Perhaps there are no toys greater beloved or played with by children (and adults) than LEGO. Those famous LEGO bricks are a worldwide phenomenon. Or as this episode calls them: “Four glorious walls of pure plastic pleasure engineered to the highest precision.” But how did LEGO get started? The toys’ history had its share of up and downs, but as this episode tells it, the story of company’s rise from humble beginnings to the largest toy company in the world is one of perseverance and of sticking to a vision. This is The Toys That Made Us, of course, so there’s also going to be a lot of humor.
Perhaps it’s a cliché to say LEGO started from humble beginnings, but, in fact, it’s true. All you have to do is go to its world headquarters, located in the small town of Billund, Denmark, which is also where it all started. Today, there is not a single one of the town’s 6,1904 residents (as of 2014) who doesn’t have some kind of connection to LEGO, whether they work for the company today or have relatives who worked for the company in the past.
LEGO Wooden Collectibles?
The LEGO bricks were a creation of a local carpenter named Ole Kirk Kristiansen. He originally built houses – normal size houses, that is – until the Great Depression hit, and people weren’t buying houses anymore. So he became a toymaker, making small, toy-sized furniture. And he was quite good at it. He changed his company name from Billund Woodworking Factory to LEGO. How did he come up with that? He took the Danish phrase “leg godt,” which literally means “play well,” and squished the words together to make “LEGO.” As the episode points out, the mission of LEGO is literally in the company’s name.
Modern Art Toys
It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that he created the plastic bricks. They were first called Automatic Binding Bricks. Yes, not the snappiest of names. Thank goodness, that got changed. But there were a lot of plastic bricks out there, so the company went to the artwork of Dutch painter Mondrian for the color scheme, which certainly made them stand out. So did the creation of the LEGO tubes, patented in 1958. Once they came about, LEGO bricks didn’t just merely stack, like other ordinary blocks and bricks, they could now bind together, with “clutch power.” It was a true game changer.
The Rise and Almost Fall of LEGO
The rest of the episode offers a lot more fun and interesting facts about the rise (and almost fall) of the LEGO company. There’s the story of how the son of Ole Kirk Kristiansen had a random conversation with a key buyer from a Denmark department store while traveling on a ferry. It led to much wider distribution. There’s also how the LEGO System was introduced in 1955, a basic, simple system that the company still uses today (though the episode also chronicles how getting away from the LEGO system for a while almost led to the company’s bankruptcy).
And how about these interesting facts: Samsonite (that’s right, the company known for making luggage) was the first U.S. company to get the LEGO license. LEGO, at first, wasn’t that popular in the United States, even though they were popular in 42 countries by the end of the 1960s. Of course, that changed.
Did you know that the initial reason for building LEGO Land theme parks was to keep people from visiting the factories? Work had to get done, after all. It led to LEGO Land becoming the 2nd largest theme park corporation in the world. And here’s one of my favorite facts: there are 950,103,765 different combinations using the basic LEGO plastic bricks. I wonder who took the time to come up with that figure.
The New Type of LEGO
Other great bits of information include: In the midst of violent toy protests during the Vietnam War, LEGO pledged to stop the production of violent weapons made out of their bricks, and that has lasted – well, actually it lasted until this little movie franchise called Star Wars came along and they got the idea (and the license) to market Star Wars LEGO sets.
The show covers the down times too: the ending of LEGO patent, which led to other toy companies glutting the market with their own versions of the popular plastic bricks. The creation of video game systems like Play Station, Xbox, and Nintendo cut mightily into sales as well. There was the resentment within the company itself when it seemed like LEGO was getting away from what originally made it great. Yes, LEGO has made its share of mistakes. Does anybody remember the action figure, Jack Stone? LEGO probably prefers you didn’t.
By the end of the episode, however, we’re shown how LEGO weathered the down times by both thinking outside the brick while also getting back to basics to become the huge and popular toy company it is today. Some would say LEGO is not just a toy -it’s a movement among both children and adults. Contests are held, bringing children of all ages together from across the world. Today, there’s even a huge project being built in Billund; the entire history of LEGO being told in LEGO bricks. Amazing!
There’s a lot more to learn about LEGO, and you’ll find it in The Toys That Made Us Season 2, episode 3. Watch it. It’s a dazzler.