Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wisconsin's Toyful Side

Dollhouse cabinet from Wisconsin Toy Co.
Photo: Tracy's Toys
 Thanksgiving is over and now all focus shifts to Christmas.  Christmas means many things in Wisconsin, which we will touch upon later in later posts, but throughout the United States, Christmas means toys.  Wisconsin isn't as famous as Denmark or Japan when it comes to the production of hisoric toys, but there are a number of iconic brands with a connection to our state.

Wisconsinites have been hand-making toys at home since the earliest inhabitants.  Native peoples in Wisconsin would make dolls and mobiles for cribs and Laura Ingalls Wilder talked about making dolls, toy boats, and puppets while on the prairie.  In the early 20th century, the Wisconsin Toy Co. made German-style dollhouses that were sent to little girls all over the country.  These were usually handmade and done with the utmost attention to craftsmanship and detail.

Kirsten, the Swedish American Girl doll
Photo: American Girl
This heritage made Wisconsin a natural fit for the now household name of American Girl. Founder Pleasant Rowland visited Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in the early 1980's and was inspired by the way they made history accessible and fun.  Wanting to bring that same spark to girls all over the country, Rowland started American Girl dolls in 1986.  At the time, Pleasant Company in Middleton produced just three dolls: Kirsten Larson, Samantha Parkington, and Molly McIntire.  The idea was to make a doll that girls could relate to while discussing social issues like slavery, poverty, and war in terms that young girls could understand.  Since then, the brand has expanded to over 20 dolls, accessories, movies, magazines, and books.  Despite boutique stores in Chicago, New York, LA, etc., American Girl is still based in Middleton, Wisconsin.  Pleasant Rowland is a noted philanthropist in Madison and continues to champion education and outreach programs through the American Girl company.

Photo: Mattel
Another doll, albeit with a different reputation than American Girl, is Barbie.  Yes, that Barbie.  No, she wasn't created in Wisconsin, but she is from here.  In a fictional sense.  Barbie was created in 1959 by a woman from Colorado named Ruth Handler.  It didn't take long for Barbie to became an international phenomenon.  It is estimated that over 1 billions Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide, and that three Barbie dolls are purchased every second.  What does this have to do with Wisconsin?  In her fictional bio, Barbie was born in the town of Willows, Wisconsin (don't bother with a pilgrimage, it doesn't exist).  I can't say I'm proud that Barbie was 'born' here, but at least Ken isn't a Sconnie!  If you want to see some more authentic Wisconsin Barbie dolls, check out this Brut Brut! post.

Photo: Duncan
But Wisconsin is not just dolls.  Wisconsin loves crafts and we've made our name in some ubiquitous toys found in almost every home.  Yo-Yos are often a generic toy, rarely tied to any brand.  But if you did have to name the producer of the classic bauble, it'd probably be Duncan.  They are so closely linked to yo-yos that their website is  Although the company is from Ohio, Duncan set up their yo-yo factory in the small town of Luck, Wisconsin.  Luck was founded by Swedish loggers, and the town attracted Duncan due to the wide-spread availability of hard Maplewood, perfect for their trademark butterfly yo-yo.  Luck quickly became known as the Yo-Yo Capital of the World, and produced 3,600 yo-yos an hour in their heyday.  That's about 7.5 millions yo-yos a year.

Another childhood favorite are Shrinky Dinks.  Almost everybody in the 1980's had Shrinky Dinks, the bake-able plastic art medium.  The idea began as a Cub Scout project in Brookfield.  It was sold to Hasbro and entered the vocabulary of teenagers across the country.  If you're looking for an especially retro brand of fun, check out their website.  Rad.

As a boy, some of my favorite toys were Micro Machines.  These miniscule cars were licensed from Clem Heeden of Sturgeon Bay.  Produced by Galoob throughout the 1980's and 1990's, they sadly ended production before the millennium.  However, they did leave us with some great YouTube classics!

If you'd like to continue Wisconsin's toy making heritage, there are a number of toy makers in the state.  John Michael Linck makes traditional wooden toys here in Madison and there's always those Shrinky Dinks from North Lake!

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