The HISTORY Channel’s New Series Offers a Fascinating Deep Dive Into America’s Most Popular Toys

What do Frisbee, Slinky, Barbie and Hula Hoop all have in common?

Clearly they’re all nostalgic childhood toys, but what you may not know is that they’re also a few of the toys that have helped shape America over the years.

Have you ever wondered how these toys came into being, and why they were so successful? That’s where HISTORY’s latest addition to its “That Built” franchise comes in, aptly titled the The Toys that Built America. The four-part docu-series will delve into the background of popular toys and the people who created them, exploring how they eventually influenced the culture and economics of America. You’ll learn about the accidental discoveries that turned into some of the most famous toys of the 20th century and the stories behind the ingenious inventors who cater to the constantly changing consumers of the toy industry.

The Good Housekeeping Institute is no stranger to toys. Our engineers test hundreds of toys each year, offering recommendations for every age and varied interests and skills. Each year, it evaluates hundreds of new toys — sending them to lucky kid testers across the country — for consideration for its annual Good Housekeeping Best Toy Awards. Our Chief Technologist, Rachel Rothman, a mom of three and mechanical engineer, has been vetting toys for 15 years. If you watch The Toys That Built America, you’ll get to see her weighing in with her expertise.

While toy trends often come and go, there are a handful that, according to The Toys That Built America, have stood the test of time, and decades later can still be found in most homes.

Toys That Get You Moving

In the first episode, you’ll be introduced to some of the businessmen and women behind popular American toys and their process behind creating them, including some of the creations that put the company Wham-O on the map, like the Slip ‘N Slide, the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee. Looking for some exciting outdoor toys? Here are some of our favorites:

Toys That Inspire Imagination

In other episodes, viewers will delve into the background behind even more iconic toys that inspire imagination and emotional development, such as Mr. Potato Head and its creator, Merrill Hassenfeld, and the Barbie doll and its inventor, Ruth Handler. As part of the wildly popular Mattel brand, Barbie is just one of the many innovative toys that had a unique origin story and went on to be a fan favorite for parents as well as the kids who played with them. Did you know Barbie and Ken were named after the inventor’s children? Both Barbie and the Potato Heads are still going strong today; in fact, Barbie Extra and Create Your Own Potato Head Family each won a 2021 Good Housekeeping Best Toy Award. Old and new, here are some of the Good Housekeeping Institute’s favorite action figures and dolls:

Board Games That Encourage Competition or Collaboration

Aside from general toys, the docu-series also explores the creation of some of the most popular board games that continue to dominate the industry to this day. Tune in to learn more about the inventors and their creative process for developing games that encourage collaboration and higher-thinking skills, such as Milton Bradley, the inventor of The Game of Life, and the Parker Brothers, who created Monopoly. Here are some of the Institute’s favorite family board games to cozy up with on game night:

Trivia Time: Guess the Toy

Eager to press play? Here are a few of the most interesting origin stories from children’s toys that have retained their fame for decades; how many can you guess correctly?

  1. This toy was discovered after scientists were experimenting with creating a synthetic form of rubber. It was originally marketed for adults but wasn’t successful until it was rebranded around Easter as a children’s toy in the shape of a plastic egg.
  2. After working on an item to protect delicate instruments from breaking while at sea, one of the materials was knocked off the table. The inventor decided to market it as a kids toy after noticing its unique movement pattern.
  3. An air force pilot and his girlfriend were throwing a pie tin on the beach when a stranger asked to buy it from them and they realized they could turn it into a business. A few original names for the toy were “Flying Saucer,” “Pluto Platter,” and “Whirl-a-Way” but it wasn’t until it got rebranded that it finally gained popularity.
  4. Although it was originally created to clean the soot off of wallpaper in houses heated by coal, once oil, gas and electrical heat took off, it was forced to be rebranded as a beloved toy in the 50s.
  5. A less springy version of this toy existed for years before it took off, but unlike the competitors, President Johnson ordered dozens of this toy to give away as gifts. It’s also thought to be the inspiration behind the name of the Super Bowl.
    1. You can tune in to The Toys That Built America on Sunday, November 28 at 9 p.m. EST on the History Channel for the premiere. Each one-hour episode will air live on The History Channel beginning Sunday, November 28. Episodes will be available to stream after their live via the History Channel App and with a cable/streaming provider login on History.com. Also check out their previous series, The Machines That Built America and The Food That Built America if you want to learn more about what shaped the US.

      Answers: 1. Silly Putty; 2. Slinky; 3. Frisbee; 4. Play-Doh; 5. Super Ball

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