FROM THE PUBLISHER
COLD WAR TOYS AND THE BIRTH OF CONSPICUOUS COMSUMPTION
SANTA CLAUS MEETS DED MAROZ
JUST LIKE MOM
TOYS FOR THE ATOMIC AGE
Welcome to the very first holiday issue of Cold War Magazine. We’re all about Cold War history, culture, and politics. Most of all, we’re about Cold War fun! And we’re easy to read. Try us out on your mobile device.
Many people think that the Cold War was just a half century confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. But it was really much more than an international conflict. Those of us who lived it know that the Cold War was a “state of mind,” encompassing every aspect of life from fashion and decor to bubblegum cards and comic books.In this issue, Cold War Magazine doubles down on Cold War toys and Christmas traditions.
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Lisa Reynolds Wolfe | Publisher
Early Cold War toys tell us a lot about the beginning years of the half-century conflict between the United States and the USSR. During this timeframe, ideology permeated all aspects and objects of daily life. Even toys! After all, toys were one way that parents could communicate the important issues in their world to their children. In the United States, toys contributed to the consumer culture of the early Cold War years, passing on the values of prosperity to the next generation.
Toy stores flourished as the toy industry became big business when the economy revived after World War II. In 1939, census takers counted 821 workplaces where toys were made. By 1947, they recorded 2,198 such locations. In the United States, toys contributed to the consumer culture of the early Cold War years, passing on the values of prosperity to the next generation.
Parents could buy child-sized shopping carts so that their children could “practice shopping,” filling the carts with exact (but empty) boxes of SOS scouring pads and Kellog’s Corn Flakes as well as Campbell soup cans. The “goods” reinforced advertisers’ messages that brand names mattered -- no generics were allowed.
Shopping board games were also popular. Milton Bradley promoted the “Acme Checkout Game” with markers in the shape of supermarket carts. Players moved around the board through the aisles of merchandise, losing turns in long checkout lines. That this type of play reinforced the American dream was clearly enunciated by Richard Nixon at the 1959 Kitchen Debate with the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khruschev, Nixon pointed to America’s growing consumer economy as a sign of American strength and democracy, asserting that the politics of freedom and democracy were embodied in the ability of American consumers to buy freely and to choose among a variety of diverse brands and products.
The Suburbs Dominate
Many of the era’s toys were focused on the family centered ideology that had taken hold during the post war period.
Much of the pretend grocery shopping took place in America’s new suburban communities. The suburbs symbolized two aspects of Cold War domestic ideology: the consumption ethic and the glorification of the nuclear family.
Suburban homes were new and builders -- encouraged by government policies -- had designed them specifically for family life.
Life in the suburbs absolutely required at least one family car. There had been no investment in public transportation. Instead, the state and federal highway system had been expanded to connect suburbs with their nearby cities. Not only were cars necessary, they were an important symbol of status and buying power. American car manufacturers created new models annually and toy cars followed suit, offering as many choices as the real thing.
So far as the home was concerned, the “family room” became an increasingly important feature, crystallizing the Cold War’s family ideal. The term was first coined in 1946, referring to a space designed for informal family interaction or “togetherness.”
Cold War togetherness required a room of its own because space was needed for all sorts of games and equipment. The family room of the 1950s spotlighted the primacy of children and their play. And, of course, there were plenty of Cold War toys to play with.
Did America’s Cold War foes celebrate Christmas?
Most Americans had so demonized the Soviets that it was hard to visualize Russian families around a Christmas tree opening presents just like in the US. This was a big mistake because, according to Chinese propaganda, even Lenin celebrated Christmas.
What was Christmas like under Communism?
After the 1917 October Revolution, Christmas was abolished in the newly established Soviet Union. The victorious revolutionary regime replaced the traditional Russian Orthodox religious holiday with a New Year celebration, which under the Russian calendar occurred 6 days earlier than the traditional Russian Christmas. Christmas trees were banned as well as the joyous religious celebration itself. Both remained banned until more than ten years after Lenin’s death in 1924.
Finally, on December 28, 1935, a letter to the state newspaper, Pravda, argued for the reinstatement of some Christmas traditions. The letter, written by one of Stalin’s right hand men, Pavel Postyshev, suggested eliminating
the absurd view that the children’s tree is a bourgeois prejudice . . .
He went on to say:
organize a fun New Year celebration for children and put on a good Soviet tree in all cities and farms!
By the beginning of the Cold War era, almost every Soviet home boasted a “New Year Fir Tree.” A fully secular icon of the New Year holiday, the tree’s crowning star was regarded not as a symbol of the star of Bethlehem, but as the Red Star.
Decorations and ornaments included airplanes, bicycles, space rockets, cosmonauts and characters from Russian fairy tales. One of the characters celebrated was Ded Moroz or Old Man Frost, a Slavic fictional character similar to Father Christmas. Grandfather Frost (as he is more commonly known) predates Christianity as a Slavic wizard of winter. In Slavic mythology, Frost (or Morozko) is a snow demon. The image of Ded Moroz took its current form during Soviet times, becoming the main symbol of the New Year’s holiday that replaced Christmas.
Ded Maroz vs Santa Claus
You might think that Santa Claus would be welcome the world over, but this isn’t the case. In a 2008 article in Britain’s Daily Mail, Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Boris Gryzlov, claimed that Father Christmas was an ‘imposter’ and an ‘illegal immigrant’. He insisted that the only authentic figure for bringing presents to Russia’s children was Ded Moroz - Grandfather Frost. Speaking from Velikiy Ustyug, the traditional home of Ded Moroz in the far north, Gryzlov asserted:
No one will ever be able to take away Ded Moroz from Russia - not Santa Claus nor any other imposters.
Ded Moroz was deliberately adopted by the Soviet state as the communist alternative to Santa -- a different and defiantly Soviet seasonal figure. Although he’s popular now, he didn’t always have an easy time of it. In the early years of the Soviet Union, Ded Moroz was banned as a symbol of bourgeois western influence, and also for having religious connotations. He was persecuted under Stalin until, in 1937, the ruler relented, rehabilitating Ded and returning him in triumph to Moscow’s Palace of Unions.
The Grandfather Frost character has its origins in an old folk tale, which goes something like this.
Once there was a woman who had both a daughter of her own, whom she loved, and a stepdaughter, whom she hated. One day, the woman ordered her husband to take her stepdaughter out into the winter fields and leave her there to die, and he obeyed. Morozko finds her there; she is polite and kind to him, so he gives her a chest full of beautiful things and fine garments. After a while, her stepmother sends her father to bring back the girl’s body to be buried, and he obeys. After a while, the family dog says that the girl is coming back, and that she is beautiful and happy.
When the stepmother sees what treasures her stepdaughter has brought back, she orders her husband to take her own daughter out into the fields. Unlike before, this child is rude to Morozko, and he freezes her to death. When her husband goes out to bring her back, the dog says that she will be buried. When the father brings back the body, the old woman weeps. Wikipedia
In some respects, Ded Maroz seems a lot like Santa Claus. But a fear of encroaching Western influences has sometimes led to battles in the streets between Santas dressed in white beards and red coats and Ded Morozes dressed in blue. Aside from dress, there are other differences between the two men.
While Santa Claus (assisted by his elves) delivers gifts on Christmas Eve, traversing the world in a sleigh led by Rudolph and the other reindeer, Ded Moroz is at home with his feet propped up. He distributes his gifts at the New Year, travelling in a troika - or sleigh - drawn by horses. Some say he has even been spotted struggling out of the infamous Russian automobile, the Lada. Also, instead of elves, he is accompanied by his attractive granddaughter, the stepdaughter in the old folk tale. The Snow Maiden -- or Snegurochka -- as she is now known wears long silver-blue robes and either a furry cap or a snowflake like crown. Ded Moroz wears a heel-length fur coat, a semi-round fur hat, and walks with a long magic staff. He comes through the front door, rather than down the chimney, shouting out “hello kids” as he enters.
Just like in the West, there are lots of toys -- and, of course, seasonal entertainment. Take a look at this Soviet alternative to The Snowman, from 1959. In it a young boy wants to send a New Year Fir Tree to his father who is away and busy doing good Soviet things in Antarctica.
Today, the Ded Maroz tradition persists. Although the western Santa Claus made inroads during the 1990s, the resurgence of Russian nationalism in the early 21st century brought a renewed emphasis on the Slavic Grandfather Frost, and the New Year holiday continues to outshine the Christmas holiday for a wide majority of the Russian people.
According to American Cold War ideology, homemakers in the United States were a bulwark against communism, fortifying the family social unit that was basic to a democratic society. In contrast, in the Soviet Union, communism drove women out of the home and put them to work, forcing children into state-run daycare centers an assaulting the family.
In response, postwar American society emphasized the importance of the “traditional” family structure which had a male wage-earner and a female housewife and mother. This placed the domesticated woman at the center of American values and viewed her domesticity as a weapon against any subversive communist influences. According to US Census data, In 1950, 23.8% of American married women had jobs outside the home; the figure climbed to 30.5% by 1950, and 39.6% by 1969.
An article in Life Magazine in 1953 tied working women to the consumer society saying she worked “to increase her buying power as a consumer, for herself and particularly for her family.”
The bottom line was that, for most women, life was home centered. Women cared for their homes and for the emotional and nutritional needs of their families. They nursed, cooked, cleaned, decorated, and shopped. Girls and their toys mimicked their mothers.
Women’s housekeeping tasks were faithfully reproduced by their daughters who played with their own child-sized sweepers, vacuums, and pots and pans, Some of these were made by the same companies who manufactured the working appliances their moms used. Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company sold versions for real use and also the “Little Queen Carpet Sweeper” for girls, a good way to instill brand name loyalty at an early age.
The Kenner “Easy Bake” and Deluxe Topper Corporation’s “Suzy Homemaker” toy ovens were also popular. They used a light bulb as a heat source that could bake real, but tiny, cakes. Packaged cake mixes from Betty Crocker were sold especially for this use. The Easy Bake slogan promised little girls that they could make “Food as Good as Mom’s.”
Lessons in gender roles were seamlessly linked to lessons in the growing consumer economy. In the early 1950s, Americans began to spend more of their disposable income on food, not because of a rise in food prices, but because of marketing of new kinds of convenience foods. Toys reinforced the message that most food could be found packaged and processed.
The most important girl’s toy to come out of the Cold War era was the “Barbie” doll, introduced by Mattel in 1959. Barbie was sold as a fashion doll and ads promised:
Girls of all ages will thrill to the fascination of her miniature wardrobe of fine-fabric fashions . . . . Feminine magic! A veritable fashion show, and every girl can be the star!
Barbie didn’t cost very much when she was first introduced -- only about $3 -- but her clothes and accessory add ons earned Mattel very healthy profits.
Barbie provided a contrast to the board games I mentioned earlier because some of the board games actually allowed for the possibility that women might be more than just a fashion object. She might, in fact, work outside the home, but only within a very narrow spectrum of possibilities.
The Selchow and Righter Company made a board game called “What Shall I Be” in two versions, one for boys and one for girls. Interestingly, there was no overlap between the careers offered to each. Girls choices in the 1966 version included the “helping” professions, like teacher or nurse, with some very glamorous options like stewardess, ballerina, actress, and model. In the 1968 version, boys could try out becoming doctors, engineers, astronauts, scientists, athletes, and statesmen. Neither of the options touched on the majority of real women’s jobs, the “pink collar ghetto” of secretaries, clerks, and waitresses.
It’s interesting to note that, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, the marketing of toys is more gendered today than it was 50 years ago when gender discrimination and sexism were the norm. But that’s another story.
While girls were busy learning about fashion from Barbie, running their faux real vacuum cleaners, and decorating their doll houses, boys were learning not to be “sissies.”
Spurred on by an article in a 1950 issue of Better Homes and Gardens titled “Are We Staking Our Future On A Crop of Sissies?”, toy manufacturers created toys for boys that were more topical and political than what Cold War society considered proper play for girls.
Since boys were encouraged to imagine themselves as cowboys, astronauts, and soldiers, they needed the kinds of playthings that offered instruction to the manly arts. The most important of these was the art of being a soldier, and many Cold War toys for boys had a distinctly military theme to them.
Military-themed toys included guns that sounded real. One gun, the Sound-O-Power military rifle, a realistic reproduction of the M-16 rifle used by American troops, was advertised as making sounds so authentic that even the police would be fooled. Here’s part of their ad from 1967:
Two cops rush to the scene. “This sounds like a gun battle — over there!” one calls to his partner.
They see the suspects: two little boys, wielding rifles.
The police officers do not shoot.
Rather, they examine the boys’ weapons and break into big smiles: “Hey, is it real?” one officer asks.
“Looks like real,” his partner marvels.
“And it sounds like real,” the first officer confirms.
“Right — every shot!” says the announcer, because this is on television.
It’s an ad, from 1967, for the Sound-O-Power M-16 military rifle, a big hit for Marx Toys at Christmas that year, $5.99, batteries not included.
A Marx Sound-O-Power will run you about $225 now, if you can find one on the collectors’ market. Marx, once a titan of the American toy industry, is long dead. (Washington Post, December 22,2014)
Whether kids pretended to be cowboys or war heroes or space adventurers, the toy gun was a crucial accessory, and any kind of gun was good practice for future conflict. The hottest fashion in guns in the 1950s and early 1960s was for whatever the well-equipped cowboy might use. At the 47th annual Toy Fair in 1950, cowboy holsters and pistol belts were “the fastest growing branch of the toy business.” Stanley Breslow, president of Carnell Manufacturing Company said:
“Last year, there were enough holster sets manufactured to supply every male child in the United States three times over.”
What do cowboys have to do with the Cold War a skeptic might ask. Well, the idea of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ was central to Cold War ideology, and the play gear made it easy to tell between them.
In Cowboy and Indian play sets, the Cowboys and Indians wore different colors, and were dressed and armed differently. These games weren’t unlike Cold War politics: Cowboys and Indians could be read as Americans and Soviets, each holding their own in their efforts to come out on top. Seem far fetched? Just think about it.
Cowboy and Indian games reinforced the prevailing political ideology, at least before the concept of multi-cultural tolerance made strong inroads into American society. Indians were “the other,” the designated enemy. Their culture was painted as the opposite of Anglo civilization and they were said to attack everything that Americans held dear. This bipolar view of good and evil closely mirrored contemporary opinions about the relationship between America and communism.
So far as toys were concerned, astronauts were cowboys catapulted from the past into the future. Space, the New Frontier took on the mantle of the modern wilderness.
For Americans, part of the appeal of space was the prospect of winning the “space race” and establishing a base for galactic dominance before the USSR could beat us to it. Space was a frontier to be conquered as well as explored. Space toys captured both the dramatic tension of the space race and the desire to combine exploration with conquest. They also represented the effort to conquer technology.
If Cowboys and Indians represented reliving the legendary post and space men symbolized the hopeful future, then war toys, especially soldiers like GI Joe, dominated the present. Cold War America glorified weapons of destruction and -- with GI Joe -- the lines between the household and the battlefield were blurred. In a period of political stability and prosperity in American society, war was a part of everyday life.
In early Cold War politics the world was divided into two camps: communist enemies and anti communist allies. Many Americans believed that the ultimate sign of a “free” society was an active free market, leading to the view that avid consumption was proof of democracy. Toys reflected and bolstered this opinion, communicating the values of our consumer society to the post World War II generation.
Not all boys’ toys had to do with cowboys, astronauts, and soldiers. A large group of playthings were designed to prepare boys to fight the wars of the future -- the wars of the nuclear age.
According to Ann Marie Kordas in her book The Politics of Childhood in Cold War America:
Most of the atomic-themed toys, games, and science kits manufactured in the early 1950s focused largely on the beneficial or at least fantastic uses of nuclear energy. At a time when the United States still felt assured that its command over the power of the atom far surpassed that of its enemies, atomic energy could be considered an appropriate subject for harmless play. By the late 1950s and 1960s, however, following the Soviet Union’s development of satellite technology and intercontinental missiles and build-up of its nuclear arsenal, toys and games no longer reflected peaceful hopes for nuclear energy. Fewer atomic-themed toys were produced and those that were took a grimmer approach to the subject.
Atomic board games were popular. One was the Nuclear War board game described as a ‘comical cataclysmic card game of global destruction’. The game ended when the populations of all nations but one had been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. Sometimes all nations were destroyed.
There were also other types of disturbing games focusing on thoughts of actually releasing nuclear weapons. Some companies marketed guns described as ‘atomic guns’, ‘space guns’, or ‘atomic disintegrators’.
For kids who truly intended to wreak havoc, one company marketed a toy described as a ‘safe, harmless, giant atomic bomb.
Other toys were more educational and peaceful. Here are a few:
The Atomic Geiger Counter produced by Bell Products Company: resembled a real Geiger counter, but was designed to respond to anything made of iron. Intended for educational purposes, the Geiger Counter was ‘completely safe’ and didn’t detect uranium or any other radioactive ore.
The A.C. Gilbert Company Geiger Counter: detected radioactive substances and came with a small bottle of uranium ore with which children could test the machine.
Wilesco R200 RS toy nuclear reactor: the tower of the reactor was colored gun-metal grey and the energy produced powered a small turbine; generated power by using steam to power turbines and did not contain any radioactive materials.
Linemar toy nuclear reactor: the reactor was colored baby blue and bright red lights flashed on the tower’s reactor when the toy was in operation; generated power by using steam to power turbines and did not contain any radioactive materials.
A.C. Gilbert Company Chemistry Sets and Microscopes with Projectors. Also specialized science kits.
Gilbert’s U-238 Atomic Energy Lab: costing $50, the kit included a Geiger-Mueller counter; a Wilson cloud chamber; a spinthariscope; an electroscope; radioactive ores; alpha, beta, and gamma radiation sources, and several booklets on atomic energy and how to conduct experiments.
Less costly kits:
Porter Atomic Energy Kit
Atomic Energy Lab Kit produced by the American Basic Science Club
Library of Science Radiation Detector Kit
Comic books also instructed children in the basics of atomic power and allowed them to fantasize about its potential uses.
General Electric’s Inside the Atom focused on the peaceful process of generating electricity through the use of nuclear power.
Dagwood Splits the Atom also took a positive approach to the subject; it was distributed in some schools in an effort to teach kids about atomic power by using a popular comic strip character.
Atomic Knights celebrated the adventures of a group consisting of a teacher, a scientist, former soldiers, and one lone woman who travelled across a hydrogen bomb-ravaged United States righting wrongs and combatting evil.
Atomic Mouse and Atomic Rabbit (later renamed Atomic Bunny) were geared toward younger children. These characters obtained their fantastic powers by consuming uranium; Atomic Mouse took pills and Atomic Rabbit ate carrots grown in uranium-rich soil.
Even kids who didn’t want to play with atomic themed toys or read atomic comics were confronted with the need to prepare for an atomic attack and its aftermath. Parents were told to take special steps to prepare for their children’s welfare in the case of nuclear emergency.
To entertain children, experts on survival recommended that parents store comic books and board games. And children could envision life after an atomic blast by playing with doll houses with fallout shelters like the one below.
Lessons in what to do in the event of a nuclear attack were delivered both at home and in school. Films such as Duck and Cover (1951) emphasized that nuclear bombs were dangerous, but the danger was minimized by comparing it to everyday dangers like fires and cars.
All photographs courtesy of orau.org. They have a wonderful website if you’d like to delve more deeply into “atomic toys.”