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LEGO Is The Most Wholesome Toy On Earth, But Its History Is More Complicated Than You Knew  

Melissa Brinks
11 items

LEGO history is almost as fascinating as the toys themselves - but the globally renowned, multi-billion-dollar company went through decades of setbacks in an attempt to preserve itself. Created by Ole Kirk Christiansen in Denmark in the 1930s, the toy company's evolution has been shaped by tragedy in many ways. Though LEGO sets are now beloved and ubiquitous toys -  and sometimes incredible rare collectibles - they began humbly, as the product of one Danish carpenter who originally crafted items like ironing boards and ladders for a living.

Modern LEGO toys themselves are deceptively simple. They've gone through many evolutions over the years, starting as simple wooden toys and evolving into cleverly interlocking plastic blocks with special, inimitable designs that have gone on to inspire the imaginations of children and adults around the world. These LEGO facts are a reminder that Christiansen's vision persisted despite many hardships. Even in an age when the company has become a pop culture staple around the world, LEGO's struggles continue.

A Series Of Personal Tragedies Spurred A Carpenter To Build Wooden Toys
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Photo: Traintwo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1916, Ole Kirk Christiansen - a carpenter who primarily built furniture and home goods - purchased the workshop in Billund, Denmark, that would ultimately become the birthplace of LEGO. He faced a number of setbacks and tragedies during his first years in business: the workshop burned down in 1924 after his sons accidentally set fire to it, he was hit hard during the Great Depression, and his wife passed in 1932.

To stay afloat, Christiansen began crafting cheap wooden trinkets, eventually landing a wheeled duck that became the company's first popular toy.

Early LEGO Designs Were Not Profitable
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Photo: Wildjimbo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

By 1934, Christiansen's work attracted enough attention to warrant giving it name: LEGO, derived the Danish phrase leg godt, or "play well." Incidentally, “LEGO” also resembles the Latin phrase of "I put together,” and to Christiansen, felt like the perfect fit for his venture.

The Great Depression of the 1930s affected the global economy and forced Christiansen to lay off most of his employees. To stay afloat, he ramped up his wooden toy production alongside his home goods. Christiansen managed to leverage the the yo-yo fad of the mid-1930s to his advantage, but it was still hard to create a market for toys in the devastated economy.

 

Christiansen's Brothers Had To Bail Him Out When He Almost Went Bankrupt

As he inched closer and closer to bankruptcy during the Depression, Christiansen turned to his siblings for financial help. They agreed to bail him out on the condition that he stop making toys and turn his skills to a more practical profession. Christiansen refused, however, continuing to create innovative toys with unique moving parts.

He began attracting a larger audience, particularly with copies of the original toy prototype he’d created for his sons: a wooden duck with a moveable beak.

Another Fire Wrecked The LEGO Workshop During WWII
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Photo: Thy Christiansen/National Museum of Denmark/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, just a few years after Christiansen's company officially became LEGO. Though the German occupation of Denmark was more lenient than that of other countries, there were still economic and social consequences for the country's people. As Christiansen and others struggled under the new regime, his workshop burned to the ground again in 1942.

The Allies liberated the country three years later, when resources were in low supply and high demand. After Denmark reveresed a wartime ban on the commercial use of molded plastic, LEGO shifted its material emphasis from wood to plastics, which had, during WWII, become cheaper and more accessible than ever before.