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Rob Goldberg Traces Power of Toy Activists in the 1960s and 70s

During the 1960s and 70s, social activists targeted children’s toys in their quest for change and found surprising success. This is the uncharted story GFS Upper School History Head Rob Goldberg tells in his new book, “Radical Play: Revolutionizing Children’s Toys in 1960s and 1970s America” published this past fall by Duke University Press. 

The activists, already fighting for civil rights, women’s equality, and an end to the VietNam war, set their sites on toy weapons as well as dolls.  

The story begins with the Johnny Seven O.M.A., marketed as “the One Man Army,” an early-1960s toy weapon that became very popular. At the same time, a more child-centered approach to parenting was emerging, as child psychologists posited that the initial four years of life significantly shaped intelligence and the development of a healthy personality—an idea that prompted activists to demand more suitable and inclusive toys, explained Goldberg.

At the start of his research, Goldberg came across a leaflet urging people to boycott the Johnny Seven toy. This prompted him to dig deeper and find details on a movement: activist-coordinated campaigns against prominent toy retailers and manufacturers.
“This was the moment. Peace activists who are protesting war are now also protesting war toys,” said Goldberg. “For them, realistic war toys for children were symbolic of adult approval of war.”
The toy reform initiatives that had the most success targeted all the adult groups involved in the toy business—consumers, retailers, and manufacturers. They picketed outside the Toy Fair in New York City. They made buttons and bumper stickers. They handed out certificates to toy shops that refused to sell toy guns and tanks.*

Surprisingly, the toymakers responded. The marketplace was different then with big toymakers being the only toymakers, which made it easier to target the campaign. 

Part of the movement was Shindana Toys, a groundbreaking African-American-owned company that, with initial support from Mattel, created an unprecedented line of nonstereotyped black dolls. The company grew out of Operation Bootstrap, an L.A. cooperative dedicated to creating socio-economic opportunity. Shindana's career doll, Wanda, encouraged girls to think about their future careers.
While Goldberg was working on “Radical Play,” he published an opinion piece in the L.A. Times on the 50th anniversary of Baby Nancy, the black baby doll that was Shindana’s first toy. It prompted a call from Howard Neal who considers his work at Mattel, and subsequently with the Shindana Toys group, a transformative life experience. Neal and others went on to “grow Shindana Toys into the largest manufacturer specializing in Black dolls, and more specifically, non-stereotyped Black dolls that celebrated Black identity and culture as never before,” Goldberg said. 

While war toys started making a comeback later in the 70s, the toy industry became more widely dispersed, and de-regulation made way for children’s toy advertising, Goldberg believes we all still have a role to play as consumers. 

“I think sometimes we can sell ourselves short in terms of our purchasing power. Consumers when organized can have a huge impact on corporations and industries,” said Goldberg. 

Up next for Goldberg are two public history projects: one focused on black dolls in the U.S. and one celebrating Operation Bootstrap, the L.A.-based cooperative of which Shindana Toys was part.

 *Duke University Press Q&A with Rob Goldberg

Read more:
Radical Play, the book
California’s New Gender-Neutral Toy Law Revives a 50-Year Feminist Fight
The Brian Lehrer Show:” A Social History of Toys
The New Yorker:” Decoding Barbie’s Radical Pose