While girls were busy learning about fashion from Barbie, running their faux ‘real’ vacuum cleaners, and decorating their doll houses, boys were learning not to be “sissies.”
No Sissies Allowed
Spurred on by an article in a 1950 issue of Better Homes and Gardens titled “Are We Staking Our Future On A Crop of Sissies?,” toy manufacturers created toys for boys that were more topical and political than what Cold War society considered proper play for girls.
Since boys were encouraged to imagine themselves as cowboys, astronauts, and soldiers, they needed the kinds of playthings that offered instruction in the manly arts. The most important of these was the art of being a soldier, and many Cold War toys for boys had a distinctly military theme to them.
Military-themed toys included guns that sounded real. One gun, the Sound-O-Power military rifle, a realistic reproduction of the M-16 rifle used by American troops, was advertised as making sounds so authentic that even the police would be fooled. Here’s part of their ad from 1967:
Two cops rush to the scene. “This sounds like a gun battle — over there!” one calls to his partner.
They see the suspects: two little boys, wielding rifles.
The police officers do not shoot.
Rather, they examine the boys’ weapons and break into big smiles: “Hey, is it real?” one officer asks.
“Looks like real,” his partner marvels.
“And it sounds like real,” the first officer confirms.
“Right — every shot!” says the announcer, because this is on television.
It’s an ad, from 1967, for the Sound-O-Power M-16 military rifle, a big hit for Marx Toys at Christmas that year, $5.99, batteries not included.
A Marx Sound-O-Power will run you about $225 now, if you can find one on the collectors’ market. Marx, once a titan of the American toy industry, is long dead. (Washington Post, December 22,2014)
Whether kids pretended to be cowboys or war heroes or space adventurers, the toy gun was a crucial accessory, and any kind of gun was good practice for future conflict. The hottest fashion in guns in the 1950s and early 1960s was for whatever the well-equipped cowboy might use. At the 47th annual Toy Fair in 1950, cowboy holsters and pistol belts were “the fastest growing branch of the toy business.” Stanley Breslow, president of Carnell Manufacturing Company said:
Last year, there were enough holster sets manufactured to supply every male child in the United States three times over.
Good Guys And Bad Guys
What do cowboys have to do with the Cold War a skeptic might ask. Well, the idea of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ was central to Cold War ideology, and the play gear made it easy to tell between them.
In Cowboy and Indian play sets, the Cowboys and Indians wore different colors, and were dressed and armed differently. These games weren’t unlike Cold War politics: Cowboys and Indians could be read as Americans and Soviets, each holding their own in their efforts to come out on top.
Seem far fetched? Just think about it.
Cowboy and Indian games reinforced the prevailing political ideology, at least before the concept of multi-cultural tolerance made strong inroads into American society. Indians were “the other,” the designated enemy. Their culture was painted as the opposite of Anglo civilization and they were said to attack everything that Americans held dear. This bipolar view of good and evil closely mirrored contemporary opinions about the relationship between America and communism.
From Cowboys To Astronauts
So far as toys were concerned, astronauts were cowboys catapulted from the past into the future. Space, the New Frontier, took on the mantle of the modern wilderness.
For Americans, part of the appeal of space was the prospect of winning the “space race” and establishing a base for galactic dominance before the USSR could beat us to it. Space was a frontier to be conquered as well as explored. Space toys captured both the dramatic tension of the space race and the desire to combine exploration with conquest. They also represented the effort to conquer technology.
If Cowboys and Indians represented reliving the legendary post and space men symbolized the hopeful future, then war toys, especially soldiers like GI Joe, dominated the present. Cold War America glorified weapons of destruction and — with GI Joe — the lines between the household and the battlefield were blurred. In a period of political stability and prosperity in American society, war was a part of everyday life.
In early Cold War politics the world was divided into two camps: communist enemies and anti communist allies. Many Americans believed that the ultimate sign of a “free” society was an active free market, leading to the view that avid consumption was proof of democracy. Toys reflected and bolstered this opinion, communicating the values of our consumer society to the post World War II generation.
Toy Soldiers Cover Photo by Kyle May (Flickr)