Film Review: The Toys That Built America - Season 1

by Julia DeKorte | 28 Feb 2023

Book Reviews

Season 1 of The Toys That Built America dives deep into the history of some of the most significant toys ever created, ones that are now categorized as ‘classics.’ These toys, most of which were invented in the wake of World War II, revolutionized the toy industry by rethinking what it means to play, both for children and adults. Each episode explores two or three toys or companies and their origins, followed by their many successes and failures over the years. Though pieced together by a narrator, the story is told through live action, taking viewers back to the days that each toy was created or company founded. Captivating and informative with interviews from experts interspersed throughout each episode, The Toys That Built America is the perfect show for anyone looking to learn more about the early toys that paved the road for the toy industry today.


Episode 1: Masters of Innovation

Episode 1 of The Toys That Built America features three classic toys: Slinky, Silly Putty, and WHAM-O’s Slingshot. Funnily enough, all three of these toys were created by accident. Viewers watch Richard James concentrating on coming up with a way to keep sensitive instruments safe while out at sea during World War II. His revolutionary idea is to suspend them from torsion springs. Yet when he accidentally knocks one of these springs over, a lightbulb goes off, and Slinky, although not yet holding that name, is born. James Wright also accidentally stumbled upon his creation of Silly Putty. With rubber being used for various different tools and instruments for the war effort, Wright is trying to create a cheaper, synthetic alternative, and along the way, Silly Putty is born. And finally, Rich Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin built a slingshot to shoot meatballs in the air in order to train hunting falcons but find that the slingshots capture consumers’ attention more than their birds. The two band together to create WHAM-O, and the Slingshot is their very first product. Of course, for all of these inventors, it wasn’t as easy as designing a product and making millions. Episode 1 of The Toys That Build America takes viewers through all the ups, downs, determination, passion, and hope that went into bringing these products to market.


Episode 2: The Clash of the Toy Titans

Episode 2 of The Toys That Built America tells the story of the two toy companies that dwarf all others: Hasbro and Mattel. From the earliest Hassenfelds that emigrated to America and started a pencil box company down through Merrill, Stephen, and Alan, viewers watch Hasbro grow and evolve as a company as it is passed down the family line. From Mr. Potato Head to G.I. Joe and everything in between, the complete history of Hasbro is shown, history recreated to tell the story of one of the most successful toy companies in the industry. The same is done for Mattel, beginning with Ruth and Elliot Handler. The first company to rival Hasbro, Ruth is especially revolutionary, as she not only stayed at the top of the company as a woman, which was quite uncommon for the time, but she also brought the world Barbie, a classic doll that changed America. Ruth and Elliot’s downfall is also pictured, as they are forced out of Mattel over some financial fabrications. But, what is truly highlighted in this episode is yes, the battle of two toy giants, but more importantly, the story of how two toy companies changed the way that children play.


Episode 3: Toy Car Wars

Episode 3 begins by setting the scene in 1950s America: Americans are thriving in post-war opulence, consumerism is at an all-time high, and car culture is sweeping America. In England, Lesney Products was making small metal items: nuts, bolts, etc. Jack Odell, an employee of Lesney products, wants to make toys. He designs a small steamroller toy, which isn’t quite successful. But it’s his young daughter’s school rules that inspires the brand that has become a household name. His daughter’s school only allows toys to be brought to school if they can fit in a matchbox. So, Jack O’Dell begins designing a set of small, intricate, and affordable mini vehicles. And so, Matchbox is born. Across the pond in America, Elliot Handler of Mattel also wants to design a toy car. His first attempt lacks a “playability” factor, but when Matchbox finds its way to America, Elliot gets a hold of one, and knows he can make one that’s faster. He brings in a real (life-sized) car designer, and the two create Hot Wheels. Episode 3 shows the battle between the two toy car brands, the failures, successes, and inspirations that occurred to bring them to where they are today, where one car actually wins the race.


Episode 4: Board Game Empires

Episode 4 of The Toys That Built America explores the board games that have found their way into nearly every American home. Dating way back to the 1860s, Milton Bradley is designing board games that are doing fairly well until the Civil War begins. Watching this company evolve over the course of more than a century was very interesting, especially when it met its competition: Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers, which came along long after Milton Bradley, created classics like Monololy, Clue, Risk, Sorry!, and many more. Viewers get to see how these games came into existence, what inspired them, who truly created them, and learn why they are so appealing, even though most of them are just large pieces of cardboard.


slinky silly putty WHAM-O slingshot hasbro hassenfeld mattel elliot handler ruth handler barbie g.i. joe mr. potato head hot wheels matchbox milton bradley the game of life parker kenner monopoly clue risk sorry!

Tait & Lily, Inventors of Betcha Can't!