To a child, the world can be a small place. It’s hidden inside a tree fort, confined to a cul-de-sac, secreted away in bedtime stories. This smallness is the reason why children play. Not because it’s logical, not for the respect of their peers, and certainly not in the hopes of one day climbing any corporate ladders. They play to expand their universe, to imagine and travel to places in their minds that their bodies (or parents) might not allow them to visit in the great world beyond. This play instinct is primal and fundamental to our sense of discovery, exploration, and vision. Most important, it doesn’t require a reason to exist.
“Logic will get you from A to B,” Albert Einstein once remarked. “Imagination will take you everywhere.” It was certainly a deep well of childlike imagination, not logic, that inspired Elliot and Ruth Handler—an art school dropout and his entrepreneurial-minded stenographer wife, both children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants—to see beyond their combined $38 per week earnings in 1938 (a third of which came from unemployment benefits) to launch what would become the most successful toy company in history. In fact, despite having no savings and very little income, these scrappy twentysomethings took out lines of credit and opened a series of garage studios, all while growing their family, to meet their destiny as the world’s ne plus ultra purveyors of play.
Seven decades after the Handlers made their fateful leap, Mattel is still at the pinnacle of the toy world. They rose to the top by continually engineering high-quality toys and games that fostered a unique emotional connection and, in Elliot’s words, “sustained appeal” that has delivered joy and wonderment to generations of children around the globe. By inventing a galaxy of icons such as Barbie and Chatty Cathy dolls, He-Man action figures, Hot Wheels and Creepy Crawlers, See ’n Say and Uno, Mattel inspired an entire industry. The company pioneered licensing deals with the likes of Disney, Harry Potter, Max Steel, Thomas & Friends, and NASCAR, while acquiring—and expanding—the world’s top brands, including Fisher-Price, American Girl, and Tyco, along the way.
But Mattel has always been much more than a toy company; it is a creative laboratory fostering elementary and higher education, craft and fine artistry, as well as local and world community building. It is not afraid of unorthodox ideas and unpopular opinions. It takes calculated risks, yet always honors the big gamble over the safe bet. And it has never been afraid to go for broke. In fact, as Elliot told the Saturday Evening Post in 1952, “We’ve been broke many times, so we take a chance on any toy that we think will catch the grown-ups, because we know if grown-ups like it, they’ll buy it for the kids.” At the heart of the Mattel story are kids—and kids at heart—who through their play are forever growing, just never aging.
Courtesy of Assouline