It was in the wake of the 20th-century consumer boom that playtime entered its heyday. Up until then, children’s toys were the source of little attention, and the market was dominated by European manufacturers, with Germany, in particular, funnelling toys into America.
As society surfaced from the First World War, change was in the air, bolstered by American ingenuity, and a burgeoning consumer culture supported by the media empires of newspapers, radio and television. American toys became ubiquitous in the consumer world, and with them came advertising and all its graphic sensationalism.
These themes are explored in a new chronological book, Toys: 100 Hundred Years of All-American Toy Ads, published by Taschen. It takes readers down both memory lane, and the aisles of American history’s vast toy store.
The new market for toys was built on desire, and as the emphasis shifted from ‘need’ to ‘want’, compelling visual advertising was at the heart of the drive. Children, and parents, were targeted with verve, first through magazines and comic books and later through television.
This is where many of the familiar and restrictive social and gender tropes were conceived, underlined with a subtext of 'education' and ‘stimulating developing minds’. Beneath the gleaming grins, familial perfection, fantastic plastic, and American dreams lurks something perhaps subliminally darker and more coercive.
The book is co-edited by Jim Heimann and Steven Heller. Heimann is executive editor for Taschen America and is also a cultural anthropologist, historian, avid collector, and the author of titles on architecture, pop culture, and the history of Los Angeles and Hollywood. Heller sits as co-chair of the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Design / Designer as Entrepreneur programme and is the author or editor of more than 190 books on graphic design, editorial illustration, and political art.
The next (and ongoing) chapter in the industry’s evolution, was the emergence of the technology revolution. This propelled toy design, and advertising, into a new dimension; playtime became an activity for both children and adults.
From frisbees to board games, baseball mitts to hula hoops, miniature trains to video games, Toys: 100 Hundred Years of All-American Toy Ads, has the whole story covered. It’s a commentary on the psychology of consumerism and the power of compelling visual design, a record of the American toy industry and a window into American life over the last century.
Toys: 100 Years of All-American Toy Ads is now available to order
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Harriet Lloyd-Smith was the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.
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