Toys are more than child's play

by Len Lear
Posted 12/14/23

As a chronicler of toy history, Rob Goldberg welcomed Barbiemania but ultimately, for him, the movie was a disappointment.

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Toys are more than child's play


As a chronicler of toy history, Rob Goldberg welcomed the wave of Barbiemania ushered in this summer by the blockbuster film about a toy and her friends, but ultimately, for him, the movie was a disappointment. 

“You wouldn’t know from watching that film that Mattel has always been a company led by powerful female executives and designers,” said Goldberg, head of the history department at Germantown Friends School. “You wouldn’t know that they were the first major company to hire African American female toy designers. Depicting [founder] Ruth Handler as a kind of fairy godmother when she led Mattel to become the largest toy manufacturer in the world in an almost entirely male industry was a missed opportunity.”

Goldberg, who lives in Mt. Airy, has trained his eye on the toy industry since he was a graduate student. He wrote his dissertation on how the turbulent 1960s affected toy culture. Now, he has taken a more expanded look at the industry in his new book, Radical Play: Revolutionizing Children's Toys in 1960s and 1970s America.” The work, published by Duke University Press, examines the relationship between toys and social change and is already attracting some very impressive reviews. He will be signing copies of his book on Sunday, Dec. 17, 11 a.m., at booked, 8511 Germantown Ave.

The book’s “critical and nuanced account of toy world politics tells an important story,” wrote Rutgers University professor Meredith Bak in a review. “Rob Goldberg tells terrific stories about the efforts of activist groups and the industry, collating them in such a way that toys become linked to broader social, cultural and political moves in the U.S.,” said Bak, author of “Playful Visions: Optical Toys and the Emergence of Children's Media Culture.” 

A native of North Jersey, Goldberg graduated from Vassar College with a degree in history and then came to Philadelphia to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctorate in history in 2015. The subject of his dissertation, “How the 1960s Changed American Toy Culture,” led to the new book.

What could prompt a serious academic historian to research and write a book about toys?

“A combination of factors,” Goldberg explained. “They include my own nostalgia for a happy childhood where I’d spent hours alone with my toy collections; my curiosity about how the social upheaval and cultural changes of the 1960s and '70s shaped the choices my parents made for me as a kid born in the late '70s and growing up in a TV- saturated and commercialized culture of childhood.

“Also the historical questions I have had for a long time about the impact of the peace movement and civil rights and feminism on everyday life. Looking at toys was a way to study American cultural development in a microcosm. It’s with toys that we represent the world we either know or want to create.”

In “Radical Play” Goldberg recovers a little-known history of American children’s culture in the 1960s and '70s by showing how dolls, guns, action figures and other toys galvanized and symbolized new visions of social, racial and gender justice. 

From a nationwide movement to oppose the sale of war toys during the Vietnam War to the founding of the company Shindana Toys by Black Power movement activists and the efforts of feminist groups to promote and produce nonsexist and racially diverse toys, Goldberg returns readers to a defining moment when politics, parenting and purchasing converged. 

Goldberg traces how activists at the time brought their progressive politics to the playroom by enlisting toys in the era’s culture wars. The author highlights the time that Americans first came to understand the world of toys — from Barbie to G.I. Joe — as much more than child’s play.

One of the most interesting parts of Goldberg's book is the description of how activists in the 1960s and '70s successfully applied pressure against the sale of war toys as well as racial and gender stereotypes. Protesters picketed outside the Toy Fair in New York City, made buttons and bumper stickers and handed out certificates to toy shops that refused to sell toy guns and tanks. 

Unfortunately, according to Goldberg, “There’s been a lot of backsliding over the last 50 years. This is especially true when it comes to gender stereotypes in advertising and merchandising in the toy department.”

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