The closest most people got to Pop Art in the 60s was the Etch-A-Sketch – a popular device that enabled you to make disposable black and white drawings on a television-like screen by twiddling two knobs.
Drawing straight lines was easy, but curves were next to impossible. Consequently, most people’s Etch-A-Sketch creations tended to veer towards the ‘abstract’ side of things.
Of course, if you messed up, you could just turn the thing upside down, shake the screen and start over.
Etch-a-sketch often lasted about a week until childhood curiosity could be contained no longer and the back would be wrenched off for closer examination.
There was a rumour that the “silver stuff” (actually aluminium powder) inside was heavily toxic, although this was probably spread by anxious mothers trying to deter their kids from taking them apart.
In late 1950s France, an electrician named André Cassagnes invented a novelty he dubbed the “L’Ecran Magique” (‘the magic screen’). The toy was patented by Arthur Granjean, an accountant working for one of Mr Cassagnes’s early investors, which leads to Granjean being sometimes erroneously credited as the inventor of Etch-A-Sketch.
Cassagnes took his product to the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany in 1959, and the Ohio Art Company – though it had passed the toy over the first time around – eventually decided they wanted to bring the apparatus to the United States.
Ohio Art put the magic screen inside a red plastic frame, christened it the Etch-A-Sketch, and advertised the heck out of it in print and on television in the waning months of 1960.
The marketing paid off and the Etch-A-Sketch became a must-have item for Christmas, and sales went through the roof. Magic screen indeed.
An Etch-A-Sketch’s backside is coated with a mixture of aluminium powder and plastic beads. There are two white knobs at the bottom of the frame, which control a horizontal and vertical rod.
At the point where these two rods meet, a stylus is seen on the screen. When the stylus moves, it scrapes over the screen and leaves a dark trail in its wake.
A good hearty shake of the Etch-A-Sketch jumbles the powder and clears everything from the screen.
In the 1970s, Ohio Art issued “Hot Pink” and “Cool Blue” frames, and for the toy’s 25th anniversary in 1985, the company offered the “Executive Etch-A-Sketch”, boasting a snazzy silver frame, a hand-carved signature at the top of the frame and jewelled drawing knobs! It was priced at $3,750.
There are models with colour and sound effects, and even the Etch-A-Sketch “action pack” which included different puzzle and game overlays that could be placed atop the screen. But the best-selling version and the one indelibly ingrained in our toy culture memories is the classic red.
During the late 1990s, the Ohio Art Company was in financial trouble even though it had sold more than 100 million units by 1999. Luckily, John Lasseter, the director of Toy Story 2, wanted to incorporate the toy into his movie. With an estimated $50 million worth of free advertising, sales boomed by 20%.