G.I. Joe is turning 50. The birthday of what’s called the world’s first action figure is being celebrated this month by collectors and the toy maker that introduced it just before the nation plunged into the quagmire that would become the Vietnam War – a storm it seems to have weathered pretty well.
Since Hasbro brought it to the world’s attention at the annual toy fair in New York City in early 1964, G.I. Joe has undergone many changes, some the result of shifts in public sentiment for military-themed toys, others dictated by the marketplace.
Still, whether it’s the original “movable fighting man” decked out in the uniforms of the four branches of the U.S. military, or today’s scaled-down products, G.I. Joe remains a popular brand.
“Most boys in the ‘60s had a father or a relative who was or had been in the military,” said Patricia Hogan, curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, home to the National Toy Hall of Fame. “Once you’ve bought Joe, you need to buy all the accessories and play sets and add-ons, which was great for business.”
G.I. Joe hit the shelves in time for the 1964 Christmas shopping season and soon became a big seller at $4 apiece.
It remained popular until the late 1960s, as opposition to Vietnam intensified and parents shied away from military-related toys. Hasbro countered in 1970 by introducing “Adventure Team” G.I. Joes that played down the military connection. Into the ‘70s, G.I. Joes featured “lifelike hair” and “kung-fu grip” and were outfitted with scuba gear to save the oceans and explorer’s clothing for discovering mummies.
Hasbro discontinued production later that decade. In the early 1980s, Hasbro shrank Joe to 3 3/4 inches, the same size as figures made popular by “Star Wars.” It has stuck to that size, with the occasional issue of larger special editions.
Over the decades, G.I. Joe has spawned comic books, cartoons, two movies starring Channing Tatum, and a G.I. Joe Collector’s Club and its annual convention – GIJoeCon – held in Dallas in April. G.I. Joe was elected into Toy Hall of Fame in 2004, six years after Barbie was enshrined.
Hasbro plans to hold events this year to celebrate his 50th birthday.