With the rapid advancement of new technologies in the 1950s and the Space Race of the 1960s, the mid 20th-century represents a peak in Western culture’s fascination with outer space.
This era witnessed the rise of the space age aesthetic, Googie architecture, and a plethora of space-themed pop-culture artifacts such as TV shows, comic books, and toys. The human fascination with the cosmos is of course ancient, while our seemingly recent interest in traversing the Earth-Space boundary goes centuries back, and has waxed and waned over the decades.
From Jules Verne’s 1865 novel “From Earth to the Moon” to HG Wells’ 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds”, the nineteenth century saw the emergence of science fiction as a literary genre. These fanciful imaginings of space travel and extraterrestrial life planted the seeds that the 20th century sewed into a reality (though evidence of extraterrestrial microbial life has been controversial).
In the 1930s, Flash Gordon comics inspired some tin-liho space toys like ray guns and rocket ships, while the early 1950s brought a dramatic increase in the production and popularity of space-themed plastic toys. This increase was thanks in part to the advancements in injection molding technology of the ‘40s, and the success of a number of space TV shows such as “Captain Video” and “Space Patrol” in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
The first plastic space people were produced by Archer Plastics of New York circa 1952, which came in assorted metallic colors with removable clear helmets. Plastic toy expert Bill Hanlon states that these have “become the standard by which all other spacemen are judged.” Many other manufacturers such as Pyro Plastics Corp, Ideal Toy Corp, Lido and others followed suit, producing an array of fantastically detailed spacemen, aliens, spaceships, space cars, rockets, and ray guns. See the gallery below from the permanent collection and check out the limited quantity of Archer space people and other plastic space toys we have available in our online shop!
The mid ‘50 brought a taste for Westerns on TV and in comics, which dimmed the space toy craze and ushered in an appetite for six-shooters and cowboy toys – until the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 reignited the public’s interest in outer space.
Collectors Weekly. n.d. “Vintage and Antique Space Toys”. Accessed June 29, 2020.
Hanlon, Bill. 1993. “Chapter 12: Space Toys”. In Plastic Toys: Dimestore Dreams of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.
Thurkettle, Nicholas. Jan 7, 2015. “Cosmic Renaissance: Why Space Is Popular Again (Op-Ed)”. For Space.com. Accessed June 29, 2020. https://www.space.com/28191-why-space-is-popular-again.html
Written and photographed by Shauna Taylor