Terrible Lizard! the Dinosaur as Plaything

By Tanner, Ron | Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Terrible Lizard! the Dinosaur as Plaything


Tanner, Ron, Journal of American & Comparative Cultures


Dinosaurs were the strangest animals that ever lived.

-Roy Chapman Andrews

Without question, the popularity of dinosaurs and dinosaur toys has never been greater than now, at the turn of the second millennium. Visit any American toy store and you will find boxes, sets, and bags of dinosaur figures by Bully, Playvisions, Safari, PlaySkool, Battat, Kenner, Resaurus, Playmates, K & M International, Galileo, and Microverse-to name only some of the manufacturers-not to mention dinosaurian plush animals, games, puzzles, stickers, mobiles, models, and so on ad infinitum. Stephen Jay Gould concludes that the key to understanding the current popularity of dinosaurs, as reflected by the landslide of dinosaur-related products, "resides in promotion, not new knowledge" (14). By all accounts, children and adults have found dinosaur remains and dinosaur representations (models, etc.) fascinating ever since the first life-sized models of dinosaurs were built in the mid-nineteenth century. Near-complete fossil skeletons were fairly common by 1900, and soon the dinosaur entered the public imagination in a big way: in popular art, in fiction, in film, even as front-page headlines in the newspapers of the day.1 And yet dinosaur toys do not appear in any significant number until after World War II. If children, during the first half of the twentieth century, were attracted to lead, celluloid, wood, and plush figures of every kind, including jungle animals, why were virtually none of these dinosaurs?

The surprisingly persistent absence of dinosaurs as playthings-long after their entrance into public education and entertainment-is a mystery worthy of investigation since, as Roland Barthes observed, "toys always mean something, and this something is . . . entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or techniques of modern adult life" (53). The acceptance of the dinosaur as a cultural artifact-a toy-was a convoluted, complicated process and, as I will show, it describes a 200-year history of cultural change in America and the Western world.

Mr. & Mrs. Popularity

During the nineteenth century, geologists-soon to be called paleontologists-dug up fossils in increasing number, especially in the American West.2 In 1912, only a few years after some of the most spectacular fossil finds, American cartoonist Winsor McCay drew, produced, and distributed one of America's first cartoon shorts, "Gertie the Dinosaur," which he also presented in a stage show. So new were dinosaurs to the public that McCay's advertisements strove to educate the audience in advance: "According to science this monster [a brontosaurus] once ruled this planet," one flyer announced. "Skeletons now being unearthed measuring from 90 ft. to 160 ft. in length. An elephant should be a mouse beside Gertie." The show's enormous success compelled McCay to release the cartoon to theaters in 1914 and then to produce a sequel, "Gertie on Tour," in 1915. Two years after McCay's first appearance with Gertie, Willis O'Brien, an experimental animator, made a novelty film that showed the claymation antics of a brontosaurus. This won him studio backing to make, in 1917, a novelty feature (of animated puppets) entitled The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, which showcased, among other things, a fight to the death between an apeman and a brontosaurus. Ultimately it was purchased and distributed by the Thomas A. Edison Company, which suggests the short's wide appeal. Other O'Brien-animated films followed, culminating in the relatively sophisticated 1925 film, The Lost World, based on Conan Doyle's 1912 novel of the same name, which recounts the discovery of dinosaurs thriving today on a remote Amazonian plateau. Cartoons of the silent era, such as 1925's "Felix The Cat Trifles With Time," featured dinosaurs. Pulp novelists, too, found prehistoric life rich with possibilities, as did artists of pulp magazines. In short, by the mid-1920s, dinosaurs loomed large in the imagination of the American public. …

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