Action figures were originally “action-ready” toys, as they were more flexible than dolls of similar size. Designed with multiple joints, GI Joe could wage war, Jane and Johnny West could ride horses, and Evel Knievel and Derry Daring could perform stunts on motorcycles.
With the introduction of star wars action figures in 1978, these toys became smaller and less flexible. Today, action figures are still intended for action-oriented play, but they are also something many people collect and display. Here’s how popular toys have evolved (and diminished) over time.
Hasbro responded to Barbie with GI Joe
In 1959, the toy company Mattel introduced a new doll named Barbie. The 11.5-inch toy quickly became a hit with American girls, and Mattel capitalized on that popularity by releasing different types of Barbie dolls with interchangeable clothes and accessories.
Barbie was a toy that encouraged children to want more toys. Once the kids had a Barbie, they wanted to buy her boyfriend Ken (introduced in 1961), her Dreamhouse (1962) and her little sister Skipper (1964) – not to mention more clothes for Barbie. Don Levine, vice president and chief marketing officer of rival toy company Hasbro, was interested in developing a similar toy that Hasbro could market to boys. He helped convince the company to buy inventor Stan Weston’s idea for a military doll. In 1964, Hasbro released this toy under the name GI Joe.
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Taking inspiration from wooden artist mannequins, Hasbro designed GI Joe with movable joints, giving the toy 19 points of articulation. This made the nearly 12-inch toys much more flexible than Barbie. To distinguish GI Joe from dolls—which the companies primarily sold to girls—Hasbro marketed GI Joe to boys as an “action figure.”
The original GI Joe was a US Army soldier, but Hasbro soon released other versions of the toy: a GI Joe Navy sailor, Air Force pilot, US Marine and NASA astronaut , as well as a female “GI Nurse Action Girl”. In addition to these white figures, Hasbro has released a Black GI Joe army soldier. Like Barbie, GI Joe had interchangeable clothes, weapons, vehicles, and other accessories; and the purchase of a toy encouraged the purchase of other toys.
In 1966, GI Joe accounted for nearly two-thirds of Hasbro’s profits. However, as American support for the Vietnam War waned, so did GI Joe’s popularity.
“Back then, a lot of people said their kids shouldn’t play with war toys,” says Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.
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In the early 1970s, Hasbro released a new version of GI Joe that had a beard, a less explicit connection to the US military, and “Kung Fu Grip” (which just meant you could bend his hand). Still, the new toy line wasn’t particularly popular, and Hasbro ended it in 1978, the same year as the first. star wars figurines came out. These new toys, based on the popular film, would prove to be a watershed moment in the evolution of movie ties and action figures.
The rise in star wars and other links
Shortly after the release of GI in 1964, rival toymakers developed their own action figures aimed at boys and girls. In the mid-1960s, Mattel released Major Matt Mason, an astronaut who lived on the moon, and the toy company Marx released cowboy Johnny West and cowgirl Jane West. Marx also released a female action figure based on the TV show The UNCLE’s daughter— a type of link marketing that would become more common in the decades to come.
During the 1970s, toy company Mego began selling action figures based on characters from comic books, TV shows, and movies, as well as a GI Joe knockoff dubbed “Action Jackson.” . These eight-inch toys were smaller than previous action figures and capitalized on the existing popularity of DC and Marvel‘s “Star Trek” comic books. television series and Planet of the Apes movies. However, these toys suffered from being made with a bendable type of material that deteriorated or melted over time, says Parnett-Dwyer.
This may be due to the oil crisis of the 1970s, which raised the price of plastic and led companies to make toys with less durable materials. This was the case with the new GI Joe, whose arms were more likely to fall off. Many 70s action figures were also smaller than GI Joe or Barbie. In addition to Mego’s eight-inch action figures, Ideal Toys’ Evel Knievel and Derry Daring action figures were approximately seven inches tall. (The Evel Knievel toy was based on the real-life stunt performer; Derry Daring may have been inspired by stunt performer Debbie Lawler).
Before star wars premiered in 1977, director George Lucas and 20th Century Fox approached Mego to produce star wars action figures, but the company agreed because they didn’t expect the movie to do very well. Instead, the Kenner toy company acquired the license. In 1978 Kenner released the first star wars action figures: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2.
READ MORE: The real story that inspired star wars
At 3.75 inches tall, these figures were smaller, making them cheaper to make amid the ongoing oil crisis, and cheaper for people to buy. They also allowed the company to design some of the film’s vehicles, like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, to a scale that wasn’t too big for kids to play with. The success of the film made these star wars Incredibly popular toys, though with only five points of articulation they weren’t as flexible as previous action figures. Over the next few years, Kenner increased the number of available characters from four to nearly 100 to include more characters from the original film, as well as its sequels. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
the original star wars The line, which ended in 1985, had a major influence on the action figure market. Smaller action figures became popular collectibles, and action figures based on movies, TV shows, and comic books proliferated. When another new GI Joe line debuted in the early 80s, these action figures were 3.75 inches tall and had a TV show and comic book to promote them.
Since the 1980s, action figures have expanded beyond the type of media ties associated with children to include basically anyone or anything. Today you can still buy and collect figures based on the new star wars movies and TV shows, but you can also buy figurines based on shows like “The Golden Girls”, or even historical figures ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven and Benjamin Franklin to Barack Obama.