doody hand puppets when we weren’t glued to the TV set.