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Materials Processes

Plastic Toys

Plastic toysA century ago realistic blow-molded cellulose nitrate toys were mass produced with realistic details and in large quantities - but they were fragile and flammable! The development of durable and easily-moldable plastics and the metal shortage of the 1940s triggered the plastic toy revolution of the post-World War II years, when deprived of the military market, producers shifted production to consumer goods. The baby boom provided millions of children as potential customers accessible through the new medium of television advertising.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was developed in the 1930s and was used in dolls, balls, and soft toys, while newer machines made possible faster and profitable cellulose acetate and polystyrene injection molding, turning plastic powder and pellets into millions of toy cars, trucks, toy soldiers, model trains, and more. Millions of small toys produced by entrepreneurs Islyn Thomas, Louis Marx, and others, flooded five-and-dime stores and turned up in Cracker Jack and cereal boxes. Older children and adults took up model-building, snapping and gluing together plastic parts to make cars, ships and airplanes.

Decade by decade plastic toys displaced traditional materials such as cloth, wood, and metal. Adaptable and sturdy polyethylene (hula-hoops, Little Tikes) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (LEGO blocks) provided an ever-growing range of toys and games. Mattel's Barbie doll and LEGO's building blocks have created an inexhaustible variety of offerings that, a half-century later, still sell millions of products a year. Today, plastic toys remain a strong industry component, but the need to keep retail prices down has shifted most of their production to lower-wage parts of the world, especially China.