Toys really R us! How games reflect British culture

The big business players descend on London this week for the 60th annual Toy Fair. These games and gadgets that we love are more than mere ways of passing the time. They track the trends in the nation's cultural life, and tell the tale of post-war Britain

In simpler times, children were happy to receive the gift of a hula hoop or, if they were really lucky, a painting-by-numbers set. Plastic packaging was a novelty in Fifties Britain, rather than something to be cast aside. The last six decades have seen toys – and how we play with them – transformed, echoing radical shifts in the ways that we live and relate to each other.

Britain's toy market has boomed as we have shifted from post-war hardship in the 1950s to today's all-consuming multimedia culture where children, and increasingly adults, demand ever more elaborate play time.

Play is big business, with the UK market soaring from £85m in 1960 to almost £3bn a year now. Companies fight for dominance in an ever more competitive market, with some 70,000 toys launched each year.

This week sees the 60th anniversary of the Toy Fair, the annual industry showcase organised by the British Toy & Hobby Association, where hundreds of companies gather at the Kensington Olympia in west London to spend vast amounts launching what they hope will be the next big thing. Many will fail. But the ones that have captured the public's imagination over the years reflect major changes in British society.

Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, a toy expert at Utrecht University, says: "Toys, and play in general, reflect what goes on around children."


1950s: Dan Dare

An age of post-war austerity but, as the decade went on, people started to treat themselves. Following the shortage of toys during wartime there was an increased demand for playthings and board games, with Scrabble a big success. Unlike Germany and Japan, Britain still had a thriving toy industry and companies were able to respond to this demand with quality toys such as Dinky and Matchbox vehicles, as well as comic-inspired offerings like Dan Dare merchandise. Another outcome of the war was the rise of anti-military feeling and toy weapons moved away from the more warlike examples.

1960s: Matchbox; Scrabble; Lego; Scalextric; Barbie

The toy industry mirrored the general expansion and success of British industry. This was the heyday for many companies, producing quality toys of British design. Competing well against the American Barbie, Sindy became the favourite teenage fashion doll. Scalextric and Lego grew in popularity and new toys that caught the imagination included Etch-a-Sketch, Spirograph and trolls. Science-fiction toys such as robots, Daleks and Thunderbirds were very popular, reflecting the general interest in everything space-related.

1970s: Clackers; Space hopper; Meccano

Political upheaval, strikes and economic recession damaged toy production in Britain. Several companies went out of business, but new types of toy were designed following changes in popular culture. Previously a soldier, Action Man became more adventurous. The Space Hopper, designed as a keep-fit ball, became one of the must-have toys. People were seeking more quirky toys and the decade saw the beginnings of fantasy and video games. Traditional favourites such as Meccano remained popular, as well as more basic toys like Clackers.

1980s: Cabbage Patch Doll; Trivial Pursuit; Rubik's Cube

Toys reflected popular culture more than ever. Star Wars had started character merchandise rolling and this became the norm for many films and television programmes of the decade. As well as the quirky toys such as the Rubik's Cube and Cabbage Patch Dolls, there were also inventive ones such as Polly Pocket and, what is regarded as the last innovative board game, Trivial Pursuit. This was also the time when toys became valuable as collectors' items and old toys were sold at major auction houses as investments for the future.

1990s: Tamagotchi; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle; Furby

This decade ushered in the digital age and the clever way in which new developments were incorporated into toys. The Furby on the outside was a lovable soft toy but it could interact with its owner. The Tamagotchi, a digital pet, was also a hit. People were expecting more from toys as well as from machines. Adults and children alike became hooked on computer games, especially portable ones. Toys and games were just part of a long list of expectations from the world of technology. And who can forget the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle range of toys?

2000s: Transformers; LeapPad; Beyblades

The new century has continued to push the boundaries of digital technology and even babies can benefit from this type of toy. The LeapPad explorer tablet has taken over from traditional educational toys in a digital way. But some of the old favourites are still there. Barbie continues to vanquish all opposition and Lego adapts and goes from strength to strength. Some toys are making a nostalgic return. The favourites of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Corgi and Scalextric, are now reproduced for adults. And toys from the more recent past, like Transformers and Sylvanian Families, have been given makeovers. Older favourites are turned into something new, so spinning tops become Beyblades

Decade profiles by Catherine Howell, collections manager, V&A Museum of Childhood

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