Retro Revival – Old Toys to Entertain the Grandkids

We’re going to take a look at some old toys to entertain the grandkids with. Let’s think back to the ‘good old days’ of childhood. Playing outside with your friends all day, wandering around in packs and looking for stuff to do.

Hanging out at the local sweet shop to see what sugar-filled delights we could get with our pocket money. And getting your hands on the latest toy from Woolworth’s to make your classmates jealous.

When you turn on the TV nowadays you can’t help but notice the copious amounts of pink plastic available to our little ones. Sure there are lots of brilliant toys out there, but there are also toys from our childhoods which the grandkids might recognise today. Some may have been modified or improved over the years, but great toys last a lifetime.

If you were a little girl of the 1940s, you may remember playing house, with baby dolls and tea sets. While boys were all about guns and military-related toys. By the 1950s, shops destroyed during WW2 had reopened. They were now filled with new and exciting toys – some of which are still popular today.

Then the ‘60s came along, which was a golden era for toys. Kids now had countless more toys to choose from, and parents had more money to spend. And if you grew up in the ‘70s, you were sure to have a Sindy doll and/or an Action Man and some Leg

If you have grandkids to entertain, now might be the time to clear out the garage and see what gems you might find. We’re going to take a look at some of the toys over the decades which have stood the test of time, and could still be popular with little ones today. And who knows, some of the original toys could be worth a little something too.


What toys were popular in the 1950s?

The demand for toys increased rapidly in the post-war era of the 1950s. Normal life was starting to resume, but families still had very little money. Children often played with the toys their parents had played with; teddy bears, guns, dolls and tea sets. In 1953, London-based business Airfix released their first kit which was a model of Sir Francis Drake’s vessel the Golden Hind and the first model of an aircraft, the Spitfire Mk1. Both were very popular. The production of die-cast toys was also huge business in the ‘50s. Products such as Lesney’s Matchbox series (1954) and Mettoy’s Corgi cars (1956) were a hit as they were good quality, relatively inexpensive and collectable.

Yellow die-cast toy car on a shelf
Credit: Daniel von Appen

Thousands of families in Britain bought a television set to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. TV swiftly took over from radio as the provider of choice for news and entertainment. Muffin the Mule was the first of the great stars of children’s television in Britain, making his debut in 1946. He remained a popular feature in Watch with Mother until 1955, and children bought many Muffin toys over the period.

The 1950s saw a concern over the potential health hazard of lead. This prompted manufacturers to start making more plastic toys. It allowed businesses to create new, large and colourful toys. These could be made relatively cheaply, and were safer and more hygienic. The use of new materials and processes of the ‘50s led to The British Toymaker Guild being founded in 1955 to ensure toys met the required safety standards, and to promote well-designed, good quality handmade toys as a counterbalance to the multitude of mass-produced toys that were seen to be taking over.

In 1957 Scalextric caused a sensation at the Harrogate Toy Fair. The first set cost £6 (around £140 today). It appealed to both adults and children, and it was so popular that the company struggled to cope with demand.


What toys were popular in the 1960s?

Two of the most iconic dolls of the century were on every little girl’s Christmas list in the ‘60s, Barbie (launched by Mattel in 1959) an American doll based on an earlier German doll named Lilli. And the British version Sindy (launched in 1963 by the Pedigree Doll Company) marketed as ‘the doll you love to dress’. They took the country by storm as they couldn’t have been more different to the childlike dolls of the 1950s.

A Thunderbirds character standing in a toy kitchen
Credit: Liliane Limpens

Science fiction was big business in the 1960s. Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961. Followed by the first Moon landing, made by Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969. Toymakers wasted no time in producing replica Apollo lunar modules. One huge difference between toys in the 1960s and toys before that was licensing. After Batman’s huge success in 1966, Batman-themed toys were flying off the shelves. And the launch of TV shows such as Dr Who, Stingray, Lost in Space, Thunderbirds and Star Trek provided manufacturers with a wealth of toy and merchandise opportunities.  

The mid-’60s saw the launch of some quirky new toys which were designed to encourage creativity in children. Spirograph, was created by Denys Fisher, a British electronics engineer who invented it while researching a new design for bomb detonators for NATO. Other popular creative toys were Etch-a-Sketch and Fuzzyfelt, Airfix launched their Betta Bilda sets, and Lego released their pocket money packs.

The National Association of Toy Retailers launched the Toy of the Year Awards in 1965, with the first award going to Mettoy’s James Bond Aston Martin car. Subsequent awards went to Action Man, Spirograph, Sindy and Hot Wheels cars.


What toys were popular in the 1970s?

The 1970s was a difficult time for the British toy industry. Manufacturers could no longer rely on traditional products to attract customers, so the decade proved to be a highly innovative period.

Action Man (originally created in 1964, when it was considered a risky business to make a boy’s doll) surged in popularity. He was born from the success of ‘GI Joe’ in the USA. He was far more lifelike than the wooden and metal soldiers that children had been used to playing with. When first produced, Action Man had impractical moulded hands, but the early ‘70s saw him acquire gripping hands. He also had realistic (flocked) hair, and moveable ‘eagle eyes’ operated by a small lever at the back of the neck to shift his eyes left and right.

A toddler playing with coloured Lego bricks
Credit: Kelly Sikkema

One of the century’s best-loved toys, Lego, won three awards for Toy of the Year in the 1970s. These colourful bricks had already been around for a number of years by this point (originally launched in 1955), but the ‘70s saw the country go crazy for it. Duplo, a set of big Lego blocks for young children was introduced in 1969. And Lego Technic, a set for technically minded children was launched in 1977. They also began to launch a series of pre-designed sets which came with building instructions to develop children’s technical skills. Lego continues to be popular today and it was named Toy of the Century by the British Association of Toy Retailers in 2000. We’re pretty sure every household has at least one tub of Lego lurking around somewhere today!

The Spacehopper was one of the main ‘must-have’ toys of the 1970s and remains one of the best remembered. Modern replicas are available all over the internet nowadays, but nothing is more nostalgic than the original ‘orange kangaroo’ design – a symbol of many a childhood.

The 1970s saw more TV and cinema-inspired toys. This time, there were based on monsters and superheroes like Superman, The Bionic Woman and Jaws. And Playmobil, created by German inventor Hans Beck, allowed children to create whole new worlds of fun. He wanted to develop a toy that was simple, and would fit in a child’s hand. The facial design was based on children’s drawings: a large head, a big smile, and no nose. Playmobil became a huge success, and sets are still being made and sold all over the world today.

Playing with Playmobil characters
Credit: Markus Spiske

Undoubtedly the biggest innovation in toys during the ‘70s were the first video games. In 1972 Atari released a version of Ping-Pong with a white ‘ball’ that was moved back and forth across the screen by two ‘bats’ that were controlled by knobs. This marked the beginning of the huge video gaming industry, which today, generates around £120 billion a year globally! 

So the next time you’re up in the loft, take a look at the toys you had as a kid. Why not dig a few out for when the grandchildren next come round? You never know, your old favourites might become their new favourites. And how about getting out the old Monopoly set or some puzzles and enjoy some precious family time together?


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