What is Barbie, the most steadfastly unhip, eleven-and-a-half-inch person in America, doing in a rock band? The answer has to do with something else Barbie acquired this year: her first serious competitor in a long time. This competitor, whose name is Jem, also has her very own rock band, called the Holograms. When Jem's manufacturer, Hasbro, Inc., invited little girls to enter a contest by dialing 1-800-ROCKGEM and singing the Jem theme song ("Jem is truly outrageous, truly, truly, truly outrageous ... "), so many of them did that the phone company had to put in extra lines.
Nobody, including Jem's creators, thinks that Jem is going to render Barbie obsolete. But some observers think that Jem might give Barbie a run for some of her money. How the competition turns out will depend on the vagaries of one of the least predictable pursuits in all of capitalism: selling fun to children.
In the olden days children had no toys per se but played with pine cones and lumps of coal. This made them happier, smarter, and better behaved than today's children, and everyone, except today's children, would like for the olden days to return.
Eventually, a few rudimentary playthings came into being: Erector sets, Tinkertoys, Lionel trains, Lincoln Logs. The children of the twenties and thirties, looking like miniature, black-and-white versions of their present selves, played with these primitive amusements, covered them with the interesting-smelling dust of history, and handed them down to their children. I remember playing with my father's Lincoln Logs, happily building and rebuilding the same small rectangular structure, for about five minutes. Then the Lincoln Logs became lost. (Actually, Lincoln Logs are still popular enough to consume four carloads of Ponderosa pine trees from Oregon every month. They were invented in 1916 by John Lloyd Wright, a son of the famous architect, and were inspired by a Japanese technique for constructing earthquake-proof buildings.)
The first great watershed in the development of toys as we know them was the end of the Second World War. The Great Depression had made it impossible for most people to buy a lot of toys. The war had the same effect. When prosperity returned and the people now known as Yuppies began to be born, the modern toy industry was born as well. Propelling it toward maturity were the two great engines of post-war American culture: television and plastic.
Today the toy business is dominated by a handful of companies, the largest five of which—Hasbro, Mattel, Coleco Industries, Kenner Parker Toys, (which consists of Kenner and Parker Brothers, a venerable game manufacturer), and Fisher-Price—accounted for more than 45 percent of all toys sold last year. Of these five only Fisher-Price began—in 1930—as a toy company. The others entered the business by peculiar routes. Kenner began in 1947 as a soap and soft-drink manufacturer; a premium called the Bubbl/Matic Gun, which came in boxes of Kenner soap, was so received that the company switched businesses. (One-hundred-and-three-year-old Parker Brothers has always been what it is today, primarily a manufacturer of games.) Coleco started in 1932 as the Connecticut Leather Company, a wholesale distributor of shoe-repair supplies; it became a toy company in the early 1950s, when it began selling the Official Howdy Doody Make It Yourself Bee-Nee Kit and other leathercraft items for children. The first products of Mattel—whose name consists of syllables from the names of the founders, Harold Matson and Elliot Handler—were picture frames and miniature furniture made of polyurethane left over from the manufacture of airplane nose cones. Hasbro started out in 1923 as Hassenfeld Brothers, purveyors of textile remnants.