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A Brief History of 12" Action Figures & Dolls

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As any visitor to many museums will know, dolls and action figures of varying sizes have been around since the dawn of time. Straw dolls, rock carvings, wooden marionettes, to Victorian china dolls and tin soldiers have all been children playthings through the centuries. Whilst doing research for something different for the 1-6 World website, I was amazed to find out that the 12” or alternatively labelled sixth scale doll and action figure is only 60 years old!

 


1955 BILD LILLI DOLL


It all started in 1958 when a popular German cartoon character from the tabloid  Bild-Zeitung was created into a doll by designer Max Weissbrodt for the company  O&M Hausser. Lilli was initially available in two sizes a 12” version and a 7.5” version.  Like the cartoon, she had a stylised adult female body, with a childlike head. In the cartoon strip, Lilli was sassy and had no qualms about talking about sex. Because of this slightly naughty side to her, the original dolls were bought by business men and women and passed around offices as a fun, but naughty joke toy.

[1] She held three patents absolutely new in doll-making: The head was not connected to the neck, but ended at the chin, the hair was not rooted, but a cut-out scalp that was attached by a hidden metal screw; the legs did not sprawl open when she was sitting. The doll was made of plastic and had molded eyelashes, pale skin and a painted face with side glancing eyes, high narrow eyebrows and red lips. Her fingernails were painted red, too. She wore her hair in a ponytail with one curl kissing the forehead. Her shoes and earrings were molded on. Her limbs were attached inside by coated rubber bands. The cartoon Lilli was blonde, but a few of the dolls had other hair colours. Each Lilli doll carried a miniature Bild-Zeitung and was sold in a clear plastic tube.


1959 BARBIE


In 1956 whilst on a trip to Germany, American wife Ruth Handler came upon the Bild Lilli doll, and immediately recognised its attraction for girls, and its marketing potential. She suggested the idea to her husband Elliott, one of the co-founders of Mattel, but he was initially unimpressed. Upon her return to the states, she worked with engineer Jack Ryan to rework the doll, and by the beginning of 1959 a saleable product was ready to go on sale.
Barbie (Named after the Handler’s daughter Barbara) was debuted at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959 (the official date for Barbie’s birthday). Along with a clever television marketing campaign, which was a first for a toy, the success of Barbie was stratospheric. So much so, that in 1963, Mattel bought the rights to Bild Lilli, and production of that doll was ceased.


1964 G.I.JOE


With the success of the sales of Barbie, it was basically a guessing game as to who would get the first dolls for boys into the market. The general consensus  of the time – was that boys would not want a “doll”. It took the clever marketing team at Hasbro to coin the term we now take for granted, with the launch of the worlds first “Action Figures” under the brand name of G.I Joe TM. Ironically the patent was granted formerly till the following year.

 

 

 

 

1966 ACTION MAN


In 1966, Hasbro licensed the G.I.Joe patent to Palitoy in the UK, where the action figure was re-branded under the guise of Action Man. This was distributed throughout the UK and the commonwealth until 1988, when Hasbro re-claimed the brand collating everything under the G.I.Joe brand, due to a global acceptance and familiarity of the name G.I.Joe.


1974 HENSHIN CYBORG-1


Takara the Japanese company sublicensed by Palitoy to manufacture Action Man, developed their own action figure in the form of the Henshin Cyborg, which ultimately led to the line known as 3 ¾ “ line that would become Microman. Many of the 12” Henshin Cyborgs became poular, and a joint partnership to manufacture the line was agreed with Medicom.


1976 BIONIC MAN


The only other notable 12” action  figure of note during the 70’s was Mattel’s’ Bionic Man collection. Based on the hit TV show of the same name, the Steve Austin doll came with one eye that was a miniature convex lens – to simulate a 12th scale bionic eye, and latex skin that could be rolled up to reveal bionic parts. These ideas are still used in action figures to this day with the Anchorman 2 Ron Burgundy action figure (launched Christmas 2013) taking on the lenticular lens for an eye.


THE 1980’s


The 1980’s is by many considered the dark era of 12” action figures (Although Barbie thoroughly flourished under the glamour and glitz of the Reaganism era). Kenner had a modicum of success for the first three years with a Star Wars line. The latter half of the 80’s saw the emergence of the 6” action figure, and fine detailed work from the likes of Todd McFarlane Toys. The general consensus then was that it would be too expensive for a company to manufacture such finely carved detailed paint work in a 12” scale, and sell. The cost to manufacture a figure like that would cost lots in production, and have a direct impact on the customer, and thus deemed to expensive for the market.


THE 1990s


[2] In the early 1990s Hasbro began reproducing G.I. Joe in 1:6 scale again as a Classic Collection marketed towards adults. The shift in focus towards collectibility rather than marketing the figures as a toy invited competition, and soon other companies began to market detailed 1:6 figures toward adult consumers.
In 1997 21st Century Toys began producing 1:6 scale accessory and uniform sets representing equipment used in the Vietnam War and soon expanded their product line to include World War II, Law Enforcement, Emergency Services, and Modern Armed forces Accessories under the names "The Ultimate Soldier" (TUS) and "America's Finest" respectively. The company offered more detailed and historically accurate products than Hasbro. 21st Century further expanded their line to include vehicles and a "Villains" series. Through 2000–present rumors have persisted of a resurgence of the TUS line, however production, mostly of RC vehicles and "lower quality" figures have been inconsistent in both areas of release and numbers produced, and a shift in emphasis to smaller scales has caused a lull in production.
In 1999 Dragon Models Limited (DML) entered the 1:6 scale figure market; their figures were held in high esteem by collectors due to their both high quality and accurate products. Their main focus became World War II figures, but they have released figures from the Vietnam War, the Falklands WarKorean War, both the first and second Gulf Wars, and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. They have also released vehicles and crew-served heavy weapons in 1:6 scale.
Around 2001 Blue Box Toys (BBI) began producing modern era figures of the same quality as those manufactured by DML. These figures were notable for their die-cast accessories and quirky "Custom Expression Mechanism", by which facial expressions could be adjusted somewhat by turning a small screw in the back of the head, both of which were met with mixed results by collectors yet indisputably made headway in the evolution of accessory and headsculpt detail. BBI later produced WWII era figures as well, but the company has also recently shifted its focus to smaller scale figures.

2000 onwards – the birth of the serious collector


The success of collectors editions of old favourites, and the continued success of Ltd Edition war a political figures being offered by the likes of DiD, meant that companies could start to look at acquiring licenses and developing a brand identity of their own. The climbing retail costs to consumers did not seem to be a problem to the serious collector. Almost with a year of each other  two of the biggest players in the market today were launched and a fifteen year old company that had been working alongside special effect crews creating miniature sets, was about to acquire the rights to the biggest franchise of all time.
2002 saw Lucasfilm putting their 12” license for star wars out to tenure.  Although 15 years in production at the time, Sideshow Collectibles had produced some amazing sculpts and more realistic styled statues and dolls for the general market on a small TV and sporting licenses both for the home Asian market, and the international market.
Both Enterbay and Hot Toys have constantly strived to improve their techniques, but also develop and push the boundaries of what was once a relatively clumsy toy, into a work of art that mimics the human form in sixth scale form. Developing new bodies sculpts and articulation to new acrylics and plastics for the moldings. Experimenting with facial expressions, and developing and working with fabric manufacturers to create miniature fabric that behaves like 1:1 scale material.
In turn these companies have planted the seed of creation in many a fan who now cites “customisation” as a hobby, which in turn has led to the new breed of companies such as Big Chief Studios being born. It’s an exciting time to be a collector of sixth scale, and with the digital realm of eBay opening up the world stage for collectors, it really does feel like if you wish for a particular action hero or icon it – you can, with time and patience get what you are looking for.

[1] Wikipedia bild lilli  doll
[2] Wikipedia History of  modern 1:6 Miniaturist

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