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."

TOYS OVER THE DECADES

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

Suggested Topics
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own