The American dream is hiding in the unlikeliest of places — the toy box.
The toy industry has always been a repository for national culture. And, unlike myriad other economic and social indicators, this one speaks well of America’s future. That was apparent at last week’s 110th Annual Toy Fair in New York City, where the entrepreneurial spirit thrived. Each year at the fair, around 7,500 toys make their debut. While many are introduced by big companies such as Mattel or Hasbro, other toys make it to market because of the creativity and capitalistic ethos of individual inventors.
“I call [the toy industry] the last frontier for the entrepreneur,” says Richard Levy, author of The Toy and Game Inventor’s Handbook. “Americans — they know how to sniff out opportunity, and [they see] the tremendous appetite in the toy industry for new products. America has this restless appetite that encourages and rewards innovation.”
The ant farm, the Erector Set, the Slip ’n Slide, the Magic Eight Ball, Scrabble, Paint by Number kits, Lincoln Logs, Silly Putty, Cabbage Patch Kids, Candyland, Raggedy Ann — all were the brainchildren of enterprising Americans, and that list is by no means exhaustive.
American toys’ origin stories are remarkably uniform: An inventor has a great idea, takes a risk, and ultimately succeeds commercially. The Slinky, for example, was invented when Richard James, a mechanical engineer, bumped a torsion spring off his desk at a Philadelphia shipyard. Mesmerized by its movement, he began tinkering and showed the result to his wife, who coined the famous name. The couple took out a loan and shopped the prototype to Gimbels department store in Philadelphia. The Slinkys sold out in their first in-store demonstration, and the rest, as they say, is history. Within 50 years, consumers had bought more than 250 million.
Other toys — the pogo stick, the yo-yo, the hula hoop, glow-in-the-dark objects, and Crayola crayons, to name a few — weren’t originally conceived in America, yet they became popular only because an American improved upon an existing invention, got a new patent, and, through force of will, pushed the product on the market. “It takes guts in business, and it takes guts, I believe, in basically pursuing a dream,” says Don Wulffson, author of Toys! Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions. “You say I can do it, and I will do it.”
The American toy industry draws inventor-entrepreneurs in part because demand for toys is so high, creating an obvious opportunity. The U.S. toy market is four times bigger than the next largest national one, according to the Toy Industry Association. In 2011, the U.S. toy market’s retail sales were $21.18 billion, according to the NPD Group, a retail-market research company. And throughout the recession, toy sales have remained relatively stable.
America’s high demand for toys reflects its values of family and community, says Stacy Leistner, a spokesman for the Toy Industry Association. The 2013 Toy Fair, in particular, saw a resurgence in “retro” games, “a reintroduction of classic play patterns and families being together — it’s truly about socialization, a lot of board games, puzzles, things that families can do together that don’t take a lot of time,” he says.
The kind of toys that are popular also reveals something about American culture. Board games and video games sell best when they involve intelligence, skills, and problem-solving determination. “People have to think they know the answer,” Levy says. “There has to be skill and luck in equal proportions.”
On a more fundamental level, toys sell well when they tell a story. Despite pop culture’s postmodern bent, American children generally don’t want morally nuanced stories; they prefer conservative themes, the most fundamental being the battle between good and evil. “Storytelling has always been the thread through the toy,” says Ken Markman, a former Mattel executive and the CEO of KKM Global Brand Strategies, a brand-marketing and licensing-management firm. “Boys know how to play with action toys and vehicles because there are stories to [them]. These are archetypal, universal themes.”
To be sure, the American toy industry faces its fair share of hurdles. The U.S. still invents toys, but developing countries increasingly manufacture them. Intellectual-property protection is a perennial concern. And the bad economy and an onslaught of new regulations have hurt small toy purveyors, forcing some to close altogether.
But if the toy industry teaches anything, it’s that obstacles are overcome by creativity, determination, elbow grease, and a commitment to moral values. If only translating such themes into the world of politics were as simple as child’s play.
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.