December 25, 2017

When must-have toys were Made in USA, and built to last

Another Christmas, another Star Wars movie, another attempt to cash in on the hype with toy lines just as the little kiddies are drawing up their lists for Santa Claus.

By churning out new Star Wars movies every year, they are making them less unique and distinct as cultural events. And the same goes for these toy lines. Kids won't get excited about them, as they become habituated to them, and will not have other novel toy lines to turn to, since everything is about Star Wars now.

Back when Star Wars first came out, it was a self-contained phenomenon rather than a continually practiced religion -- it was not going to be re-enacted from now until the end of the universe. It made the toys a phenomenon in themselves, rather than the same old predictable crap from last year but slightly updated. You had to get in on the Star Wars toy craze, because it would not last forever, and next year or the year after that, it would be something else.

If you Google Image Search "Christmas 1983," a majority of the results show Star Wars toys. When my family gets together for Christmas, we sometimes watch old home movies, and there's one from Christmas '83 where I'm so entranced by the Star Wars toys that I don't show much appreciation for the other gifts under the tree. It was the thing to get.

A lot of those toys literally still hold up today, since they were made before manufacturing standards went down the tubes as American companies started off-shoring these jobs to places where labor is cheap and doesn't give a shit about quality results.

They were not made to high standards because they believed Star Wars would become an enduring brand, and that the merchandise needed to be collectible in quality to last as long as the brand's appeal lasted. They simply didn't want to sell their customers a bunch of cheap junk at high prices.

Not everything from the heyday of children's toys during the 1980s was made in USA, though. No matter which brand, the ubiquitous action figures were mostly made outside the country (Mexico, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). These toys do not require much assembly, and the process of pouring plastic into the molds for the arms, legs, torsos, and heads can be overseen by careless Chinese or Mexican laborers.

The 1980s did see the beginning of the off-shoring of manufacturing, but it began with cheaper things that customers might not care about so much being made in China. Such as action figures, compared to other kinds of toys.

The vehicles and playsets, however, were still being made right here in America. Things that require a decent level of assembly -- putting a bunch of heterogeneous components into a single finished whole product -- were too much to be trusted to Chinese sweatshop labor back then. You needed more attentive and well-paid American workers to put complicated things together.

It's the same reason that major devices were still being made here, like automobiles, washing machines, and television sets, while less complicated products were undergoing rapid off-shoring, like textiles and clothing.

Even if the parent had to put the pieces together for their kid's toy ("some assembly required"), the quality of the components was too high to be done overseas. The plastic used for action figures does feel cheaper and more rubbery, but the stuff used for vehicles and playsets is more durable and has finer details. Anything that required precision had to be done here.

The three major toy makers were Mattel, with factories in southern California, who made He-Man and Secret Wars; Hasbro, manufacturing out of Rhode Island, who made G.I. Joe; and Kenner, whose main factory was in Cincinnati, Ohio, who made Star Wars. Other companies who made toys here in America include Coleco, Tyco, Remco, and Tonka.

When they closed up most of their factories is hard to determine, but from old news articles it seems like the late 1980s through the early 2000s saw the sustained shuttering of American toy-making plants. The companies and brands still exist in America, just not the actual production that sustained working and middle-class families and their communities.

Once American companies had off-shored the cheaper products, they began off-shoring the more complicated ones as well. No washing machines or televisions are made here anymore, and it's lucky that cars and airplanes are so complicated to make -- they're one of the few things we still feel are too complex to trust to cheap foreigners.

So it goes with toys, as the vehicles and playsets have joined the action figures in all being made in cheap-labor countries, with cheap materials, and shoddy assembly. No one thinks that today's Star Wars toys are going to physically endure as long as the ones made 35 to 40 years ago.

And yet mergers and acquisitions, together with off-shoring production, have made these companies more profitable than during their heyday as makers of cultural phenomena (no one cares about new Star Wars toys).

They should not be rewarded with skyrocketing profits after destroying their American workforces and offering customers more and more forgettable products of lower and lower quality. Time for those 35% tariffs on off-shored production, maybe combined with some direct federal subsidies for American toy manufacturing.

While sociopathic corporations deserve nothing more than a load of coal in their stocking, let's not end on such a "Bah humbug" note, and let memories of the not-so-distant past remind us that a better world is possible. If we were doing better then, we can do it again in the future -- it's not a hypothetical experiment.

Working and middle-class kids got to enjoy quality-made toys, and the still largely manufacturing oriented economy allowed the toys' assembly-line workers to earn enough to give nice things to their own children for Christmas.

Click to view larger image; right-click the pop-up image to view the full-sized image.

I was lucky enough to own an AT-AT as a kid. It seemed so much more real because of how well put-together it was -- not just some cheap little "toy". Although scaled down, it seemed like a real vehicle that had rolled off of a real assembly line at a real factory.

I still have a few old Star Wars toys, and the motivation for this post came when I checked the country of origin on Jabba the Hutt out of curiosity. His little pet is made in Hong Kong, but I couldn't believe the dungeon / throne and Jabba himself are made in USA.

Another of those old home movies shows me playing with the Snake Mountain set from He-Man. It has a microphone and speaker with a "scary voice" effect built in (some distortion, echo, lower pitch). I didn't notice until looking at the ad just now, but the painting detail on the He-Man playsets is something you wouldn't see done today -- too much skill to use an airbrush, or whatever it was.

The most impressive toy I ever got was the Defiant space station from G.I. Joe. It really is as big, complicated, and slickly made as it looks in the ad. My father and uncle had to spend most of the afternoon putting it together. I couldn't ask for hardly anything else that Christmas, but I didn't mind -- it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

Now that the Millennials are old enough to go through nostalgia, it's notable how little they care about the toys of their childhood to the same degree that Gen X-ers remember their toys from the '80s. Much of that must have to do with how fast the quality level dropped off during the '90s. There was no American-made Ewok Village, Snake Mountain, or Defiant space station to captivate them. Just cheaply made disposable crap from China.

Once we restore manufacturing to the American economy, kids will appreciate the things of their childhoods again.


  1. I mostly remember GI Joe and Transformers. When I was a teen in the 1990's, Teen Mutant Ninja Turtles was all the rage alongside Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Early to mid 2000's was all about Pokémon.

  2. As is often the case, the early 80's win again.....

    LJN's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons line from about 1983-1985 might have been the peak in mass market action figure design and workmanship. Aside from some issues with paint wiping away, those figures were something else. The figure's hands were wade with a firm rubbery plastic that to this today keeps an iron grip on swords/knives etc. The limb joints remain pretty firm, whereas He-man figures often had loose joint issues practically two weeks after they came out of the package. A D&D figures had complex molds with a lot of quite intricate paint details and color schemes.

    LJN discontinued the line in 1985, due to the massive development and marketing necessary to get Thundercats off the ground in the mid 80's. One thing that also hurt was that the D&D cartoon failed to market the action figure line very well, a mistake that would not be repeated again with Thundercats, which in popularity equaled anything made by Hasbro, Mattel, and Kenner in the mid-80's.

    I seem to recall an anecdote about a consumer watchdog in the 80's that singled out....Wait for it.....Spectacularly chintzy and fragile but high priced toys. In that respect, some late 80's G.I. Joe stuff actually got dinged, even the vehicles. G.I. Joe mostly got by on selling the figures at a low price point, so that even low income families could buy a half dozen of them for Christmas. The figures were cheap enough to entice a lot of boys into nagging their parents into making impulse buys. Well gee whiz, I thought that in the "greed is good" decade no populist measures even existed anymore.....Man, to think that the 80's toy market was vibrant enough to support at least 5 major companies (Hasbro, Kenner, Mattel, LJN, and Playmates), none of whom possessed dominance of the market.

    Personal memories of mine:

    - I first started to notice these kinds of toys and nag my parents for them around 1989. That's about the time that creativity started to stagnate, but fortunately, places like Sears surplus still had discontinued over stock from 1987 and 1988. So I got a couple Transformers from the golden era (1984-1987) of that line, and was able to snag some figures from unpopular but still fairly cool lines (like Visionaries from '87, and Captain Power from '87-'88). And when He-Man crashed around 1987, a lot of over-production still remained and I was able to get a few of them. My older brother preferred vehicle toys, including RC stuff, so he never had many hand me down figures to give to me.

    In the early 90's, I seem to remember favoring the Marvel lines of that time. I think that even back then, I could tell that the 90's were a let down. Fewer original characters, less creativity, inferior design and paint schemes, less striking packaging (Hasbro in the 80's should've been winning awards for the graphic design and paintings of their stuff).

  3. I wonder how many Millennials and X-ers realize the unhealthy nature of the new Star Wars blitz. Current cultural discussions of Star Wars place twenty, thirty, and forty something people front and center. Merch is as apt to be bought for young-middle aged adults as it is for children. The early rumblings of this could be felt in the 90's, when Boomers started to speculatively buy tons of comic books and action figures; some I think did it out of nostalgia for the outgoing era of their youth (the 60's-80's), but just as many did so out of naked greed (they'd heard that older comic books and action figures were valuable collectibles). The 1990's turned out to be a fiasco for the collector's market, as 90's comics and action figures are almost spectacularly unpopular, while the value of 90's specimens was further driven into the ground by adults bagging and boarding comics (sometimes without bother to page through them) and keeping action figures in the packages (something that only a handful of adults and teens did in the 60's-80's).

    From the annals of 1990's suckage, something which must still embarrass Gen X-ers is camping out at toy stores and frequenting comic shops to get the latest sought after/"underpacked" action figure (need I mention that action figure distro in the 90's was hurt by both declining popularity and the Wal Marting of production?). Most of these alleged valuables, with the passage of time, have been forgotten while stuff from the 60's-80's endures.

  4. WRT cocooning man children and striving greed, it wasn't unheard of for store employees in the mid 90's to poach under packed figures practically right off the loading dock. Gen X employees would either steal the figure or pay for it's nominal value, then turn around and sell it to comic shops and toy collector shops.

    Employees of collector shops and hard core collectors would often fight over having first dibs on the toy aisle at TRU, Target, etc. in the 90's.

    So many X-ers are eager to dump on the 80's, but when did it become fashionable to waste so much of your life on lame crap? It sure wasn't in the Disco or New Wave era.


    Read all about it! Rita, Les, and Jerry would like you to know that comic books are quite the booming market.

    While X-ers certainly didn't distinguish themselves in the 90's, they didn't have income (or hubris) enough to be blowing six figures on old comic books. And as I suspected, Boomers were succumbing to the nostalgia wave that crested in the 90's when the culture was starting to suffer from exhaustion and we no longer could forge ahead like we once did, what with all the camp parodies, "irony", meta crap, and heroin addicted celebrities.

  6. Looks like the AD&D toys were made in Macau, except for the Fangs of Fortress playset which was made in USA. That's usual -- something with lots of interlocking, movable parts.

    Most of the fun of action figures was making them act out whatever story you came up with, not marveling at the mechanical quality.

    But when you look back and ask which toys were the most impressive as mechanical devices, it was definitely the vehicles and playsets, not the rubbery do-nothing figures.

    Transformers used to be made in Japan, like Sony Trinitron televisions or Walkmans, or the Nintendo hardware (Genesis was made in Taiwan). Like the rest of the first world, Japan off-shored most of its manufacturing during the 1990s and 2000s.

    One of the other Really Big and Complex Toys that I got was Scorponok from the original Transformers. If I saw it again today, I'd probably still be impressed by how well made and put together it is. A lot of it was metal, IIRC, not just plastic.

  7. My brother's friend threw a Scorponok into a bonfire, or used it for target practice; they were late X-ers who didn't no anything about collecting at the time.

    I believe Scorponok dates to about 1987. Hasbro primarily used Asian developed molds from '84-'87, when the series was most popular. The line declined pretty fast because the good will engendered by the earliest and best molds and character designs faded away in the late 80's.

    And the novelty was starting to wear off, anyway (80's TF's were kinda clunky and often suffered from aesthetic problems when in "robot" mode; these problems seemed to get worse as time went on and Hasbro ran out of good molds/designs). I managed to get an '87 transformer back then that I still have to this day; the action feature button (which alternated the top mounted dual cannons) got broken off but other than that, it still has held up. Even the fuschia, pink, and aqua colored plastic (which yes, actually looks way better than it has any right to) still looks pretty vibrant.

  8. For those playing along at home:

    The creative diversity of 80's transformers is pretty awe-inspiring. As far as I know, there's been nothing even close to the quantity and variety of 80's boys toys, before or since.

    If drum machines hadn't been invented, and movie producers weren't putting half the budget up their nose, I really think the 80's would get a much fairer shake from creative critics.

    As far as things less subject to the vagaries of technology and the money-men, the 80's were pretty damn cool. Certainly in terms of paintings, fonts, graphic design, hair and make up styles, etc. The level of experimentation and detail was really cool, though designers remembered to keep a certain level of focus on a basic design element to give the brain and the eye a mooring. And that's what designers in the 50's, or 60's, or early 70's didn't always remember to do.

  9. "made in Japan, like Sony Trinitron televisions"

    I still have an 80's smaller Trinitron out in the garage somewhere (first TV I ever had in my bedroom), I believe. Funny, how I've gotten read of all of the "minimalist" all black TVs from the 90's/2000's, but something was telling me not to junk the Trinitron. No matter what current aesthetics dictate, I still like the chrome and/or faux wood stuff from the 70's and 80's.

  10. Thoughts On Power12/25/17, 5:45 PM

    Get rid of legal corporate structure while you're replacing the tariffs.

    The 80s weren't anything special culturally, it was a debased time, but the creative making of things had a good final run.

    Amazing to consider computers, CD players, microwaves, Walkmans, and cell phones got into regular people's hands then, in one decade. We're still riding that last wave of creativity from almost 40 years ago.

    Merry Christmas and good luck at rebuilding the real First World.

  11. Eduardo the Magnificent12/25/17, 6:31 PM

    I don't know if you've missed this connection or if it was so obvious it didn't need to be stated, but the toys made in the 80s were meant to be played with. Toy makers knew those things were going to be dropped, thrown, smashed around, and basically abused by the kids playing with them. A cheap toy that couldn't stand up to abuse was not going to sell. Now, a collectible, especially one that never leaves the original packaging? Who gives a shit how well it's made? The same can be said about a toy meant to be a fad for 15 months then discarded. The only question is which came first: the collectibles craze or the cheap manufacturing, and did these phenomena rub off on each other?

  12. "but from old news articles it seems like the late 1980s through the early 2000s "

    Thanks for this post, that's interesting. I didn't know there was a lag of 20 years between status-striving(started in the 60s) and the off-shoring of businesses.

    This is in line with some of the things that Strauss and Howe said, categorizing the period from 1985-2005 as being "The Unraveling" - distinct from the 60s and 70s, when status-striving had commenced, yet there was still wealth in the country and some manufacturing.

    Merry Christmas!

  13. There's no general lag of 20 years. Off-shoring started earliest for things that they could get away with, and took longer for things that were more difficult to get away with.

    Customers don't mind so much if their t-shirt is made in China -- but really mind if their car is made in China. Their television is somewhere in between.

    And off-shoring is only one way to screw consumers and boost profits, as part of the status-striving trend.

    The first thing, before you totally destroy the working class of your own country, is to keep production here, but use cheaper materials.

    Synthetic material for clothing like polyester and acrylic instead of cotton and wool. Plastic instead of metal gears for clocks or other simple consumer devices. Soft woods like pine instead of hard woods like oak or maple for what ought to be sturdy furniture.

    All of those trends were evident by the '70s -- not that they were the norm back then, but clearly under way. And more like the second half of the '70s, when the "Right turn" in American politics had taken off, and when Democrat Carter ran as a de-regulator.

    To sum it up, there was the 100% polyester disco clothing, rather than cotton clothing from the early '70s (part of the counter-cultural era), and Ethan Allen's new line of furniture was made out of pine instead of the maple (and birch, another hard wood) from earlier in the decade.

    1. **hugs**
      Great post and comment.

      Per the larger civilization decline as discussed in your old posts on death and burial, I got a hold of a very late 18c transition to Regency (c. 1795) child's cotton dress and was utterly stunned at the hand stitching and detail. Now, I'm always amazed at first half 19c needlework, especially in quilts, but this dress was on a whole other level. In the hem that nobody even sees, I thought it was a later-done machine stitch at first glance. Nope! The stitches were that even and close. Other wow factors of craftsmanship abounded in this toddler's dress that I've never seen in other clothing except for couture (generally for adults only,
      fine fabrics).

  14. Thanks, I'm always trying to look for some truth in Strauss and Howe's demarcations, so I thought it was interesting when you said that inequality seemed to get worse in the late 80s.

    I see your points - that it started in the 70s but progressively got worse over time.

  15. Thoughts On Power12/26/17, 8:20 PM

    The greatest purchasing power for the average citizen peaked in 1972/3, right when Strauss and Howe said.

  16. "This is in line with some of the things that Strauss and Howe said, categorizing the period from 1985-2005 as being "The Unraveling" - distinct from the 60s and 70s, when status-striving had commenced, yet there was still wealth in the country and some manufacturing."

    A lot of this is based on culture, not economics per se. The locus of society in the late 60's-early 80's was The Individual, after the emphasis on The Community in the 1940's-early 1960's. In the late 80's-eary 2000's, the locus is The Family. I mean, hello, there literally was an organization called Focus on the Family that became an important pressure group in the 80's.

    And you see how these different eras have an imprint on the younger generation of that time. Silents are more generally conscientious than Boomers (less violent, less fat, less loud etc.); Boomers are more narcissistic than X-ers; Gen X-ers get along much better with their parents and kids than Boomers do.

    Now granted, I think that Strauss and Howe never fully appreciated striving cycles, instead focusing on how things associated with greed or modesty affected different generations. For example, they'd be quick to point out that Boomers were much more enthusiastic about embracing deregulation and other signs of no holds barred individualism than were GIs. In fact, they said that by 1980 GIs effectively no longer had any great influence on where society was headed.

  17. This is a bit of a digression but I checked out some of the new Star Wars figures in Toys 'R' Us while Christmas shopping and started laughing at how boring they are. Mostly random guys in masks or interchangeable characters who look like zero personality middle-management office workers wearing drab clothes with laser guns. (I can't picture kids clamoring for the Benecio Del Toro or "Rose" action figures anytime soon).

    I went online to look at some of the figures from 83; different, colorful, interesting (probably the most boring figure was General Madine). The contrast was, on some level, disturbing.

  18. I'm inspired to raise holy hell over this toy I got for my son:

    German, but not German anymore. I lost count over how many times in 10 minutes the wings dislodged because of the crudest ball-and-socket joint ever devised.

    I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!

  19. The decline in quality is very much tied to automation and lack of demand for labor .

    Automation and trade reduces jobs and wages , thus demand drops and in order to keep up profit costs and therefore quality need to go down

    It also doesn't help that so many toys are electronic and will wear out quickly

    As an aside, the demand for nice old fashioned stuff is there, Barnes and Noble has a two stuffed animals Barnsie 9a bear) and Noble (a dog) I went to buy the bear for a gist and the entire chain was sold out

    Basically you can't get teddy bears in many locations, where I live in So Cal population around 350,000 or so there are no retailers that carried stuffed animals

    yet where I grew up in Colorado population 200,000 or less back in the 70's and 80;s they were everywhere

    There is demand but just no way to fill it. The economy is badly mismatched

    Its this way in the book industry too , the value of books is so deprecated that large cities can support maximum one books store. Most of the population is simply not reading

    L.A which is a small country basically doesn't read and even $1 book stores struggle !

    There are some readers just not enough to sustain an industry and this is not good.

    And note its not E-Books, those sell just not in numbers. In essence good chunks of the US are post literate and with our low trust and defective institutions , its going to be difficult to fix if it can be fixed

  20. It's not automation when the assembly work is still being done by human beings. Only those human beings are in China, in a Chinese factory, rather than American workers in an American factory.

    A stuffed animal is too complicated for a machine to make it -- more complicated than a simple article of clothing like a t-shirt, which are still being made by people and sewing machines, rather than machines alone.

    Cutting the pattern for a stuffed animal might be automated, but not the sewing of the seams. And probably not the stuffing of it.

    Machines can only do the crudest of tasks.

    If the work could be automated, they would keep the production here in America -- they leave for cheap-labor countries in order to cut down labor costs, because human labor is still the rate-limiting step on their cost-cutting efforts.

    There is still one well known manufacturer of teddy bears in America -- Vermont Teddy Bear. Same home as Ethan Allen furniture and Bernie Sanders.

    I found a vintage one still in perfect condition while browsing around a thrift store, and got it for my nephew for Christmas. Nicely made. You probably have to order online for new ones.


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