And why they aren’t popular anymore

During the 1960s and ‘70s, young girls played with Barbie dolls and little boys played with G.I. Joe action figures. The first action figure ever invented, G.I. Joes were a pop culture phenomenon and served as a role model for young boys.

Invented by Hasbro, the action figures represented the U.S. military and had 21 moving parts. The toys also had a wide variety of vehicles, equipment, and accessories for children to make up their own adventures. G.I. Joe toys quickly became a smash hit, but why hasn’t the legacy lasted? What happened to G.I. Joe?

The need for a boy ‘doll’

In the early 1960s, boys didn’t play with dolls. Barbies were for girls, even her male companion, Ken. In 1962, inventor Stan Weston pitched a 12-inch military action figure to Hasbro, but CEO Merrill Hassenfeld immediately rejected the proposal. Dolls were for Mattel, not Hasbro, who primarily made Mr. Potato Head toys and other small toys.

Head of research and development, Don Levine returned to the idea once he studied various models. He was impressed with the toys and convinced Hassenfeld to give them (and Weston) a chance. Hasbro offered Weston a flat buyout of $100,000, which Weston agreed on, and Levin assumed ownership of the future iconic toy.

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G.I. Joe, named after the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe was released in 1964, and Hasbro created characters for the four different branches of the U.S. military. Each action figure had different outfits, and equipment was sold separately. It didn’t take long for the toy to become a massive hit.

Everyone’s favorite action figure

During its first year, millions of G.I. Joes were sold to boys who finally had a fun toy they could play with. The action figure’s popularity grew, and boys loved the toy that allowed them to go on whatever adventures they wanted.

“It’s hard for me to imagine anything that would have had more of an impact on 20th-century toy design,” said Pennsylvania State University professor of children’s history Gary Cross. He was on the committee that inducted G.I. Joe into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2004.

But Cross had one request: don’t call G.I. Joes “dolls.” They were action figures, and the toy’s popularity built the foundation for Hasbro’s success. Known as “America’s Movable Fighting Man” and a real American hero, G.I. Joe is iconic. However, its popularity eventually declined by the mid-1970s.

Goodbye, Joe

G.I. Joe remained successful until America became heavily involved in the Vietnam War. Suddenly, parents were wary of allowing their sons to play with military toys. To stay on the market, Hasbro remarketed G.I. Joe as an adventurer, not a military action figure. He went on missions to rescue the environment and to create peace at home, not in a war.

Does that sound like the same G.I. Joe we have come to know and love?

The rebranding didn’t work. G.I. Joe’s popularity tanked (pun intended), and he was retired in 1978. In the early ‘80s, however, he was brought back to the market as a world traveler. He had a “Kung-Fu Grip,” which allowed him to swing from trees and act like a real-life ninja. Instead of combatting wars, he was fighting wild animals.

In the early ‘90s, Hasbro restored G.I. Joe to his original size and started selling collectibles. Occasionally, new versions of the iconic toy are released, with the most recent line honoring the 50th anniversary of the action figure ending in 2016. The toy is now a rare item and is often worth thousands of dollars in online auctions.

G.I. Joe may not be as popular today, but no one has really forgotten about him. No one could ever forget about the world’s first action figure. We’ll keep fighting for you, Joe.

A deeper dive – Related reading from the 101:

Toys have changed a lot over the years. Learn about Mattel’s new line of gender-neutral dolls that inspire inclusivity and diversity for children.

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