Collecting through the decades - the 1950s

14 July 2022
Continuing our series, we take a look at popular children's toys through the decades.
Collecting through the decades - the 1950s Images

If you grew up in the 1950s there was certainly plenty of toys to play with. The end of the  1940s saw the start of many toy brands that have lasted through the ages. Youngsters saw how tinplate and clockwork toys were making way for plastic, battery and electrically operated toys.

With the War years behind them, people were looking to the future and Japan became a major producer of cheap toys. Robots, ray guns, spaceships and rockets were popular, with battery power adding to their appeal especially for the boys, while cute animals and people battery operated toys were produced for the girls. Often, these Japanese tin toys were made from recycled food cans from the US. As collectables they can certainly be valuable. About five years ago, a 1950s Japanese Jupiter Robot in its original box sold at Morphy Auctions, Pennsylvania for $36,000.

One of the top toys of the 1950s was actually Play Doh which started out in life as wallpaper cleaner. In the mid-1950s it started to be used in play by Cincinnati schools – its popularity soon spread.  Mr Potato Head was another massively popular toy of the 50s. These days he’s a character from Toy Story but back in the 1950s you had to use a real potato which you could interchange the facial features to make a variety of characters. Seventy years on and Mr Potato Head is still providing lots of fun for today’s youngsters. Pelham Puppets were also popular. These simple wooden marionettes were made by Bob Pelham from 1947 until 1993.

You could also get fit in the 50s with the newly released Hula Hoop. This had been inspired by the Australian bamboo hoop which has been around for many centuries. It was popularized in 1958 by Arthur K “Spud” Melin and Richard Kerr who produced the hoops from colourful plastic tubing. They marketed the Hula Hoop well, starting a crazy for Hula Hooping, selling 25 million hoops in just four months.

Two major names in the toy world made their introduction in the 1950s – namely Barbie Dolls and Matchbox toys.  

Barbie’s birthday was 9 March 1959 – that was the day she first made her debut appearance at the New York Toy Fair. Until she came along little girls were playing with baby dolls, or dolls representing toddlers. However, the person who created Barbie (Mattel Inc founders Ruth and Elliot Handler) became aware of the gap in the market for older girls who wanted to play with grown-up dolls rather than baby dolls. While they were on holiday in Europe, Ruth Handler saw the West German Bild Lilli Doll which was a gift shop doll for men rather than for children. But it was something like Ruth had in mind.

She re-designed her adult doll, naming it after their daughter, Barbara. The doll’s full name was Barbara Millicent Roberts, shortened to Barbie, and the male counterpart, Ken who was created in 1960 was named after their son. Although not an immediate hit, after a TV advertising campaign, Barbie rocketed to stardom, retailing at $3 selling 300,000 in the first year. The first Barbie had golden hair, blue eyeshadow and was dressed in a black and white swimsuit. Since then, there have been a billion Barbies sold and she’s had 200 different careers, from astronaut to rock star.

If you have one of those original Barbies in your collection, it would be valued at around $8,000, but in 2016 an original first edition 1959 blond Barbie in mint condition fetched $27,450 at auction. And if you want to check your Barbie, first edition Barbies have holes in the bottom of their feet, second edition Barbies have solid feet.

For little boys of the 1950s, they welcomed Matchbox toys into their lives – and many haven’t stopped collecting them since. Matchbox toys were made by Lesney Products who were based in Hackney, London. The founders were Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith who were unrelated but served in the Royal Navy together during WWII. Lesney Products is a combination of their first names. They were joined by Jack Odell and in 1951, Rodney Smith left. The first toy they produced was a copy of Dinky’s Averling Barford Road Roller.

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The Matchbox idea came about because Odell wanted to produce a toy that his daughter could take into school. The rule was that the toy had to fit inside a matchbox. So, he scaled down the road roller. The next major Matchbox toy they manufactured was a Coronation Coach to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. It sold one million in the summer of its release. The Matchbox toys weren’t produced in any recognisable scale, but rather individually reduced to fit in a matchbox. They were so popular that a whole range of cars, farm vehicles, trucks, buses and vans were produced. The price of Matchbox toys added to their popularity. Even by the end of the 1950s the retail price of the vehicles was still affordable.

For collectors it’s worth knowing that a rare Matchbox toy fetched a record £10,200 at an auction in Harrogate. The sale was being held at the Matchbox Club’s 25th convention in 2010.

In 1956 the first Corgi models appeared, manufactured by the Mettoy Company, Northampton. They chose the name Corgi (after the Welsh dog) for three reasons: because it was a short and catchy name, Corgis were also associated with the royal family, and because the models would be manufactured in Swansea, Wales.

The first to be produced were of British built saloon cars of the era. These included the Ford Consul, Austin Cambridge, Morris Cowley, Riley Pathfinder, Vauxhall Velox, Rover 90 and Hillman Husky. At the time they sold for 3 shillings each – 15p in today’s money.

The famous brand of Scalextric also made its debut in the 1950s. While the Lionel Train Company in the US are recognised as the first to produce slot cars, tool maker Bentram “Freddie” Francis turned to making toys after the war years and founded Minimodels Ltd, producing tinplate Scalex and Startex clockwork cars.

By the 1950s other modellers were building electric cars, using hand-made engines or engines from model trains. But what Freddie Francis wanted was speed control. He finally launched a car racing kit at the Harrogate Toy Fair creating the famous Scalextric brand. In 1958, Francis sold the brand to Lines Bros who introduced new plastic bodies for mass production.

Meanwhile, for many young lads of the 1950s as well as their dads, Hornby, Trix, Mettoy, Lima, Rovex and the like continued producing electric train sets with beautiful artwork on the boxes, instilling a passion for model railways that for some, lasts forever.