One of the greatest toy companies of the 20th century got its start with a simple idea: The teddy bear. In 1903, Brooklyn candy shop owners Rose and Morris Michtom were so charmed by the story of President Theodore Roosevelt sparing the life of a bear cub they made a plush toy bear in his honor and put it in their window display. Their cuddly new doll caused a national sensation.
Four years after they invented the teddy bear, the couple launched the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company, which went on to produce some of the most iconic toys and dolls of the century, including Shirley Temple and Betsy Wetsy dolls, Robert the Robot, Evel Knievel action figures, 3-D board games like Mouse Trap and Kerplunk!, and the Rubik’s Cube.
Ideal initially expanded its plush toy line to include cartoon characters like Mr. Hooligan and Admiral Dot as well as real-life celebrities. While the company also started to make wind-up toys and miniature boats, its real success was in creative bisque and composition dolls. Ideal was the first doll company to patent “sleep eyes,” which closed when the baby was laid down, in 1918. The firm also made baby dolls that fidgeted, sucked their thumbs, and cried “Mama!”
Despite the Depression, Ideal sales boomed in the 1930s, thanks to a child star named Shirley Temple. While other doll companies produced Shirley Temple dolls, Ideal’s were by far the most popular, thanks to the doll’s mohair wig with 56 ringlet curls. In fact, Ideal’s Shirley was one of the best-selling dolls in American history. Other Ideal dolls of the era were based on Walt Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella, as well as Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”
That same decade, Ideal also produced a hand-puppet adaptation of Edgar Bergen’s popular “dummy” Charlie McCarthy. Kids coveted this puppet, which allowed them to act out the ventriloquist’s radio show as it was broadcast.
Meanwhile, the company, which changed its name to Ideal Toy Company in 1938, continued to expand, making slot cars, toy guns, doll houses, toy soldiers, and superhero costumes. While Ideal often developed its own innovations, it was also happy to knock off other company’s most successful toys, particularly construction toys. Fiddlestix were Ideal’s answer to Tinkertoy, while Frontier Logs looked an awful lot like Lincoln Logs.
In the 1940s, Ideal made another innovation in the doll industry, adopting its dolls to new plastic materials—first hard plastic and later soft vinyl. Some popular Ideal dolls of the postwar era include Patti Playpal, Saucy Walker, and Betsy McCall, as well as fashion dolls Toni and Miss Revlon. In 1957, Ideal introduced Betsy Wetsy, who cried, sipped water from a bottle, and wet her diapers. This concept struck a chord with little girls, and the doll was a top seller for three decades...
Tapping into the mid-century craze for all things space-related, including imported Japanese tin-toy robots, in 1954, Ideal introduced the walking and talking Robert the Robot, a wind-up plastic robot who had a top hat, a see-through body, and light-up eyes. Other Ideal space toys took cues from NASA, like the 1959 launching pad set Electronic Countdown and the 1960 battery-operated space station set Astro Base.
In the ‘60s, Ideal continued to debut popular doll lines, including the wriggling Thumbelina baby dolls and the stylish Tammy fashion dolls. For the boys, it introduced highly detailed military toy playsets with moving parts known as Battle Action.
The company also acquired the licenses to make toys based on popular prime-time TV programs like “Batman,” “The Flintstones,” “Bewitched,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “The Munsters.” In 1963, Ideal took on the exclusive sponsorship of a new Hanna-Barbera after-school cartoon series, “The Magilla Gorilla Show,” and also produced toys based on the characters.
That decade, Ideal also began a lucrative creative collaboration with the firm of freelance toy designer Marvin Glass. First, he came up with a clear red-and-white wind-up robot named Mr. Machine for 1960, who was so popular he became Ideal’s mascot. Glass gave the company two other robots, 1961’s Robot Commando and 1962’s King Zor, which was obviously inspired by Godzilla.
But the real inventive mojo happened when Glass and Ideal worked together to rethink the concept of board games. Ideal wanted to drop the standard, flat 23-square board based on “Goose” and use plastics to develop three-dimensional interactive devices for a whole new gaming experience. Glass’ first ideas generated the battery-operated Odd Ogg, Bop the Beetle, and Haunted House, which pioneered the idea of playing on a 3-D diorama instead of a 2-D board.
The 1963 release of Mouse Trap really took off with the general public. The appeal of the game, which sold more than a million copies its first year, lies in its plastic Rube Goldberg device. Kids had probably seen similar things on TV and in cartoons, but before Mouse Trap, they could only imagine playing with one themselves.
While Ideal and Glass followed up other Rube Goldberg games like Crazy Clock and Fish Bait, they took 3-D games further than that. They also made balancing games like Tip-It, Kerplunk!, and Careful; games with interactive gadgets like Hands Down and Panic; games with fighting toys like Battling Tops; and Toss Across, a game that combined Tic-Tac-Toe with a beanbag toss.
Outside of its Glass collaborations, Ideal found renewed success in the late '60s and '70s making toys for boys. The Motorific slot car line (1965-’70) was powered by batteries, but had no means for controlling the speed. The Motorific track let kids to conduct “tests” on the cars, while Racerific allowed for contests. The Highway sets, also called Torture Tracks, were meant for the larger trucks.
Taking inspiration from the first action figure, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, Ideal released its Captain Action figure in 1966. The basic concept was that this generic Space Age superhero (which came with a ray gun, sword, and hat) could be transformed into one of several popular characters with a change of costume and props. Ideal first acquired licensed getups for Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Captain America, Sgt. Fury, Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Steve Canyon, and the Lone Ranger.
Captain Action had a land-and-water vehicle called Silver Streak, with working rocket launchers. In 1967, the superhero even got his own nemesis, a blue-skinned exposed-brain alien named Dr. Evil, who was sold with a human mask and ray gun. While the whole line was short lived, out of production by 1969, the costume for the Green Hornet had the shortest run, and is now the most collectible.
Ideal launched another line of motorized robot toys in 1967 called the Mighty Zeroids. Able to move forward or backward, three of these bots—Zerak, Zobot, and Zintar, were available separately or as a part of the Solar Cycle or Action Sets. The Commander-in-Chief, Zogg, was only sold as part of the Action Set. A later robot, Zemo, had Zintar’s head, Zerak’s body, Zobor’s legs, and a spare pair of hands. The Zeroids were re-released in the early '70s, but in smaller versions than the originals.
Real-life daredevil Evel Knievel was the inspiration for Ideal’s most successful action figure. Launched in 1972, this six-inch bendy plastic figure was sold with a helmet, jumpsuit, shoes, and for some reason, a cane. Other toys included dragster cars, stunt cycles, and a motorcycle that emitted real sparks, as well as sets that let kids re-enact Knievel’s biggest stunts. This line made $300 million for the company, revitalizing the toy industry, which was suffering a recession.
Unfortunately, Knievel’s 1977 arrest for deadly assault with a baseball bat brought that action figure line to an abrupt end. Ideal repacked its surplus Evel Knievel figures, vehicles, and accessories as Team America, which was far less popular. These days, it’s difficult to find an Evil Knievel figure in mint condition, as they were beat up in play. They’re usually found with broken limbs, cracked helmets, and forget about the cane.
Luckily, Ideal—which, incidentally, also had acquired the rights to the fortune-telling Magic 8-Ball in 1971—bought a 3-D geometry puzzle from a Hungarian mathematician Ernö Rubik at the 1979 Nuremberg Toy Show. After receiving endorsement from mathematician David Singmaster and making the cover of “Scientific American,” the Rubik’s Cube exploded as one of the biggest fads of the early '80s.
Despite the success of the Rubik’s Cube, Ideal was beginning to fade. New superhero and “Dukes of Hazzard” playsets weren’t top sellers. In 1982, CBS Toy Company bought all of Ideal’s assets, and a few years later, CBS went bankrupt. Viewmaster International bought Ideal from CBS in 1985 and changed its name to View-Master Ideal. Later, View-Master was sold to Tyco Toys, which continued to produce an Ideal line of products until it was absorbed by Mattel in 1997. Over the years, the molds for Ideal’s most popular toys have been acquired by different manufacturers, and many of these classic toys and games are still made today.