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5 iconic toys born in Minnesota

The Tonka Toys’ Mighty Dump Truck1 / 2
Charles Foley and Neil Rabens developed the Milton Bradley game of Twister for the Reynolds Guyer Agency of St. Paul in 1966. (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)2 / 2

Looking at toys of the past can be more than just a walk down memory lane. The “Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society’s History Center in St. Paul aims to examine the significance of childhood favorites by looking at the people who invented, bought and played with these toys.

A number of the iconic toys on display got their start in Minnesota. Here are the stories behind five of them:

Tonka Trucks Mound Metalcraft was a struggling business on the shores of Lake Minnetonka with only one product, tie racks. Then they decided to make a few metal toys, starting with a crane and a steam shovel in 1947. The partners at the company created the Tonka logo and name, based on the Dakota word taaka meaning “great.”

As the toys’ popularity grew, the company officially changed its name to Tonka Toys Inc. in 1955. The company’s most successful vehicle was The Mighty Dump Truck, which premiered in 1964.

The Game of Cootie The object of this game is to be the first to assemble a cootie (a torso, head, two eyes, six legs, two antennae and a coiled proboscis) with the roll of a die. Inventor Herb Schaper of Minneapolis first sold the game on consignment at Dayton’s, selling 5,000 games in 1950. By 1952, he sold more than 1 million across the country.

Schaper was one of the first toy makers to advertise on television, buying spots during “Captain Kangaroo.” Games later made by his Minneapolis company include Tickle Bee, Tumble Bug, Don’t Break the Ice, and Don’t Spill the Beans.

Gumby and Pokey Gumby and Pokey were the claymation stars of the long-running “The Gumby Show” (1957-82). Minneapolis’ Lakeside Signs and Toys won the license to produce “bendies” based on the characters. Other companies were already making bendable vinyl toys, but Lakeside added a wire inside that helped the figures hold a pose. Lakeside made many other popular toys including electric drawing sets and the games Perfection and Barrel of Monkeys.

Twister The game, which was described by its critics as “sex in a box,” got its start as a 1965 back-to-school shoe display created by St. Paul ad man Reyn Guyer. He realized the polka dot mat could make for a game where people acted as the playing pieces. Guyer called the game “King’s Footsie,” but it was licensed to Milton Bradley under the name “Pretzel,” which was ultimately renamed “Twister” by the company. Sales of the game took off after Johnny Carson played with Eva Gabor on the Tonight Show in 1966.

Nerf Balls and Nerf Footballs Guyer also had a hand in inventing these soft foam balls. He first fashioned them in 1968 as playing pieces, meant to represent rocks, in a game called “Caveman,” but he soon realized the balls themselves were more fun than the game. Guyer and his designers named them “Nerf” balls and licensed them to Parker Brothers. The first Nerf balls hit stores in 1970, with more than 4 million sold that year alone.

The Nerf football was created when John Mattox approached Minnesota Vikings kicker Fred Cox in 1970 with the idea of making a kids’ kicking game. Cox suggested they use a foam football and the pair teamed up with Minneapolis’ Fireside Toys to make a prototype that had thick rubberized skin around the foam. Parker Brothers, which had been trying to develop its own version of a Nerf football, licensed the ball from Cox and Mattox, but not the kicking game.

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