By Jeff Pfeiffer
Just in time for the busiest toy-buying time of the year, History’s four-part docuseries The Toys That Built America, airing Sundays through Dec. 19, is showcasing visionaries like the Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, and revealing the stories behind some of America’s most enduring toys, like the Slinky, Monopoly, Barbie and G.I. Joe.
The two-episode companion series Modern Marvels: Toys & Games, concluding this Sunday, finds host Adam Richman gaining exclusive access to Chicago’s Stern Pinball Inc., which produces pinball machines, and to Cartamundi in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where Play-Doh and board games like Monopoly are created.
“The Toys That Built America will definitely open your eyes and shed new light on the humble roots of some of these innovations,” Richman says. “Modern Marvels focuses on how far toys have come and how far they are going to go, using technology.”
Richman had further thoughts on the series and, of course, on toys in general.
Why do you think that fairly simple toys and games like Play-Doh or Monopoly have endured and are still popular in the 21st century?
I think that imagination [and] human interaction plays a role. … [Also, the act of] holding the rope from Clue, or holding the iron, the race car or the little Schnauzer from Monopoly — there’s something about the tactility of holding these things that you can’t pass up.
What fascinating things did you learn about the creation of Play-Doh?
[Play-Doh maintains] a food-safety standard level of cleanliness because they know they have small children playing with it, [so] they treat it like a food-safe product, despite the fact it’s not meant to be food. … I always wondered about that iconic Play-Doh smell. I didn’t realize that there was a signature fragrance that is put in.
Along with Play-Doh, while you were at Cartamundi you saw the process for creating Monopoly. What was that like?
The machine that just makes the [Monopoly] board is the size of a railroad car. … They treat the [creation of the] money like it’s a mint. They have a specific paper, a specific color, so you know it’s official, [and] a specific machine to cut the bills. … I will completely admit, as a 47-year-old man with a master’s degree from Yale, that seeing how the hotels and the houses were built for Monopoly filled me with such giddy joy.
And how was your visit to Stern Pinball?
If you’ve ever seen a pinball machine in a scene for a television show, a movie or for a particular celebrity, Stern has made it. … Pinball looks deceptively simple [until] you realize that there are 2 to 3 miles of wiring under that surface [and] how much physics goes into the design of it. … What they call the “play field,” which is literally the surface upon which the ball rolls in the pinball machine, they are so breathtaking. They gave me three to take home, and I put them on my wall as pieces of art.
What toys or games did you enjoy as a kid?
I was a big action-figure fan — Star Wars, G.I. Joe. There was [also] a series of figurines back in the day, a long time ago, called Micronauts. … I loved Matchbox cars and Hot Wheels. … There’s a game, I think it was called Crossbows and Catapults, and I have such fond memories of playing it with my dad on our kitchen floor.