An Historic Look At Jewish Innovators Who Revolutionized The Toy Industry

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Behind every great toy and game is a creative inventor. Some of the most successful toy companies in the world were started by Jewish innovators. This month we take a historic look at the Jewish toy makers who revolutionized the toy industry.

 

 

Herman, Hillel, and Henry Hassenfeld

Toy Company: HASBRO

 

Merrill Hassenfeld

Merrill became the president of Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc. in 1943.

 Hasbro is one of the largest, most prosperous toy companies in the United States. Toys like Mr. Potato Head, G.I. Joe, Transformers, Playskool toys, Nerf toys, Tonka trunks, Easy Bake Oven, Cabbage Patch Kids, and many board games have helped make Hasbro one of the most recognized names in the toy manufacturing industry in America.

 

Hasbro started with the first generation of Hassenfeld brothers, Herman, Henry, and Hillel, who fled pogroms in Poland and immigrated to America in 1903. The teenagers settled in New York City. Speaking only Yiddish but with plenty of confidence, they started as peddlers and soon moved into the “schmatta” business.

In 1923, they began selling cloth leftovers in Providence, Rhode Island. Three years later, they founded Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc. with eight family members, to manufacture pencil box covers from these cloth leftovers. By 1929, under Henry’s direction, they employed 150 workers to manufacture and sell pencil boxes and cloth zipper pouches containing school supplies.

In the early 1940s, seeing the success and popularity of the children’s items that they made and sold, they decided to start making toys. The first toys made by Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc., were doctor and nurse kits. In 1942, school supply sales had decreased, and the company became primarily a toy manufacturer.

When Hillel died in 1943, Henry became the CEO, and his son, Merrill, became president of Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc.

In 1952, George Lerner started looking for someone to back a toy that he had created, called Mr. Potato Head. He presented his idea to Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc. Henry liked the idea so much that he purchased the rights for the toy from George, paving the way for Mr. Potato Head to become the first toy success story for Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc.

In 1964, they created G.I. Joe, which they called an “action figure” in order to market it to boys. In its first two years, G.I. Joe brought in close to $40 million!

In 1968, the company name was shortened to Hasbro.

 

Elliot and Ruth Handler

Toy Company: MATTEL – include logo of Mattel (included in file)

 Elliot Handler

Originally called Mattel Creations, the company went on to become the largest toy maker in the world. In April 2008, Elliot Handler was honored by Mattel with a 90th birthday party at its headquarters in El Segundo, California.

Hot Wheels was first released to the market in 1968. Eventually, 10,000 different models were produced and sold.

 

Izzy Elliot Handler was born in Chicago, Illinois, on April 9, 1916, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. In 1938, he married Ruth Moskowicz, the youngest of ten children, who was born in 1916 in Denver to Polish-born parents. Ruth encouraged her husband to be called by his middle name, Elliot.

Mattel began in 1945 as a garage workshop belonging to Harold Matson and Elliot Handler. The name “Mattel” comes from combining the “El” of Elliot Handler with the “Matt” of Harold “Matt” Matson.

Mattel’s first products were picture frames. Elliot then started making dollhouse furniture from picture frame scraps. That proved to be such a success that Mattel switched to making nothing but toys.

Other toy products followed, including a line of musical toys beginning with the Uke-a-Doodle in 1947, which was a huge hit.

 

The Handlers bought out Matson’s share in the private company, becoming its sole owners. Elliot’s wife, Ruth, took over Matson’s role in the business.

 

Ruth is credited with the creation of the Barbie doll that debuted in 1959. Ruth named the doll after their daughter, Barbara Handler. The Barbie doll is still one of the top-selling dolls.

 

In 1960, Mattel introduced Chatty Cathy, a talking doll that revolutionized the toy industry. The pull string talking mechanism created for Chatty Cathy was used in several later toys, such as See ‘N Say, which was first introduced in 1965.

Later additions to the Mattel empire included Fisher-Price children’s toys, Polly Pocket miniatures, Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Tyco Toys, the Thomas the Tank Engine line, and American Girl dolls.

 

In 1974, the Handlers left the company and pursued other interests.

 

 

Morris and Rose Michtom

Toy Company: IDEAL Toy Company – include logo – included in file

Morris Michtom

Michtom’s extremely successful Betsy Wetsy doll, released in 1934, played an instrumental role in keeping the company afloat during the economic depression in the 1930s.

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

By 1904, President Roosevelt had adopted the bear as a mascot of his campaign, and had a Michtom Teddy bear on display at every White House function.

Fleeing Russian pogroms, a penniless, teenaged Morris Michtom arrived on the docks of New York in 1887. In 1889, he married Rose Katz, who had just arrived in the United States earlier that year. Together, they ran a candy shop in Brooklyn, and pursued their hobby of making stuffed animals on the side, all while raising their 3 children.

After seeing Clifford Berryman’s famous cartoon of President Theodore Roosevelt and the bear cub in November of 1902, Rose Michtom was inspired to create a plush bear from a scrap of velvet. Morris put the little bear in their shop window with a sign that read “Teddy’s Bear.” To their surprise, over a dozen customers were interested in buying the bear. After that, Morris sent the bear to President “Teddy” Roosevelt as a gift for his children, and requested permission to use his name.

Soon, as demand began to surpass supply, Morris and Rose committed to making the bears full-time, retiring the candy shop and founding Ideal Toy and Novelty Co. in 1907. That same year, Ideal also began making dolls.

After Morris’s passing in 1938, the company’s name changed to Ideal Toy Co., under the leadership of Rose’s nephew, Abraham Katz. Over the course of the next several decades, the company produced a number of games and iconic toys such as the KerPlunk, Viewmaster, and the Rubik’s Cube.

It is inspiring to note that although Ideal Toys sold millions of teddies throughout the world, their good fortune did not spoil the Michtoms. Ever mindful of their humble origins, Morris and Rose Michtom supported the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the Jewish National Fund, and numerous other Jewish causes.

 

Joshua Lionel Cowen

Toy Company: Lionel Corporation

Joshua Lionel Cowen

In 2006, Lionel’s electric train became the first electric toy inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

 

Joshua Lionel Cowen was born in New York City in 1877, the eighth of nine children of Eastern European immigrant parents. His parents were Rebecca (née Kantrowitz) and Hyman Nathan Cohen, a hatmaker. (Cowen legally changed the spelling of his last name from the original Cohen in 1910, for unknown reasons.)

Cowen built his first toy train at age of 7, attaching a small motor under a model of a locomotive he had carved. The engine exploded, damaging his parents’ kitchen.

Cowen sold his first electric train in 1901 to a store owner in Manhattan, who intended to use the train as a store window attraction to call attention to other merchandise. The store owner returned the next day to order six more trains, because customers wanted to buy the store display.

Cowen founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company to meet demand. By 1902, Lionel was primarily a toy train manufacturer.

Lionel trains symbolized the ideal American childhood for more than a century, and in its heyday during the 1950s, Lionel accounted for two-thirds of all the toy trains sold in the United States. For a short time in the early 1950s, Lionel was the largest toy manufacturer in the world, selling $25 million worth of trains per year!

Cowen retired in 1959, selling his 55,000 shares of Lionel stock to his great-nephew, Roy Cohn.

In 2006, Lionel’s electric train became the first electric toy inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

 

Louis and David Marx

Toy Company: Louis Marx and Company

 

Caption: Louis Marx

Louis Marx was the initial inductee in the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. He was known by numerous nicknames, including “Toycoon,” and “The Toy King.” Marx was also very charitable, donating both toys and money to many organizations involved in helping children.

 

Marx Medical Team World War II plastic soldiers.

Pictured above are two extremely popular MARX toys – Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and the MARX 1939 windup Rocket Fighter.

 

Louis Marx was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 11, 1896 to Jacob and Clara Marx. He had one brother and one sister. After graduating high school at the age of 15, he took a job as an errand boy with the toymaker Ferdinand Strauss. He quickly ascended through the ranks, becoming a salesman and then managing a plant in East Rutherford, NJ, by the time he was 20. A disagreement with the board of directors over how to increase efficiency and cut costs forced him out.

 

Following his dismissal from Strauss, Marx enlisted in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Sergeant during his brief military career. He was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life in 1918. Marx’s lifelong passion for the Army was reflected in his fondness for military toys.

 

In 1919, Marx decided to start his own business at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York City. With little money, machinery, patents, and customers, he built his company with motivation. A couple of years later, Louis’ brother David joined the company to run the operations side of the business. Using the slogans “Quality is not negotiable” and “Give the customer more toy for less money,” the company quickly became a leader in the industry.

 

By 1955, MARX was the largest toy maker in the world, producing everything from little green army men and circus playsets to toy guns, action figures, and electric trains