Look up and eastward from the old streets of downtown New York, look over the crimson banners of the auction houses on University Place, and you will see an ancient wall of brick jutting into the sky, throwing its shadow upon the roofs and chimney pots of Union Square. If the sun is bright or the neon lights in full flush, you can read on that expanse of grimy brick a faded legend: “F. A. O. Schwarz—Toys of All Kinds.” Painted in plain, white letters, the words create a nostalgic stir in the beholder, especially if he is a New Yorker who can recall grandfatherly tales of horses whinnying at stable doors in Washington Square, of grooms shouting in cobbled byways, and country carts bumping along with loads of aromatic hay. It is, indeed, an old, old sign, thickly brushed in the times when Santa Claus sometimes had an “e” at the end of his honored name. ... Ride fifty blocks uptown, and you will see that name set up again, neat and bright, in inch-high block letters of wood that occupy a one-foot length of the most valuable space on earth: a Fifth Avenue show window. The letters, gleaming white and blue amid the sawdust of a rodeo exhibit (with rocking horses at a hand gallop), repeat the name “F. A. O. Schwarz” and nothing more, nothing about toys. It’s no longer necessary for the Schwarz store to shout. This low Whisper will serve. Everybody knows it is the chief toy emporium of the world, unique because it is the biggest store that sells nothing but toys.
Keeping a 3-year-old girl away from Disney’s princesses is a lot like trying to get through January without hearing about the Super Bowl. Since Walt Disney lumped Sleeping Beauty, Belle, and its other poofy-dressed ladies together under the brand Disney Princess in 2000, the market for all things pink and sparkly has skyrocketed. Princess merchandise—dolls, clothing, games, home décor, toys—is a $5.5 billion enterprise and Disney’s second-most-profitable franchise, after Mickey Mouse. ... Disney doesn’t manufacture most of the Princess products. It licenses them to all sorts of companies: Glidden makes pink and purple wall paint, Stride Rite makes sparkly shoes. In toys, the most lucrative Disney Princess license is dolls. Specifically, 12-inch Barbie-esque figurines that girls can dress and undress until the dolls’ hairdos get tangled, they’ve lost their shoes, and it’s time to buy another. ... Mattel has worked with Disney since 1955, when it became the first sponsor for the Mickey Mouse Club, and it’s been the company’s go-to dollmaker since 1996. Last year, Mattel put the size of its Disney Princess doll business at $300 million, though analysts at Needham say it’s closer to $500 million. ... The princess business disappears on Jan. 1, when Disney packs up its glass slippers and takes them to Mattel’s biggest rival, Hasbro. ... Hasbro, meanwhile, has traditionally kept to the boys’ side of the toy aisle, with brands such as Nerf and Transformers. But it has big plans for the princesses.
The original deal held that Big Time would supply everything except the specially engineered critters — and the accompanying packets, which von Braunhut would manufacture and sell separately to Big Time, which would then bundle the full kits and handle the sales. Also in the contract was a second deal — to buy the company, including the secret formula. It allowed Big Time to pay a straight-up $5 million fee and then $5 million more in installments. Three winters ago, Big Time called up the widow and announced that it considered its previous payments for the packets to be a kind of layaway deal for the company and that, as far as Big Time was concerned, it now owned the Sea-Monkey franchise. ... Part of what made Sea-Monkeys successful was a scientific breakthrough Harold von Braunhut claimed he achieved in the early years. In 1960, after observing the success of Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm, von Braunhut first started shipping Instant Life — simple brine shrimp that could travel in their natural state of suspended animation. This was the era when a good idea with smart marketing was the dream: D.F. Duncan’s yo-yo, George Parker’s Monopoly game, Ruth Handler’s Barbie. Around the same time, the big-time toy company of the day, Wham-O, started selling a similar product called Instant Fish, which was an immediate dud.
Lego is an idea as much as it is a toy; if you try hard enough, you can fit the entire story of the last century of child’s play and the hopes and desires of every parent into one of its 9.6-millimeter-tall rectangular plastic bricks. Molded in a thermoplastic polymer, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, Legos are known for their durability, which is why you can pull out the 30-year-old Legos stashed in your parents’ basement and, dated color schemes aside, they’ll be the same as they ever were. Not only will they look the same, but they will fit together with every other one Lego has ever made, even those going back to 1949, when a Danish toy-maker named Ole Kirk Kristiansen made his first plastic brick. Lego calls it the System of Play, and it is both a manufacturing principle, allowing the company to reuse the same molds to make infinite new sets, and a play proposition: The more bricks you own, the more you can build. ... Like all 6,500 Lego elements — cubes, rectangles, octagons, wheel beds, arches, even the tiny semi-circular hands of yellow mini-figures — the standard brick has a variation of just 0.004 millimeters, which means Legos are more precisely crafted than your coffeemaker, your television, even your iPhone. ... By 2003, the company was on the brink of financial collapse, just three years after Fortune had named it “Toy of the Century.” ... In Lego lore, the crisis provoked a companywide soul search. And where the soul was located was in the brick. Henceforth, the brick would be the center of everything it did, toy trends be damned. ... play researchers argued that toys should foster more open-ended creativity and exploration — toys that forced the child to do the work, like Lego.
The boy whose teen and young-adult years were ripped from him by the murderous Nazi rampage through Europe would show millions of children and adults how to play, how to squeeze more fun out of their lives. ... Orenstein now speaks English with a borscht-thick European accent that’s just one notch above a whisper. He is still alive, still gambling and still winning most of his bets. Glancing out the window of his New York City pied-à-terre, which offers sweeping views of Central Park, he leans forward and rests his elbows on the large poker table in front of him. ... The story of how Henry Orenstein went from a small town in Poland, through five concentration camps, all the way to his 24th-floor apartment on one of Manhattan’s most expensive strips of real estate is the stuff of fiction, and science fiction. He bluffed and cajoled to survive the Holocaust, and just a few years later, armed with unrelenting drive and rare creativity, he tinkered and hustled his way to the top of America’s toy industry, helping to put dolls, race cars and one of the most successful action figures in history into the hands of generations of children. Then he transformed poker from a game played in dimly lit rooms to a billion-dollar business.