Local Lifestyle

Favorite American toys have a colorful history

by Kate Evans

Some of the most traditional toys in America, which still surface during the holiday seasons and in our memories, have an amazing history.

The beloved, cuddly Teddy Bear has comforted millions of children over many decades. But did you know that the teddy bear was created to honor President Theodore Roosevelt?

President Roosevelt was invited on a bear hunting trip in Mississippi in 1902 by the Mississippi governor, but Roosevelt hadn’t found one bear that day, unlike the other hunters.

Roosevelt’s assistants cornered a black bear, tied it to a tree and encouraged Roosevelt to shoot it.  The President felt that was very unsportsmanlike and refused to shoot the bear.  Newspapers across the country picked up the story of Theodore Roosevelt, the big game hunter, refusing to shoot a bear.

Political cartoonist Clifford Berryman satirized the event and Morris Michtom, a Brooklyn candy store owner, saw Berryman’s cartoon in the Washington Post.  Michtom and his wife decided to make a stuffed toy bear and dedicate it to Roosevelt, who wouldn’t shoot a bear. The couple had made other stuffed animals in the past. Michtom called the stuffed animal  “Teddy’s Bear.”

Michtom mass produced the teddy bears after getting Roosevelt’s permission to use his name and founded the Ideal Toy Company.

Radio Flyer red wagons

Many kids will recall having a red Radio Flyer wagon in childhood in which to pull their siblings or friends around. Farmers and gardeners also found the wagons pretty handy for carting supplies and plants around. Radio Flyer is an American toy company known for its Radio Flyer red wagon.  The company was founded in 1917 and is based in Chicago.

According to the Radio Flyer website, company founder Antonio Pasin immigrated from Italy to the United States in 1914 when he was 16 years old.  After a few early laboring jobs, he began crafting and selling phonograph cabinets.

Pasin also built small wagons in which to carry his tools.  Customers started requesting to also buy his wagons and Pasin changed his company’s focus to building the wagons.

At first Pasin built wooden wagons with his Liberty Coaster Company but switched to making red steel wagons in 1927.

In 1930 the company was renamed Radio Steel & Manufacturing and the steel-bodied wagons were made with assembly line methods.

Pasin named the new Radio Flyer wagons to honor inventor and engineer Guglielmo Marconi, who developed the first long-distance wireless telegraph, and aviator Charles Lindbergh who finished the first solo, non-stop transatlantic flight in 1927.

In 1933, the Radio Steel Company was asked to participate in the World’s Fair in Chicago.  Pasin built a 45-foot wood and plaster statue showing a boy riding a Liberty Coaster wagon.  Beneath the statue he sold miniature wagons.

The Radio Flyer Wagon was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999.  Its creator Antonio Pasin was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2003.


This year’s Barbie movie brought renewed interest in a doll that dominated toy boxes for decades.

The fashion doll Barbie was always an exciting gift for young girls to get at Christmas. Barbie was created by inventor Ruth Handler and manufactured by the Mattel Company.

Handler had seen her daughter playing with paper dolls, giving them adult roles.  She suggested an adult-bodied doll to her husband, Mattel toy company co-founder, but he and the company directors weren’t keen on the idea.

During a trip to Europe in 1956, Handler found a German toy doll that was similar to what she had in mind and she bought several.  She gave one to her daughter and took the others back to Mattel.  Handler redesigned her doll and called it Barbie after her daughter Barbara. Barbie made her debut in March 1959.

Barbie has been featured in video games, computer-animated films, movies, a television/web series and a live action film,  Australian actress Margot Robbie starred in the 2023 “Barbie” film.

The line of Barbie dolls includes accessories, clothing, pets, vehicles, friends and relatives of Barbie and her long-time boyfriend Ken.

Over the years Barbie was given  three younger sister dolls-Skipper, Stacie and Chelsea. (formerly Kelly)

Mattel created Hispanic and African-American friend dolls for Barbie to reflect the diversity of American children.  It also designed “sheroes” dolls based on women that were outstanding role models for girls like Katherine Johnson, Amelia Earhart, Misty Copeland and Frida Kahlo.

Barbie has portrayed   numerous careers including Air Force pilot, astronaut, doctor, surgeon, Nascar driver, Olympic athlete, TV news reporter, presidential candidate, rock star, firefighter, engineer, first responder, judge, Army officer and baseball player,  encouraging girls to explore different career options.

The Louvre in Paris held a Barbie exhibit in 2016 with 700 Barbie dolls and works by contemporary artists and documents that featured Barbie.

Toys that have held an important place in American childhoods continue to evolve with the times, while keeping the essential qualities that captured kids’ imaginations across the last century.