For all of the fantastical and technologically advanced gadgets that toymakers have concocted over the centuries, only a few really make much of an impression. It's not always the fanciest or most expensive toys that mean the most to kids.
Sometimes, all you need is a pint-size oven with a legendary name: Easy-Bake Oven. This oven is the kind of toy that made millions for manufacturers and at the same time imprinted itself into the minds of children all around the world.
The Easy-Bake oven is no fad. It's been around for more than half a century in all sorts of incarnations and colors, and it seems to hold a nearly universal appeal for girls and boys. Kids love whisking together the simple recipes, plopping them into a pan and then seeing the cooked results a few minutes later. Sometimes those little chefs even eat the results in spite of the famously dubious edibility of these goodies.
For kids, the oven is a fascinating and empowering device. Not only can they cook just like their parents, but they're rewarded with tangible, edible fruits of their labor. And although the oven is probably most often linked to baked goods such as cupcakes or cookies, it makes all sorts of other treats, too, including pizza, candy, peanut brittle and fudge.
The toy was first sold by Kenner Products (of "Star Wars" action-figure fame), and toy company Hasbro has been making the oven since the early 1990s. By 2013, people had snapped up more than 30 million Easy-Bake ovens. To date, more than 150 million little packets of powdered food have been sold, too.
That is a huge number of little tiny meals. That's a lot of messy little fingers. And it all started when a light bulb popped on, figuratively and literally, back in the early 1960s.
History of an Icon
The original Easy-Bake oven had cutting-edge street credibility. That is, it was street vendors who inspired the first inklings of what soon became a global toy phenomenon.
After a toy salesman named Norman Shapiro returned to Kenner headquarters from a business trip, he remarked that he'd seen street vendors cooking pretzels for passersby, keeping their doughy product warm with heat lamps. He tossed out the idea of making a toy version of that oven for children.
Now, it's worth pointing out that Shapiro didn't work for just any toy company. He worked for Kenner Products.
Kenner had a proven process for developing its toy ideas. While many other major manufacturers were content to follow trends, Kenner took a harder road by searching for unique product niches. They held regular meetings for brainstorming concepts and sharing ideas. In particular, Kenner representatives saw sales opportunities in toys that copied grown-up activities.
So when Shapiro suggested the possibility of a type of oven made for children, his words found the ears of active listeners. In particular, he caught the attention of Ronald Howes, a well-known toy inventor who was director of new product development and research at Kenner Products. Howes had already found acclaim with his Spirograph and Give-a-Show Projector.
Howes and the rest of the Kenner team set out to create a prototype oven. By 1963, they had their winner. In terms of aesthetics, the first models weren't exactly reminiscent of ovens. They looked a little like asymmetrical plastic robots and came in a choice of yellow or blue.
To create culinary delights, children slid loaded pans through a slot and into the heating chamber. Then, they could peer through the teensy window to watch as their pan of brownies baked right before their eyes. After a few minutes, the cooked product went into a cooling chamber. Then they could dig into their fresh treats or, you know, feed them to their siblings or the family dog.
It didn't take any baking skill or knowledge whatsoever to make the Easy-Bake oven do your culinary bidding. But how, exactly, did this magical box of wonderment work?
The Oven's Innards
The Easy-Bake oven was hardly the first oven designed specifically for children. In the 1800s, metal models burned wood pellets as fuel. After the turn of the century, tiny electric ovens appeared.
Although kids had fun playing with them, none of these early toys ovens elevated themselves to cult status. They also had spotty safety records that made parents wonder whether these were the smartest toys for antsy little hands.
For reasons rooted in safety concerns and convenience, Kenner seized on the concept of using twin 100-watt incandescent light bulbs to heat the oven. One bulb installed above the food tray; the other screwed in below. The idea was that recipes would cook more quickly and more evenly if heat originated from both sides of the food.
If you scoff at the idea of light bulbs as heating components, don't doubt the effectiveness of an incandescent bulb's waste heat. Inside the confines of the oven, temperatures ratcheted up to more than 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius) [source: Kim].
Thanks to some nifty engineering, later models used only one bulb. Better interior heating dynamics leveraged that one bulb's heat to create a convection effect that cooked just as well as the two-bulb models.
The light-bulb-powered design was vital for marketing purposes, too. For most parents, light bulbs simply seemed safe and harmless.
Kenner representatives were so concerned about safety perceptions of their product that they initially wanted to call it the Safety-Bake Oven. Regulatory authorities, however, thought that name was a stretch considering the oven had yet to even hit store shelves and insisted that the company use a name that didn't include the word safety.
Kenner introduced its first Easy-Bake oven at $15.95. That holiday season, Kenner sold every oven it produced, amounting to more than half a million units. The next year, they cranked out three times as many, and sales continued rocketing upward.
At the same time, Kenner unveiled 25 various mixes for use in the oven. These mix kits made for steady revenue from kids who wanted to try every premade recipe. When General Mills bought Kenner in 1967, it launched Betty Crocker-branded mixes to make the kits even more tempting. In later decades, there were even branded mixes from the likes of McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Of course, once they realized they couldn't make a Big Mac in their ovens, many children decided to concoct their own recipes.
There are no limitations on what you can cook in the oven. It is just an oven, after all (although Hasbro's accountants would obviously like you to buy their mixes instead). There's even an "Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet" cookbook made expressly for adults. Gracing those pages are recipes featuring capers, Grand Marnier and other grown-up ingredients. There are also hundreds of other do-it-yourself recipes strewn across the Internet, offering up tiny tastes for every palate.
Redesign, Recall, Redesign
Impending government regulation changed the Easy-Bake oven's fortunes. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 meant that by 2012, light bulbs had to increase their efficiency by at least 25 percent in relation to the light they emitted. For 100-watt light bulbs, this legislation was the beginning of the end.
That meant Hasbro had to find a new way to heat their hot-selling product. The 2006 redesign of the Easy-Bake oven used a ceramic heating element that was similar to regular ovens.
Notably, the new version traded the time-tested push-through tray for a new front-loading slot. The new contraption's opening was just big enough for the cooking tray – and also just big enough for tiny hands.
What initially seemed like a snappy redesign resulted in a trap that snagged small hands near the heating element, causing second- and third-degree burns. After dozens of complaints, Hasbro recalled the toy and offered kits made to fix the units that had already found homes.
Those kits didn't solve the problem. More than 200 kids wound up with burns. One 5-year-old girl was so badly burned that doctors amputated part of her finger [source: Metzler].
Hasbro finally recalled all of that year's models. But rather than give up on its iconic product, the company overhauled the design again. After returning to a bulb-heating design for a while, Hasbro once again debuted a model with a heating element in 2011. This time, the heat source was safely tucked away from the poking and prodding of children's fingers.
An Oven for Everyone
Like Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures, Easy-Bake ovens aren't just cultural icons. They also touch a societal nerve regarding gender roles.
Easy-Bake ovens hit retailers during an era when many simulation-style toys were targeted toward boys. For some people, the oven was a long-overdue opportunity for girls to emulate grown-up activities.
The television commercials and printed ads featured mothers using the oven with their daughters. There was no masking the message – a kitchen toy like the Easy-Bake oven was clearly meant for the girls in the family, not the boys.
In 2002, Hasbro hammered that message home when it created a Qu Easy-Bake oven and Mixerator that was targeted at boys. It seemed to be that boys weren't allowed to make cupcakes – instead, the kit encouraged young lads to make gross recipes like Mud & Crud Cakes and Larva Licious Cocoon Cookies. And girls, of course, were supposed to stick to regular cookies, even if they thought Crud Cakes were awesome.
In 2012, the popular pink-and-flowers version of the oven was enough to inspire a 13-year-old girl named McKenna Pope to petition Hasbro to make a different color. She wanted a more gender-neutral hue to please her younger brother, who wasn't so sure about the pink version. Hasbro responded by unveiling a glossy black model [source: Davis].
No matter the color, the toy itself has evolved tremendously in its 50 years. Its design began as a mini emulation of a full kitchen range and morphed to look like a petite microwave. In 2014, it looked like a weird toaster oven or perhaps a short, squat alien with a stubby arm on each side.
Even if you aren't particularly fond of the oven's design, you can't argue with its success. Generations of kids consider the Easy-Bake oven to be one of their favorite toys. The oven was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006, and it continually garners pop culture references in TV shows and song lyrics.
And the oven's fame seems be self-perpetuating, demonstrating how a simple, small cooking device has ingrained itself into the minds of children everywhere.
Author's Note: How Easy-Bake Ovens Work
Growing up, my older sister had an Easy-Bake oven. I remember being a bit jealous of her bitty kitchen contraption, mostly because it seemed like a fascinating science experiment. Add a bit of water to the powdered mix, slap it into the oven, and just a few minutes later ... treats! The idea of eating the treats was typically more exciting than the actual consumption, primarily because the goodies that emerged from the Easy-Bake were lacking in, well, taste. Still, the fun of making stuff without mom had an appeal that few other toys could match.
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