G.I. Joe - 1960s
In the 1960s he was a soldier - "America's movable fighting man". In the 1970s he was an adventurer with "life-like hair" and a kung-fu grip. In the 1980s he was re-imagined as part of a military strike force, defending the free world from the terrorist group known as Cobra.
He is G.I. Joe, the action figure first introduced by Hasbro in 1964. He's seen a great many changes over the years, and today, almost 50 years after his creation, G.I. Joe is still going strong. In the 2012 movie G.I. Joe: Retaliation, he's a big-screen action hero played by Bruce Willis. But let's go back to where it all began, and take a look at G.I. Joe in the 1960s.
1964 G.I. Joe TV commercial
The Original Action Figure
In 1959, Mattel released a new doll: a "teenage fashion model" named Barbie. Mattel sold more than 300,000 Barbie dolls that year. The beauty of the concept (for Mattel) is that every Barbie sold resulted in numerous follow-on sales, as girls would want to have additional outfits and accessories for dressing up their dolls.
G.I. Joe was an attempt by the Hasbro Toy Company to recreate the Barbie phenomenon with boys. Conventional wisdom at the time was that boys didn't play with dolls, so Hasbro coined a new term to describe G.I. Joe. He was no doll, he was an "action figure"!
America's Movable Fighting Man
In 1964, Hasbro released 4 different G.I. Joe models, one for each branch of the US military. The figure was 11 1/2 inches tall, the same size that had been so successful with Barbie. The G.I. Joe figure had more points of articulation, however. The neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, waist, hips, knees and ankles all moved, so Joe could assume all kinds of dynamic poses, and the hands were carefully designed so that Joe could actually hold his accessories.
G.I. Joe's poseability was a major selling point, and was reflected in the names of the figures: Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot and Action Marine. Joe and his accessories were sold in eye-catching packaging, with painted artwork of G.I. Joe in action, and cellophane windows that let you see everything that was inside.
The number of uniforms and accessories available grew every year. Soon the Action Soldier could be outfitted as a Green Beret or Military Police officer. The Action Sailor could become a frogman or deep sea diver, and the Action Marine could be transformed into a paratrooper or medic. The Action Pilot had some of the best accessories. He could be dressed as a fighter pilot, and even an astronaut.
G.I. Joe Soldiers of the World
Hasbro experimented with a number of G.I. Joe variations and spin-offs throughout the 1960s. In 1965, the first African-American G.I.Joe was released, and in 1966 Hasbro created the Soldiers of the World collection, which consisted of:
- Russian Infantry Man
- Japanese Soldier
- German Soldier
- British Commando
- Australian Jungle Fighter
- French Resistance Fighter
1967 saw the release of the talking G.I. Joe, who shouted phrases at the pull of his dog tag, and the G.I. Nurse Action Girl. The G.I. Nurse failed to catch on, and was soon discontinued. It is now among the rarest of the vintage G.I. Joe figures.
G.I. Joe: 1960s Year-by-year
G.I. Joe is introduced
African-American G.I. Joe is released
Soldiers of the World series
Talking G.I. Joe, G.I. Nurse
Sales falter, various combinations of figures and gear released as "Action Packs"
Adventures of G.I.Joe series
Adventures of G.I. Joe
G.I. Joe had been an incredible success story for Hasbro, but by 1968 the story seemed to be coming to an end. Americans were war-weary, and there was heightened concern over the effects of violent toys and television programming on children. Sales were declining, and Hasbro was reduced to combining various G.I. Joe figures and accessories into value packs, which they called "Adventure Packs".
In 1969, however, Hasbro developed a new identity for G.I. Joe. No longer was he a military man. He was now an adventurer, and the line became known as The Adventures of G.I. Joe. Instead of military battles, G.I. Joe now engaged in mysterious and exciting adventures. Uniforms and equipment were packaged according to themes, such as Danger of the Depths, Perilous Rescue, and Spacewalk Mystery.
In 1970, the adventure concept coalesced into the G.I. Joe Adventure Team, which would take G.I. Joe to even greater levels of success than he'd seen in the 1960s.
Hasbro Masterpiece Edition and Timeless Collection
In 1998, Hasbro released the G.I. Joe: Masterpiece Edition, which were reproductions of the original 1964 G.I. Joe, packed with a book containing the history of the figure. The Action Soldier, Action Sailor, Action Pilot and Action Marine were each released as Masterpiece Editions.
The line was so successful that between 1998 and 2005 Hasbro produced faithful reproductions of a number of other vintage G.I. Joe figures and accessories as part of the Timeless Collection, with many of these sets released between 2003 and 2005 to celebrate G.I. Joe's 40th anniversary. The photos that accompany this article are of Masterpiece Edition and Timeless Collection figures and equipment (I wish I had the vintage items in this condition!).
- Levine, Don, and Michlig, John. GI Joe: The Story Behind the Legend. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996.
- Santelmo, Vincent. The Complete Encyclopedia To GI Joe. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 1997.