Saturday, 17 January 2015

They're Not Dolls: History of Action Figures

This week's history question comes from a fan of action figures: "How old are actions figures? Are they a recent invention? Did they have them in the ancient world?"

Playing with dolls, date unknown.
Boy playing with dolls goes way back people...

The first sort of action figure would be figurines: statuettes that represents a human,deity or an animal. That does not mean kids got to play with the statue of the baby Jesus. Unless you were like me and I kept stealing the little guy at Christmas out of his nativity scene. Figurines were and are for art or religious purposes. So no chewing on that miniature of Zeus now, ok?

When they have movable parts that can be posed, they are either dolls or action figures. The earliest example of a 'doll' is from Italy. In 2004, archaeologists dug up a 4,000-year-old stone doll head in the ruins of a village on the Italian island of Pantelleria. That the head wasn't found in a ceremonial ground made it different than most ancient human figures and suggests that it was probably a toy. It had curly hair and was buried with miniature kitchenware.

Action figures: A modern invention. 


A prototype GI Joe from 1963. He's seen a lot. Because war is hell, children.

While toy company Mattel was kicking ass with it's new Barbie dolls in the early 1960s, its competitor, Hasbro, realized they have nothing going on except Monopoly and Tonka. According to legend, a licensing agent named Stan Weston brought the concept to Don Levine at Hasbro, with the idea of creating a poseable soldier for boys. Hasbro saw its chance and in 1963, they began development on a military-themed line of 12" dolls that, like Barbie, could be accessorized with different outfits and equipment. He would be called G.I. Joe, the World War II shorthand symbol for the typical serviceman, or "Government-Issue Joe." The term doll was replaced with "Action Figure"by someone at Hasbro, because as we know, boys don't play with dolls. Please read this with a sarcastic tone.

Don Levine, who served in the Army in Korea, said he got the idea for the moveable figure as a way to honour veterans. G.I. Joe was launched in1964 during the Christmas shopping season and was a big seller at $4 apiece.“Don Levine and his team took it from a good concept to a great concept,” said Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro’s former CEO whose father, Merrill, oversaw G.I. Joe’s development when he ran the company. Levine died in 2014.

The plan called for a different figure for each branch of the military: Soldier, Sailor, Marine, and Pilot. Sales the first three years were enormous, and Hasbro aggressively rolled out new products that evolved the line, like the Five Star Jeep, Mercury Space Capsule, Deep Sea Diver, footlocker, Green Beret, and Soldiers of the World. Buoyed by their success, Hasbro even tried a few new products, like the G.I. Nurse which failed badly.G.I. Joe retained his military theme from 1964 until 1968.

The original collection,not including any reference to the Village People or YMCA.

Many other companies developed their own version of G.I. Joe as well. My brother Steve recalls playing with Major Matt Mason, a astronaut brought out as competition by Mattel in the 1960s.

But the end of the decade, sales were faltering, as they were for all military-themed toys.G.I. Joe retired from military service and became an Adventurer with a beard. He now adventured in outer space, the far-flung African deserts and jungles, and the unexplored undersea world. No one bought it and the brand continued to falter until production ceased in 1976.

Joe is Reborn But Loses Himself


I really wanted that Darth Vader case for some reason.

Action figures changed dramatically in the late 1970s with their shrinking in size. Toy manufacture Kenner won the rights to produce toys for a new film called Star Wars. They decided on creating a 3-3/4" toy line, which became insanely popular. It made the newer, smaller size the industry standard. Instead of a single character with outfits that changed for different applications, toy lines included teams of characters with special functions.In response, GI Joe was re-launched in 1982 as a smaller 3 3/4" action figure. The line was also re imagined as an elite military unit dedicated to defending freedom against the evil Cobra organization. So GI Joe was no longer one dude killing commies, but a whole unit of awesome unleashed on terrorist. Cool.

Here's more on the history of GI Joe, if you like that sort of thing.