06 February 2023
We look back at where it all began...
The humble LEGO brick is arguably one of the most recognisable toys in existence. Since its creation 65 years ago, it’s gone on to become a global icon that dominates the toy industry. In that time it’s spawned countless sets, theme parks, movies, videogames, clothing and soft toys. What’s more, over the past few years, it’s becoming a collectable icon too, with some sets rapidly increasing in price shortly after release. So, to celebrate the birth of the brick, let’s look back at its creation and find out why it’s still hip to be square.
Firstly though, it’s worth noting that although the first commercial LEGO brick itself dates back to 1958, the company’s origins go much further back. Long before plastic was even an option for toy creation, Ole Kirk Christiansen bought a carpentry shop in 1916 and began producing simple furniture and household items. Based in Billund, Denmark (still the location of LEGO’s HQ), Christiansen suffered as part of the Great Depression and instead of making large-scale carpentry projects, he turned his attention to smaller replicas of typical household items, such as ladders or ironing boards.
In 1932, Christiansen left production of furniture behind and instead focused solely on toys. He began making simple money boxes, cars and trucks. Despite the switch, times were still tough for Christiansen and his customers - some of which would end up swapping food for toys. Imagine trying that in your local branch of Toys R Us nowadays. The birth of ‘LEGO’ followed in 1934 when Christiansen held a competition among his members of staff. Whomever came up with a decent name would win one of his homemade bottles of wine! Perhaps due to the reputation of his plonk, Christiansen ended up creating the name himself. He combined two Danish words: ‘leg’ and ‘godt’, which means ‘play well’. Christiansen was also considering the name ‘legio’. With the brand now under his belt, the toy workshop continued to expand until the end of the 1930s, when it had 10 employees.
LEGO performed well throughout the early 1940s and produced a range of different wooden toys. Despite a minor setback of the factory burning down in 1942, Christiansen was undeterred and in 1947 it became the first company in Denmark to buy a plastic injection moulding machine for toy production. The reason for the sudden switch to plastic was that Christiansen and his son Godtfred had come across the plastic ‘Self-Locking Building Bricks’ by British firm Kiddicraft. Inspired by the potential of these building blocks, LEGO started making its own version, called ‘the LEGO Automatic Binding Brick’. Originally only sold in Denmark, the Automatic Binding Brick isn’t too different from the LEGO brick we all know and love today. They have the recognisable 2x4 pattern of studs, although a small groove runs down the centre.
Initially the launch didn’t go well, with some even preferring LEGO’s much simpler wooden bricks. In fact, there were reports of people returning the Automatic Binding Brick because, well, they didn’t actually ‘bind’. Undeterred the company carried on refining the product and in 1954 changed the name to the much snappier ‘LEGO Mursten’ or LEGO Bricks. They also began producing more themed sets, such as cars and towns and in 1955 it became known as the ‘LEGO System of Play’. Production intensified and the Christiansen family began exporting outside of Denmark.
However, it was 1957 that saw the major change for the LEGO. After those earlier complaints about the bricks not locking together properly, Godfredt went back to the drawing board and introduced a series of hollow tubes on the underside of the LEGO brick. This ensured they snapped together more securely. After applying for the patent in ‘57, it was granted the following year and production began in earnest. Sadly, that same year Ole Kirk (the founder of LEGO) passed away and his son Godfredt became managing director. LEGO bricks produced back in 1958 are identical to those produced in factories around the world today. In fact, they connect up in exactly the same fashion and could easily be used with modern sets.
Sales increased rapidly and it was actually another potential setback that saw Ole Kirk switch from wooden toys to plastic. In 1960 the wooden toys factory burnt to the ground (this was the third fire the company suffered). Rather than rebuild it the decision was made to focus entirely on plastic LEGO bricks. The toy was now being distributed in a number of countries and throughout the ‘60s exports continued to grow in Britain, America, Europe and the Far East. In fact, exports were increasing so much that a special airport had to be built in Billund to cope with the demand.
However, although the company continued to expand rapidly, jump forward 30 years later to 1992 and LEGO’s profits had started to decline. A change in playing habits meant that kids no longer wanted to build houses and cars, instead preferring to play with videogames or more edgy toys, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. LEGO’s saving grace actually came in the form of another toy giant: Star Wars. LEGO had never previously produced licensed products but after successfully introducing Star Wars to the range in 1999, it quickly launched sets inspired by the likes of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, etc. It is these sets that have become extremely collectable, thanks to their association with famous franchises. In 2009, licensed sets such as these accounted for around 60% of LEGO’s American sales.
With the company saved from the brink of bankruptcy, it went on to grow at an astronomical rate. This rise in popularity has also been mirrored in the rise of LEGO’s price in the collectable market. Some sets, like the Eiffel Tower (10181), Death Star (10143), Market Street (10190) or the Millennium Falcon (75192) sell for thousands of pounds. If you’ve got one of those in the loft, you probably shouldn’t ‘LEGO’ of it...