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  • The Fascinating History of GI Joe

    March 21, 2022 5 min read

    If the original "Joe" is played by the All-American Hero, Bruce Willis, who is over 50 years old. In reality, the nearly 50-year-old G.I. Joe was an 11 1/2-inch-tall plastic action figure produced by the Hassenfeld Brothers, former pencil makers who became known simply as "Hasbro." The Hassenfeld Brothers – Henry, Hilal, and Herman – expanded their textile and school supply business to include toys in the late 1930s. The move was profitable, and by 1960, they had grown to become one of America's largest toy companies (largely thanks to the success of Mr. Potato Head). The release of G.I. Joe, the world's first action figure, was Hasbro's biggest hit in 1964 and it changed the toy industry forever.


    GI Joe Patent

    U.S. Patent 3,277,602 for a “toy figure having movable joints” aka the original G.I. Joe. Issued on October 11, 1966 (image: Google Patents)


    Don Levine, Hasbro's Vice President and Director of Marketing and Development, created the original prototype figure. Levine was fascinated with the "razor-razor blade" model that helped Mattel's Barbie become so popular amongst little girls, and he was determined to create a similar toy for boys. Today, we might call it the "printer-print cartridge" model, with the idea that the initial toy/razor/printer is just a ploy to get customers to buy more accessories. Levine had a moment of clarity while walking by an art store one day and noticed a wooden artists mannequin in a window display.

    He Said in an interview:

    Suddenly it occurred to me that we could create something truly magnificent if there was a way to produce figures that moved and posed any which way the human body did. Tin and plastic soldiers have been favorites of children as long as there have been toys; it seemed to me that this fully articulated man could be a giant step forward. From that point on, it was a matter of conveying this vision to my staff at Hasbro.

    When the figure first appeared on the market in 1964, it was an instant success. G.I. Joe accounted for nearly 66 percent of Hasbro's profits within two years. The 19 points of articulation and high-quality assembly were the main factors driving its popularity. The Hassenfeld Brothers aimed to create a "toy figure or doll with movable joints that closely simulate the movable portions of the human anatomy," according to their patent. That was most likely the first and only time the figure was referred to as a doll. The term was strictly forbidden by the company, and they refused to sell their action figure to any retailer who used it. The patented designs also prioritised safety, durability, and low-cost manufacturing.

    From left to right: a wooden artist’s mannequin, the G.I. Joe design, and the final product. 
    Hasbro produced four figures at the same time to represent the four branches of America's armed forces: Rocky the Movable Fighting Man represented the Army, Skip represented the Navy, Ace Fighter Pilot was clearly a proud member of the Air Force, and Rocky, apparently serving double duty, was also a Marine. Each figure came with basic fatigues, boots, a cap, and a dog tag, with images of other uniforms and accessories enticing children. The name "G.I Joe" was coined to encompass the entire brand. The name "G.I. Joe" was inspired by the 1945 film The Story of G.I. JOE, which was about war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Levine recalls that the name was ideal because "'Government Issue Joe' was a real everyman title.
    The success of Hasbro's first action figures spawned imitators. The human figure's inability to be trademarked or copyrighted posed a problem for a company hoping to own the exclusive rights to a popular toy. Fortunately for Hasbro, fate intervened, and early production flaws resulted in the first G.I. Joes having a facial scar and an inverted thumbnail. These design flaws became the distinguishing characteristics of the genuine Hasbro G.I. Joe and aided Hasbro in pursuing cases of infringement.

    However, G.I. has long been used as a cultural indicator. And, as tensions rose during the Vietnam war and public opinion turned against all things military, G.I. Joe was discontinued to manufacture for a time in the late 1960s.
    The toys was reintroduced in the 1970s, near the end of American involvement in Vietnam, it had a macho new beard and an intimidating "Kung-fu grip" – and it were given a new origin story of the original All American Hero completing years of training at a secret temple deep in the Himalayas. The toys were actually redesigned and renamed to be less militaristic and more adventure-oriented – "adventurer" replaced the solider, "aquanaut" replaced the naval officer, and so on. Despite the changes, their re-enlistment may have come too soon, as Hasbro discontinued production of the G.I. Joe line in 1978.
    Bearded G.I. Joe with Kung-fu grip. U.S. Patent 3,988,855 (image: Google Patents)
    As the political climate in the United States changed in the 1980s, and military toys became more popular, the G.I. Joe line was relaunched with dramatically redesigned action figures that stood only 3 3/4 inches tall. The new size was inspired by the success of recent Star Wars figures. Whereas the original Joes were generic representations of the American military, these later versions were highly specialised anti-terrorist commandos with their own exotic code names, elaborate back stories, and distinct personalities, created with the assistance of Marvel Comics.
    For the first time, G.I. Joe faced a specific foe: the international terrorist organisation COBRA. In 1983, a cartoon series was launched alongside the new figures as part of a clever marketing campaign. The cartoon was made possible by government deregulation during President Reagan's administration, which resulted in new rules for children's television programming. "G.I. Joe: An American Hero" was one of the first cartoons to benefit from the FCC's new rules, which allowed it to air war themed cartoons with toy products as the main characters. 
    The first issued Cobra Commander 3.75″ figure (image: Yo Joe)
    The strategy was successful. The National Coalition on Television Violence reported a 350% increase in the sale of war toys between 1982 and 1985, no doubt due to G.I. Joe's cross-platform success.

    According to Levine, "G.I. Joe is a universal archetype of good." It's also a barometer of American culture. A heroic African-American Joe was introduced during the Civil Rights Movement. As the space programme grew in popularity, an astronaut was introduced. And, of course, when flamboyant terrorist organisations began cloning ancient world leaders and creating mindless android soldiers in the 1980s, those were introduced as well.
    G.I. Joe figures have been on store shelves in some form or another since the 1982 relaunch. When asked about the durability of G.I. Joes, Levine stated that they are "a very empowering toy for kids." A child has a character that he or she can use to guide through whatever adventure comes up on that particular day. The capable of exploring all manner of heroic and exciting possibilities, such as deep sea diving, astronaut, or jet pilot. That kind of fantasy is something that every generation enjoys. His views on the importance of "make believe" are true even today. When G.I. Joes became more specific in the 1980s, and children don't like being told how to play and High-profile movies may limit the possibilities of children playing with toys has impacted it even further. 
    But popularity amongst a nostalgic generation who grew up with these toy soldiers are ensuring that G.I. Joe will continue to fight for freedom wherever there is trouble and introducing their offsprings to the toys that changed the world forever.
    If you read this far you are surely a massive fan. Check out our Official GI Joe Collection here.