We associate LEGOs with brightly colored, interlocking plastic bricks that have caused many a barefoot parent to howl in pain, but when a Danish carpenter named Ole Kirk Kristiansen founded the company that would become LEGO in 1932, he produced only wooden toys, from pull-along animals such as ducks and cats to building blocks and yo-yos. In 1934, the firm was officially named LEGO, which is short for “leg godt,” or “play well,” in Danish.
At first yo-yos were big sellers for Kristiansen, but when their popularity waned toward the end of the decade, the carpenter made the most of the downturn but re-purposing his unsold yo-yo inventory as wheels for his pull-toys and vehicles. One of the earliest vehicles Kristiansen made was a wooden train, with an engine, passenger car, and caboose. Roughly 30 years later, in 1965, LEGO would release its first plastic model trains, but throughout World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Germany, wood was a good material to be working with, since metal and rubber were reserved for the war effort.
If parents perceived an educational and even moral aspect to LEGO products, it was because Kristiansen and his sons and grandsons who followed in his footsteps imbued their products with core values. This was especially true for the LEGO interlocking bricks, or “Automatic Binding Bricks” as they were called upon their introduction in 1949. The goal was not just a toy but a toy system, whose generic components permitted unlimited, imagination-based play for both boys and girls.
The first molded, plastic LEGO bricks lacked the characteristic LEGO branding seen on the tops of each brick’s studs. The bottoms of the bricks were hollow (they did not yet have corresponding tubes to line up with the studs), while the sides had vertical slits, designed to secure windows and doors. By 1953, branding would be added to the mold, but the bottoms of the bricks remained hollow until 1957, when the interlocking system we know today was introduced.
LEGOs arrived in the United States in 1961, and larger DUPLO bricks, aimed at toddlers, were introduced worldwide in 1969. That same year, the 4.5-volt motor that had been powering LEGO trains was upgraded to a more robust 12-volt model. And in 1974, the first LEGO figures were released, although their popularity was eclipsed in 1978 when the first LEGO minifigure (a policeman) was included in LEGO set #600. Each minifigure was as tall as four bricks, except for those minifigures with shorter legs, the first of which was Yoda from the “Star Wars” series in 2002.