Play-Doh, Nerf balls and Cheerios?
What do Play-Doh, Nerf balls and Cheerios have in common?
No, they don’t all taste good with milk.
This trio of products (some edible) once shared the same parent company – General Mills – when we operated a toy division until the mid-1980s.
Who knew that General Mills also made some of the most wonderful and memorable toys from yesteryear?
The Minnesota History Center in St. Paul knows and has included an assortment of these toys in its special exhibit “Toys of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s” that runs through early 2015.
Want to see the 12 original Star Wars action figures and Millennium Falcon made by Kenner?
Hope to throw and squeeze those soft Nerf balls from Parker Brothers?
Want that nostalgic tingle when you see the pattern-drawing toy Spirograph?
All were once part of General Mills when the company had a toy division from 1965 to 1985. Anyone can see them, and, in the case of the Nerf balls, play with them at the exhibit, says Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer at the Minnesota History Center.
“People are surprised when they find out General Mills got into toys at the extent that it did,” Roberts says in this video interview.
Asked for her favorite General Mills-related toy, Roberts says without hesitation, “Spirograph by a landslide. I remember it fondly. Thank you General Mills for bringing it into my life!”
General Mills entered the toy market with the 1965 purchase of Rainbow Crafts, the maker of Play-Doh. It proved to be a springboard for the company, which developed a formidable toy division with the acquisitions of Kenner Products in 1967 and Parker Brothers in 1968. (By 1985, General Mills spun off the toy division as Kenner Parker Toys.)
Star Wars to Nerf balls
The 450 toys in the exhibit come from a number of sources. Some are part of the Minnesota History Center’s collection, while others are on loan from toy collectors or other museums.
Toys with General Mills ties in the exhibit include:
• Easy-Bake Oven, 1963: This Kenner toy predates by four years General Mills’ involvement with the company. Once General Mills bought Kenner, we soon placed the Betty Crocker brand on the Easy-Bake Oven, which looked like a kitchen range and used a light bulb to make cakes.
• Spirograph, 1967: This pattern-drawing toy from Kenner could help anyone create “masterpiece” with a pen and interlocking rings. It just took a bit of patience in making the intricate and colorful designs.
• Nerf ball, 1970, and Nerf football, 1972: Parker Brothers created these spongy, foam balls that let kids safely throw them in the house. The toy was a hit, and spawned other Nerf-related toys. The Toys exhibit includes an interactive “Nerf Garage,” where people can throw the balls around.
• Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit, 1971: This updated version of a chemistry set from Parker Brothers came out as environmentalism hit the mainstream. With the kit, kids could test the air and water quality in their neighborhoods. Johnny Horizon was a symbol of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s crusade for a cleaner America.
• Six-Million Dollar Man, 1975, and Bionic Woman, 1979, action figures: Based on two hit television series about an astronaut and tennis pro “reassembled” after serious accidents, these dolls were made by Kenner.
• Star Wars action figures from Kenner, 1977-78: The exhibit displays the 12 original Stars Wars action figures, including Darth Vader, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Chewbacca as well as the Millennium Falcon ship. Kenner purchased the “galaxy-wide” rights to the “Star Wars” movies in a licensing opportunity turned down by other leading toy companies.
• Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber and Beauty Shop, 1977: From Kenner, this toy lets kids push Play-Doh through molds so they can cut and style the “hair” of figurines.
The appeal of vintage toys today is strong.
“I do think that there is a greater appetite for vintage toys these days,” says Roberts. “When you look around in this gallery you realize these are the things you’re seeing on websites, these are the things that I’m seeing on YouTube in commercials, these are the series that are coming back on TV or the characters that are being remade in movies.”
Roberts told us the exhibit helps connect visitors to American history, through their personal history.
“People are loving it and I do think that it will end up having a special place for us because it’s an exhibit that’s getting people talking,” she says. “It’s getting generations sharing with each other, saying either ‘I had that,’ ‘I wanted that’ or ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t thought of that in years.'”
Can’t make it to St. Paul to see the exhibit?
Not to worry, you can purchase the companion book published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and written by Kate Roberts and senior curator Adam Scher.
Editor’s note: The General Mills Archives provided information and images for this post. You can learn more about our past on GeneralMills.com. Have a question about General Mills’ history? Send our Archives team an email.