For Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, the name Fisher-Price is synonymous with childhood. In fact, many of us came out of the womb and almost immediately encountered its Activity Center, an interactive toy that let you push buttons, turn dials, and move a tortoise and hare along a track. Then, there were those rainbow-colored plastic donuts known as Rock A Stack, the colorful and loud Popper Push Toy, the Marching Band kit with a drum, tambourine, cymbals, and maracas, and a wide variety of charming wooden pull toys shaped like animals, choo-choo trains, or even a rainbow-keyed xylophone.
As we grew up, we delighted in the magnetic Alphabet Letters that stuck to the magnetized chalkboard School Days lap desk, the Chatter Phone pull toy with its old-fashioned dial and cheerful face, and all the music boxes that resembled radios, TVs, and clocks that could be dialed to certain songs. And that’s not to mention perhaps the most well-loved of the company’s music boxes, the Fisher Price Change-A-Record. Last but not least, Fisher-Price created the Little People, a.k.a. Play Family, and all their elaborate playsets, which are the most collected of the company’s toys today.
Herman Fisher—with financial backing from Irving Price, Elbert Hubbard, and Helen Schelle—established Fisher-Price in East Aurora, New York, in 1930. The company, which started out producing pull toys made out of wood and lithographed paper, put a lot of thought into its designs, which had to meet the firm’s “five-point creed.” A Fisher-Price toy had to have intrinsic play value, ingenuity, strong construction, good value, and action.
These principles are obvious in its early pull toys, like the cycling monkey Lookee Monk, the acrobatic push clown Tumbling Tom, and the flat-bed riding Popeyes that rang bells or pounded drums. Of these pull toys, the ones with Walt Disney branding, like 1938’s Dopey and Doc and 1941’s Disney Circus, are most coveted by collectors today.
Up until 1969, Fisher-Price was owned by the four founders and a handful of stockholders. From 1969 to 1991, the company was a subsidiary of Quaker Oats. Briefly, in the 1990s, the company became independent again, only to be swallowed in 1993 by Barbie-making toy behemoth Mattel, which still owns the brand today.
In 1959, Fisher-Price introduced a pull toy called Safety School Bus (#983) that came with four wooden-peg people that could be removed. These 3-inch-tall figures were decorated with lithographed paper. The success of this toy led to two more like it, #168 Snorky Fire Engine and #234 Nifty Station Wagon, but the peg figures this time lost their lithographed clothes—instead their bodies were painted in primary colors. These figures are now referred to as Pre-Little People.
The first so-called “Little People” appeared in 1963, with the #932 Amusement Park and #719 Choo-Choo Train sets. These smaller wooden figures consisted of “straight-sided” bodie...
In 1965, Fisher-Price revamped the Play Family bodies to give them their “mushroom” shape—a standard that lasted until 1990. These new figures, which also came with plastic hair or hats, were first sold with the new School Bus (#192). Some straight-sided figures were sold side-by-side with the mushroom-shaped figures until 1973.
Plastic heads on wood bodies were also introduced in 1973. Two years later, Fisher-Price began to make the transition to all-plastic Little People. So in the '70s, it was possible to purchase a Play Family playset with a combination of all-wood, wood-and-plastic, and all-plastic figures in the same set. In 1975, the first licensed-character Little People set was introduced, based on Sesame Street. These toys are coveted by collectors now. The only other official Little People character toys were made for a 1990 McDonald’s playset.
By the 1980s, Little People were made only of plastic, and sold with few accessories. Then, in 1990, the original or “classic” Little People were determined to be a choking hazard for toddlers. By 1991, the line was replaced with wider plastic “Chunky” Little People, which were far less popular, and these were followed by the latest incarnation of bigger Little People in 1996. From the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, Fisher-Price produced two other types of action figures, called Adventure People and Husky Helpers.
Part of the reason vintage Little People are so hot right now is simply that parents remember the originals from their childhood, and want to have their kids play with the same toys. Little People figures and playsets that were played with and stored in hot attics may not have survived so well, with bubbles on their lithographed faces and designs. In contrast, mint-in-box playsets with all their original accessories command high prices from serious toy collectors.
Because the Little People were so wildly popular, many toy companies produced knockoffs, including Playskool Play Friends, Tomy People, and Ideal Playpal. ILLCO made some Walt Disney character figures and vehicles that fit with Little People toys and accessories, but Fisher-Price did not. The figures in Mattel’s Putt-Putt sets had bodies that fit the Little People vehicles and sets, but big wood heads. These Mattel toys are also rare and collectible now.