Culture  /  Origin Story

How G.I. Joe Jump-Started the Action Figure Craze

In the late 1970s, smaller 'Star Wars' action figures took over.

Action figures were originally toys that were ready for “action,” because they were more flexible than similar-sized dolls. Designed with multiple joints, G.I. Joe could wage war, Jane and Johnny West could ride their horses and Evel Knievel and Derry Daring could perform motorcycle stunts.

With the introduction of Star Wars action figures in 1978, these toys became smaller and less flexible. Today, action figures are still meant for action-oriented play, but they’re also something many people collect and display. Here’s how the popular toys have evolved (and shrunk) over time.

Hasbro Responded to Barbie With G.I. Joe

In 1959, the Mattel toy company introduced a new doll named Barbie. The 11.5-inch toy quickly became a hit among American girls, and Mattel capitalized on this popularity by marketing different types of Barbie dolls with interchangeable clothing and accessories.

Barbie was a toy that encouraged children to want more toys. Once kids had a Barbie, they wanted to buy her boyfriend Ken (introduced in 1961), her Dreamhouse (1962) and her little sister Skipper (1964)—not to mention more clothes for Barbie. Don Levine, vice president and director of marketing at the rival toy company Hasbro, was interested in developing a similar toy Hasbro could market to boys. He helped convince the company to buy inventor Stan Weston’s idea for a military doll. In 1964, Hasbro released that toy as G.I. Joe.

Drawing inspiration from wooden artists’ mannequins, Hasbro designed G.I. Joe with moveable joints, giving the toy 19 points of articulation. This made the nearly 12-inch toys a lot more flexible than Barbie. To distinguish G.I. Joe from dolls—which companies mostly marketed to girls—Hasbro marketed G.I. Joe to boys as an “action figure.”

The original G.I. Joe was a U.S. Army soldier, but Hasbro soon released more versions of the toy: a G.I. Joe Navy sailor, Air Force pilot, U.S. Marine and NASA astronaut, as well as a female “G.I. Nurse Action Girl.” In addition to these white action figures, Hasbro released a Black G.I. Joe Army soldier. Like Barbie, G.I. Joe had interchangeable clothes, weapons, vehicles and other accessories; and the purchase of one toy encouraged the purchase of more.

By 1966, G.I. Joe accounted for nearly two-thirds of Hasbro’s profits. However, as American support for the Vietnam War declined, so too did G.I. Joe’s popularity.

“Around that time, a lot of people were arguing that their kids should not be playing with war toys,” says Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, a curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.


Barbie and the History of American Childhood

In 1964, Hasbro sought to create a toy for boys that could compete with Mattel's Barbie. And so G.I. Joe was born, complete with moveable joints that made the military-themed doll readier for action than Barbie. G.I. Joe spurred a craze for action figure toys for boys and girls, notably "Star Wars"-themed action figures released alongside the movies in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, action figures include pop-culture based collectibles, which appeal to adults as well as children.