Toys of Yesterday: Playmobil
3:00 PM on 03.30.2011
Germany has brought us many wonderful things: the printing press, the theory of relativity, the autobahn and it's complete lack of speed limits (well, at least when I drive my imaginary Porsche 911 down it in my mind), Rammstein and pretzels. But most importantly, the Germans are responsible for a toy that many people around the world will very easily recognize: Playmobil.
But how did these little guys come to be? And how have they changed over the years? Toys of Yesterday does a bit of digging this month on Playmobil and how the whole series got started. Hit the jump and get schooled on these little plastic dudes.
[Playmobil factory in Zirndorf, Germany]
So, let's begin in the town of Zirndorf, located in northern Bavaria, Germany. Located in Zirndorf is the company Geobra Brandstätter (or the Brandstätter Group), originally founded under a different name in 1876 in the city of Fürth, Germany. The company was founded by a locksmith named Andreas Brandstätter to build locks and other metalworking items like ornamental fittings. Andreas' son Georg later took over the company, renaming it Metallwarenfabrik Georg Brandstätter, and moved the headquarters to its current home of Zirndorf in 1921.
By the 1930s, though, the company had moved on from its roots in making locks and was instead producing telephones, cash registers, and other items for toy shops out of sheet metal. It was also around this time that the company changed its name again to Geobra Brandstätter, but it wouldn't be until Georg's son Horst came aboard in 1954 that the first steps toward what would become Playmobil began.
As it turns out, Horst Brandstätter was a fan of plastics, and around this time, the hula hoop was the hot ticket. Attempting to seize upon this opportunity, Horst went to work on designing a machine that could mold soft plastic hoses into hoop shapes. Geobra Brandstätter would use these machines to mass-produce hula hoops and make quite a bit of money off them. When the hula hoop bubble burst, Horst was left with his machines, but seemingly no use for it. Undaunted, he decided to investigate further and figured out he could use a similar process to make plastic toys of any shape that a mold could be made from, which would be the route Geobra would take from that point forward.
But soon, problems exposed itself: the oil crisis of the 1970s and the competitive costs of producing items in third-world countries. With the prices of raw materials climbing rapidly, the company found itself producing smaller toy vehicles that came with tiny figures. These toys were designed under the Head of Development at Geobra and the man considered to be the "Father of Playmobil", Hans Beck. While the figures themselves weren't supposed to be the focal point, they soon became the focus of Beck's attention, and while he wasn't immediately sold on them, Horst Brandstätter continued to allow Beck to work on the figures.
For the next three years, Beck would work on his little figures, determining through research that simpler toys with fewer joints, but still with a good deal of poseability, were the way to go. When children would come over to visit, "I would put the little figures in their hands without saying anything about what they were," Beck said in a 1997 interview with the Christian Science Monitor. They accepted them right away.... They invented little scenarios for them. They never grew tired of playing with them."
Eventually, Beck's prototypes began to mix both the simple and complex: lacks of elbow and knee joints, as well as simple designs for the face and body, played to Beck's earlier ideas. However, as time wore on, the original Playmobil figures gained a key feature: they were made to be customizable, featuring interchangeable parts with other figures that let children to come up with possibilites limited only by their imagination and what they had in their collection itself.
As the 1970s wore on, the oil crisis got worse, and with Geobra needing to do more with the plastic they produced, Beck's tiny figures fit the bill. By February 1974, Playmobil was ready for its big debut at Europe's largest toy convention, the Nürnberg International Toy Fair. Unfortunately, few companies showed any interest, and only one — an independent Dutch distributor — made an order for a year's worth of figures. The toys quickly proved popular, and soon, Playmobil's doubters became some of its first buyers.
[1974 Construction Playmobil series]
The first Playmobil figures were released as part of three sets. The packaging and accessories were simple: they showed off what came with the set and were color-coded by what series they were part of. Blue packaging were construction series figures; green was knights series figures; and red was Indians series figures. Each figure had only four joints of articulation (neck, both shoulders and waist) while horses for the Indians and knights sets had a single joint in the neck so the head could move up and down. For the most part, figures were cast in a single color for their bodies, with the accessories that could be interchanged adding in detail. They were, in essence, everything Hans Beck had intended. A few years later, even more customization for kids was made available when Playmobil started shipping uncolored figures that kids could color in with markers however they chose.
[Playmobil Color pirates set (1978-1986)]
When it comes to how Playmobil’s changed throughout the years … there actually isn’t that much to talk about. The boxes changed, going from plain blue to featuring more dynamic backdrops, but the figures themselves really haven’t. The biggest changes were the addition of articulated wrists and the end of the uncolored figure lines, leaving just the pre-colored figures. Designs of some pieces, like the Citycar, have changed over the years as well as they were discontinued and later brought back, but the Playmobil people themselves maintain the same look and the same simple, limited poseability that’s made them popular for more than 35 years.
But where Playmobil has grown significantly has been in the number of different themed playsets they’ve released — including into areas Hans Beck never wanted them to go into, such as a jumbo jet and a submarine he said wouldn’t fit scale-wise. Over the years, the Playmobil line has gone from simple sets of pirates or construction workers to skiiers, operating rooms, classrooms and Victorian houses to full-scale Western, underwater exploration and dinosaur excavation series. If you can name it, then there’s probably been a Playmobil series released of it, even if it’s been long discontinued. And there's even a few, like Chinese railroad workers, that haven't been released for various reasons (in the railroad workers case, because it might have been seen as insensitive).
[Mandarake's impressive 2011 Playmobil display — image via Kaiju Korner. Yeah, that's ALL filled with Playmobil sets from throughout the years!]
Today, Geobra Brandstätter is Germany's largest toy manufacturer, in no doubt because of Playmobil, having 2010 sales of €559 million (approx. US$788 million). Even with the economic downturn in Europe and across many parts of the world, Playmobil sales saw growth in many countries and it remains quite popular. Of course, not all the news has been so grand: Playmobil's FunStore in Woodbridge, N.J., closed its doors in January, leaving the Playmobil FunPark in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., as the last company-owned store or park in the U.S. Hans Beck passed away in early 2009, just before the 35th anniversary of his creation. But Playmobil continues to live on as a toy not only of yesteryear, but probably of the future as well.
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