The Etch A Sketch was born of curiosity. Sometime in the mid to late 1950s, André Cassagnes was working as an electrician for a company called Lincrusta in Vitry-Sur-Seine, France. While installing a factory light switch plate, he peeled off its translucent decal and made some pencil marks on it. He realised that he could see the image he had drawn on the opposite side of the decal, and was inspired to create a drawing toy.
Cassagnes experimented with various materials before settling on glass for its transparency, aluminium powder for its accessibility at Lincrusta, and a pointed joystick to create the actual image.
The Etch A Sketch was introduced in 1959 at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany — and it was a total flop. But Arthur Granjean, Cassagnes’ accountant, eventually found a company to license it. The Ohio Art Company invested US$25,000, more than it had paid for any previous toy; and voilà, a hit was born.
The magical drawing toy became one of the holiday season's most wanted toys in 1960, forcing Ohio Art's factory into production until noon on Christmas Eve.
Much of the Etch A Sketch success story is attributed to the product's television commercials, especially during a time when TV was increasingly becoming a huge influence on American culture. For something like the Etch A Sketch that was totally new and unique to Americans at the time, the visual medium seemed perfect to illustrate how children could use the toy to draw a picture and then "magically" make it disappear.
In fact, TV was a major influence on the toy from the very beginning. Cassagnes originally named it a “L’Ecran Magique” (“The Magic Screen”), as it is still referred to in France today, because with its screen and two knobs, it resembled a TV set.
Etch A Sketch has done a lot in its 60+ year lifespan. It has sold more than 200 million units worldwide since it hit stores on 12 July 1960. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, NY, in 1998 and was included in the Toy Industry Association's "Century of Toys" list in 2003.
It has appeared in a number of movies and TV shows, such as the Toy Story movies, Elf and a recent episode of Pretty Little Liars.
It even played a role in the 2012 presidential election. Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, predicted a fresh start for his boss’s campaign after victory in the Illinois primary. “Everything changes”, Fehrnstrom said. “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” Flip-flopability turned out to be an unfortunate analogy for a politician, and the gaffe was mocked by everyone from late night TV host Stephen Colbert to fellow Republican nominee hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. But, the controversy proved to be good news for Etch A Sketch. Sales rose by 30%.
The toy continues to bubble to the surface of the Internet from time to time thanks to its iconic status and the extraordinary work of various Etch A Sketch artists, e.g. George Vlosich III's portrait of LeBron James (making of video HERE). Even though technology now allows us to create images and share them with people all over the world in a matter of seconds, there seems to still be something alluringly enigmatic about what goes on underneath that Etch A Sketch screen.
Story Idea: Tim Nicholas
1. Etch A Sketch
2. Print ad for Etch A Sketch from the 1960s
3. Etch A Sketch 60th anniversary logo
4. André Cassagnes: 1926–2013
5. Video: Elf: Worst Toy Maker Ever
6. The Colbert Report, 26 March 2012
7. Video: 2015 NBA Finals Lebron James Etch A Sketch (etchedintime)