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G.I. Joe: History Of The 12-Inch Action Soldier Toy

Fads | December 13, 2020

Mid-'60s lineup of G.I. Joe action figures. Image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood: vam.ac.uk/moc

Hasbro’s revolutionary action figure G.I. Joe changed the toy market forever when it was released in the mid-1960s. During a time when dolls were only acceptable for little girls, the masculine, military-themed G.I. Joe helped young boys express their wide imaginations and thirst for adventure. G.I. Joe was constantly evolving as Hasbro redesigned the toy multiple times to adjust for the changing times. Considered by some to be the most popular toy of the 20th century, G.I. Joe’s reputation continues to grow as two recent live-action films, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), were even based upon the toy.

G.I. Joe Was Partly Inspired By Mannequins

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The iconic Barbie doll, released by Mattel in 1959, was a blockbuster toy, becoming ubiquitous on the shelves of little girls’ bedrooms in the early ‘60s. But no toy figures really existed yet for young boys. Barbie, while modeled on an adult woman, was still a "doll" -- and boys didn't play with dolls. Inventor Stan Weston brought an idea for the G.I. Joe toy to Hasbro, but was initially rejected by CEO Merrill Hassenfeld. Creative director Don Levine was intrigued, though and while Hassenfeld was away, he created his own models of Weston’s proposed characters. Levine was heavily inspired after noticing a mannequin in a window display which gave him the pioneering idea of movable limbs for the toy. When Levine revealed his work to Hassenfeld, the CEO was sold and Weston was paid a fortune for his idea.

Hasbro Invented The Term 'Action Figure'

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G.I. Joes were released by Hasbro on February 2, 1964 using the description “action figures” since boys weren’t supposed to play with dolls. Hasbro went so far as to ban the term “doll” and refused to sell the toy to any store that referred to the figure as a doll. The marketing of an “action figure” proved to be genius and led the G.I. Joe to become a massive success, accounting for 66% of Hasbro’s profits that year. The realistic flexible joints and the interchangeable accessories and outfits (inspired by Barbie) along with its durability and safety appealed to children everywhere. Kids also loved the versatility, which even allowed the heads to be switched onto the bodies of other G.I. Joe dolls.

G.I. Joes Were Originally Based On The Branches Of The U.S. Military

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The original release of G.I. characterized the four different branches of the U.S. military. There was Rocky The Movable Fighting Man representing the Army, Skip of The Navy, Ace Fighter Pilot flying in the Air Force, and Rocky showing up again to fight in the Marines this time. Each figure was dressed in boots, the uniform of his division, a hat, and a dog tag. The name G.I. Joe was derived from the 1945 war film The Story of G.I. Joe as the “Government-Issued Joe” symbolized an “average Joe” fighter in the U.S. army. The toy was so successful that many imitators tried to produce and sell their own copy-cat versions. Fortunately, a production error led to a subtle face scar and an upside-down thumbnail which proved the authentication of the Hasbro Joes.

G.I. Joe Adapted To The Counterculture Movement

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Timing was an issue for G.I. Joe -- though the toy was a roaring success, American public opinion was turning against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. The human toll of war, measured in the deaths of young Americans and Vietnamese citizens, was on TV and in the newspapers every day. For Hasbro, the writing was on the wall -- it would be increasingly challenging to market a toy that was so explicitly tied to the U.S. military and its association with violence and death.

To allow for the new anti-war attitudes of the public -- potential purchasers of a product -- Hasbro redesigned the entire culture of G.I. Joe, putting the focus on "adventure" instead of fighting. Along with an ambition of peaceful action and world travelling, G.I. Joe’s appearance changed as well. Complete with lifelike hair, an outdoorsman-style beard, and a Kung fu grip, Joe’s story was that he had spent the past few years training at a secret temple in the Himalayas. This new concept of G.I. Joe, released in 1970, was now called “Adventure Team” and other new figures soon joined the squad. Capitalizing on the success of the hit series Six Million Dollar Man, Hasbro’s own bionic G.I. Joe was created with the name Atomic Man. Bullet Man, Eagle Eye Joe, and their enemies joined the ranks as well. 

However, America didn’t seem ready for the “new-and-improved” action figures as their sales weren’t nearly as high as the original military Joes. By 1978, the cost of plastic rose heavily due to the oil crisis, and thus production of G.I. Joe came to an end. A smaller 3-inch version was launched in the ‘80s, but could never match the success of the iconic 12-inch Joe.

G.I. Joe In The '80s: Back And Smaller Than Ever

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The G.I. Joe brand didn't die with the discontinuation of the 12-inch figures in the late '70s -- it just went dormant, and not for long. In 1982, Hasbro released a figure line branded G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. These figures were 3.75 inches tall, generally the same scale as Kenner's massively successful line of Star Wars action figures. The 1982 G.I. Joe idea was that of a military super-team of good guys against a formidable team of bad guys, called Cobra. This readymade good-vs.-evil setup again allowed for military play and adventures divorced from whatever the U.S. military might actually be doing. The 3.75-inch line was hugely successful, spawning numerous Marvel comic books and an animated TV series.

In 1996, the 12-inch G.I. Joe figure returned with Hasbro's G.I. Joe Classic Collection, which drew inspiration from the original '60s figures, which were by then highly valued collectors' items. The revived 12-inch line has featured new characters to reflect the changing times or recognize achievements -- including a G.I. Jane helicopter pilot in the ‘90s, and a WWII-era Navajo Code Talker in the new millennium.

G.I. Joe Adapted To The Counterculture Movement

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G.I. Joe had a massive impact on how toys could be used by children. The action figure was a symbol of American culture with its emphasis on heroism, adventure, and the fight between good vs. evil. As American culture evolved, Joe followed. An African-American figure was released during the Civil Rights Movement, and an astronaut during the space race. With G.I. Joe kids now had the power to bring their imaginations to life and create their own adventures through feeling like their own superhero. Before the action figure, toy companies tended to release new products every year completely disregarding their previous toys. Hasbro changed the nature of toys as they invented a model whose legacy has lasted for decades.

Tags: G.I. Joe | Toys Of The 1960s | Toys Of The 1970s | Toys Of The 1980s

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.