Recently, I found myself obsessively watching documentaries about toy brands and the products that made them famous.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably just as curious about the story behind your favorite childhood playthings. So let’s all take a magical mystery tour of the best toy brands that ever existed!
19 Unforgettable Toy Brands and Their Most Iconic Products
1. American Girl
To begin with, let’s take a look at one of the most iconic toy brands on this side of the planet — American Girl. These dolls were the first and most iconic products of the Pleasant Company, which was founded by Pleasant Rowland, the creator of the first American Girl.
Since that first doll hit the market in 1986, dozens of other designs have followed suit. The original idea was that the dolls were supposed to look like 10-year-old girls of different ethnicities, faiths, and classes.
Eventually, the company released a follow-up line of Truly Me dolls, which had different features, skin tones, and hair textures. Since 2017, it has even introduced a Create Your Own service that allows customers to specify the features and clothing of their doll.
Now, I debated whether I should give the American Girl brand a spot on my list for a long while. After all, the Pleasant Company has been a Mattel property for more than twenty years now. But by the time I get to Mattel, you’ll see why it was necessary to look at some of its brands separately from their parent company.
If you’re a big fan of the American Girl brand, you probably don’t know much about Aoshima. The two companies have vastly different core demographics — one being a doll manufacturer and the other a huge player in the model car market.
The latter is actually a bit of a conglomerate since it also owns Miracle House, DISM, and Funny Knights brands.
When Jiro Aoshima founded the company in 1924, it was just an airplane research institute. Eventually, though, he decided to turn the company toward model plane manufacturing. Today, Aoshima produces realistic car, aircraft, and ship models, mecha toys, and even figures.
3. Baby Einstein
If you were born in the late ’90s or early aughts, you’re probably familiar with Baby Einstein. Over twenty years ago, the company started releasing books, flashcards, and direct-to-video programs for infants and toddlers. However, it quickly transitioned to making educational toys as well, such as animals and toys that played classical music.
The company was an independent toy manufacturer from its founding in 1996 to 2000, when the Walt Disney Company purchased it. In 2013, the brand was handed off to Kids II Inc., which continues to produce some Disney properties as well.
Back in the day, Baby Einstein products were the go-to birthday gifts for infants and toddlers. But the company’s newest play gyms, mats, and musical toys make it wildly popular to this day.
Bandai is another world-renowned toy company with a Japanese headquarters. Back in 2008, it was one of the most popular toy brands on the planet — right after Mattel and Hasbro. Aside from toys, the company also makes figurines, prize machines, and video games.
Bandai has been thriving pretty much since its founding in the late ’40s and early ’50s. However, several breakout hits in the ’80s earned them worldwide acclaim. After purchasing properties like Ultraman and Gundam and even helping create the Power Rangers series, it became the top toy manufacturer in Japan.
More of the company’s original brands include Digimon, Pac-Man, and Tamagotchi. It also currently owns the licenses for Big Hero 6, Naruto, One Piece, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Sailor Moon, to name a few.
The Fisher-Price company is one of the most famous toy brands on the planet. About ninety years ago, the brand was founded upon the values of creativity, solid construction, and good value for the money. Since then, it’s made about five thousand unique toys, though its most famous products are Little People figures.
Like many other companies over the years, it has since gone through a few acquisitions before landing in Mattel’s lap. Still, it seems to have free rein to make products that uniquely represent its brand.
In addition to the Little People line, the company also made Rescue Heroes, Chatter Telephone, Rock-a-Stack, and other toys. Over the years, Fisher-Price has also owned the rights to Thomas & Friends, Bob the Builder, Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street, and some Disney characters.
Ganz is a Canadian toy company best-known for making plush animals and collectibles. It has existed since 1950, but it became globally famous in 2005, following the success of Webkinz.
The products in the line of plushies all come with a secret code that grants kids access to a virtual world online. Since 2005, they have gained value and become true collectibles in their own right. But, of course, the company also makes scores of other animal plushies and novelty accessories.
7. Good Smile Company
Good Smile Company is one of the most recent additions to this list of iconic toy brands, but it has undoubtedly earned its spot on it. When it was founded in 2001, it was an event and talent management company. Within the next year, it had shifted its focus to hobby-related products, like anime statues and toys, launching its first figure in 2004.
In the years since, the brand has produced toy and figurine lines for dozens of anime shows. It currently owns the rights to fantastic properties like the recent hit anime One Punch Man. However, the brand’s most popular line of products is the Nendoroid series of ABS chibi figures.
In the world of toy manufacturing, there are only two heavyweights at this point — Hasbro happens to be one of them. The company owns some of the most iconic toy brands of the past several decades, including Nerf, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Twister, Play-Doh, Playskool, My Little Pony, FurReal, Littlest Pet Shop, and more.
The company was the brainchild of three Polish-Jewish brothers — the Hassenfeld brothers. When they founded it in 1923, their aim was to be in the textile business. However, over the next few decades, they started producing school supplies and toys. In 1942, they created their first modeling clay and doctor and nurse kits and never looked back.
Ten years later, the company had its first real hit upon releasing Mr. Potato Head toys. The success led to the beginning of a long collaboration with the Walt Disney Company, which continues to this day. Several years ago, Disney decided to let Hasbro have some of its most important properties, starting with Star Wars and the Descendants series. More recently, that led to Hasbro basically stealing the Disney Princess license from Mattel.
Similarly to Aoshima, Hasegawa is a Japanese toy company that primarily makes plastic model kits of cars, aircraft, and ships. The brand also produces various science fiction model kits, like spaceships, and even historical recreations of armor. Ultimately, these toys allow users to participate in the toy creation process.
Hasegawa also has an extensive business history. The brand has been around since 1941 when it primarily produced wooden educational toys and woodworking models. By 1961, Hasegawa began producing plastic airplane models and never looked back. Now, it makes small versions of real vehicles in different sizes.
10. Hornby Railways
On a similar note as the previous toy company, Hornby Railways products encourage their users to set up unique mini railway tracks. This British company has been around since 1901 as Hornby Hobbies. Even though Hornby Hobbies launched its first clockwork train in 1920, its name didn’t change until the ’80s. By that point, it had become clear that the company would remain focused on producing train models. Pro tip: To calculate the scale of these model trains, use a scale converter.
Hornby Railways now owns several toy brands, including Lima, Jouef, Arnold, and Rivarossi. Even though their toys are high-quality products, only a handful of die-hard fans and collectors buy them. Because of that, Hornby Railways was recently acquired by Phoenix Asset Management, under which it continues to operate.
Like the previous few companies on this list, K’NEX relies on the users’ innate creativity, which is ample in its target demographic. It primarily sells model sets and educational toys for kids between the ages of five and twelve. Their products usually contain various parts like bricks, connectors, and rods that can come together to form different shapes.
After its founding in 1992, the brand operated independently until a few years ago. At that point, it was sold to the Basic Fun brand. Since K’NEX didn’t have any licensing deals for the longest time, it’s a miracle it lasted as long as it did.
The company only started to branch out in that way in 2001, even making a line of Sesame Street sets in 2008. More recently, it released lines for Angry Birds, KISS, and the Beatles brands, among others.
Between retail stores, theme parks, and wildly successful movies, one thing is certain: the Lego brand is quite overpowering. And it should be — it’s been around since 1934!
Most construction toy brands on this list started out by producing wooden toys, and Lego is no different. But the company quickly shifted focus to plastic bricks. By 1950, Lego had settled on the classic Lego brick shape that remains largely unchanged to this day. But that’s not to say that the company didn’t come up with other new products in the meantime.
In 1969, Lego introduced Duplo, bricks that were twice as large as the standard Legos. Ten years later, we had the first Lego figures that now come with almost every set. And there are plenty of sets to choose from as Lego owns rights to an increasingly long list of characters. In addition to Disney, Star Wars, Marvel, and DC Comics characters, it also owns Fantastic Beasts, Jurassic World, Minecraft, and Stranger Things licenses, among others.
13. Mega Bloks
Meet Lego’s chunkier, younger cousin — Mega Bloks. The Canadian company we now know as Mega Bloks actually started as Ritvik Holdings back in 1967. Let’s be honest — the company’s owners definitely wanted to make a large, toddler-friendly version of the already-popular Legos. And even though Lego unsuccessfully sued Ritvik, Mega Bloks continued to gain popularity.
Throughout the late ’90s, the company made licensing deals with Teletubbies, Sesame Street, and even NASCAR. Eventually, management decided to change the name of the company to Mega Bloks due to the popularity of its primary product. Since 2014, the brand has thrived under supervision from its new parent-company — Mattel.
14. MGA Entertainment
I’ll be honest, when I started looking for the most iconic toy brands on the market, I really only wanted to include some of my favorite toys of the past few decades. The Bratz fashion doll line was definitely on that list. That is why I had to tip my hat to MGA Entertainment.
In comparison to some of the other giants on this list, MGA is relatively new, having been founded in 1979. But while Bratz may be its most memorable product to date, it’s not the only line MGA owns. If you’re well-informed about the newest toy trends, you may also recognize L.O.L. Surprise and Poopsie Slime Surprise dolls. Even the Little Tikes brand falls under the MGA umbrella.
Now, here’s the other heavyweight I’ve been talking about — a company that seems to be buying up all other brands on this list — Mattel. Surprisingly, many people only think of it as the manufacturer behind the Barbie line. But let’s see what else the company has going for it!
I’ve already mentioned that Mattel owns American Girl, Mega Bloks, and some other companies on this list. But did you know it also makes Monster High, Ever After High, and Polly Pocket dolls? On top of that, it owns the rights to Hot Wheels, Ghostbusters, WWE, and Masters of the Universe. Lastly, the company also produces classics like Pictionary and Minecraft, as well as some Disney and DC Comics merchandise.
Even listing all those properties was enough to give me vertigo. Still, there’s a reason Barbie is still such an important weapon in the company’s arsenal. Even though she’s had her fair share of image issues, she seems to be capable of real growth.
Just a few years ago, Barbie got three new body types — tall, petite, and even curvy. More recently, Mattel announced that they were making a line of non-binary dolls. It’s enough to make you wonder what the company’s next move will be.
If you thought that Nintendo was just a video game company, you’re about to have your mind blown. While the company does sell — or rather lease — some of its characters’ toy manufacturing licenses, it also keeps some of them for in-house production.
Obviously, Nintendo is renowned for making some of the best video games of all time. Mario, the Legend of Zelda, and Pokémon were all their creations. But the brand didn’t start out that way — after all, the original Nintendo game was a card game they sold in 1889.
It took the company almost eighty years to dip its toes into the world of toy manufacturing again. After having successful product launches for the Ultra Hand, Ultra Machine, and Love Tester, it started producing video game merchandise. But, by and large, the company still mostly sticks to the video game production lane.
17. Radio Flyer
Do you know that the classic image of a child dragging a little red wagon around the neighborhood? Well, the Radio Flyer company is behind all such sightings. Those little toy wagons were the very first products the company released, back in 1917.
Since then, Radio Flyer has been slowly but surely expanding its range with scooters, tricycles, bicycles, and other vehicle toys. Now, the company even has a little Tesla car in its lineup!
Sanrio is another one of those hugely successful Japanese toy brands most people have never heard of. But I bet they’d know its most famous product — Hello Kitty!
Back in the ’60s, the company made floral print silks and sandals under the name Yamanashi Silk Company. Thirteen years later, the brand got a name change that closely coincided with the release of their first characters. And that first lineup in 1974 also gave us the now-familiar face of Hello Kitty.
In the Hello Kitty canon, though, the kitten is nowhere near forty years old. She’s not even Japanese! She’s actually a British third-grader — I know, who would have thought? What’s more, her world is ever-expanding, thanks to the many comics, cartoons, and movies about her.
Over the years, we’ve all seen our fair share of Hello Kitty merchandise. But that’s hardly the only success Sanrio has produced. The company and its characters are largely responsible for the popularization of kawaii culture in Japan and across the world.
Interestingly, though, their more recent original characters like Gudetama, the lazy egg, are much more cynical while still retaining that characteristic, adorable look. So if I had to guess, I’d say that the company was veering toward the more absurd side of the toy manufacturing business.
VTech is a unique addition to our list because its focus has always been to provide educational electronic products to infants and kids. The Chinese company has been around since 1976, though it only became VTech Holdings Ltd. in 1991.
After developing video games and consoles for about ten years, the company turned its focus to electronic learning products. It started making spelling and math aids during the ’80s and has continued on that path, merging technology and education.
In 2016, the company purchased another brand you might be familiar with — LeapFrog. Since these two toy brands had relatively similar product lineups, the move made sense. However, LeapFrog still exists and functions independently, releasing video game consoles, tablets, apps, and even activity trackers for kids.
How These Toy Brands Point the Way Toward a More Whimsical Future
If there’s one thing we could all learn from the toy brands on this list, it’s that we must evolve in order to thrive. Ultimately, if we keep pushing boundaries and expanding our minds, we can all become just as unforgettable as the companies we’ve just mentioned!