Toy story! How children have come to ‘play well’ with the bricks of Billund

Founded by a carpenter from Jutland, Lego is one of the most successful toy companies in the world

With Christmas around the corner, there are bound to be plenty of households around the country that have experienced a growth in their Lego collection.

Always a favourite of parents and children everywhere, Lego is a Danish success story, as synonymous with the country as the Little Mermaid. Lego is testament to what good, simple ideas can do.

Now in its 83rd year, Lego’s history is one of dynamism and innovation – a story about how one creative family has changed the world.

Humble beginnings
Lego is the brainchild of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from Billund in the west of Denmark. Christiansen began operating as a regular carpenter in 1916, building furniture and other wooden products for households and businesses.

When the Great Depression hit, Christiansen’s work began to dry up, forcing him to concentrate on smaller projects, including miniature houses. Pleased with his little creations, Christiansen began to see the appeal in making toys and, after expanding his workshop, dedicated himself to this new direction in 1932.

Latin name
The name Lego was decided after a competition between Christiansen’s employees. A loose combination of the Danish words ‘leg godt’ meaning ‘play well’, the name Lego was also found to translate as ‘put together’ in Latin, a concept that would drive Christiansen’s future ideas.

During the 1930s, worldwide plastic production soared, and following the Second World War it became easily available in Denmark. In 1947, Christiansen purchased a plastic injection moulding machine and, after gaining inspiration from a British ‘self-locking building brick’, began making ‘automatic binding bricks’ in 1949, a design that the company later perfected in 1958, the year of Christiansen’s death.

Thinking outside the square
It is one of history’s ironies that Lego’s initial bricks were unpopular. Indeed, so few people preferred the plastic blocks over wooden ones that entire shipments were returned to the company unsold – a situation that nearly saw the business collapse.

Seeing the situation as untenable, Christiansen’s son Godtfred began thinking outside the square and came up with the idea of selling Lego in sets consisting of interlocking parts that could be assembled to create an entire design. The first ever set, the ‘Town Plan’, was released in 1955.

Plastic fantastic
By the 1960s, Gotfred Christiansen could see that plastic Lego was the future of the company and discarded all wooden lines. As the product’s popularity grew in Europe, Gotdfred began to think about America, hungry for a slice of the burgeoning toy market there.

Without adequate logistics, Lego was forced to make a deal with US company ‘Samsonite’, and Lego began to be produced in the States. In 1964, Lego began to issue instructions with their Lego sets and by 1966 Lego had progressed to its famous train set collections – a series of designs that included small motors.

The ‘Duplo’ range was launched in 1969. Meaning ‘double’ in Latin, the Duplo bricks were twice the size of the regular Lego bricks, making them more accessible to younger children. Despite the difference in size, regular bricks could still be joined with Duplo ones, allowing children to grow and expand their Lego collections without needing to throw the old bricks away.

It soon became common for children to amass sizeable collections of Lego, further enabling them to be the builders and designers the company hoped they’d be.

A phenomenon
By the early 1970s Lego had become one of the most successful toy companies in the world. The first Lego person made its first appearance in 1974; however, it wasn’t until 1978 that the figurines began to adopt the smiling faces and movable arms and legs that we know today.

As the Space Race continued, Lego released a space range, including suitably grey ‘lunar bricks’ and corresponding lunar rovers. By the 1980s Lego was a phenomenon.

As the world becomes increasingly more wireless and internet-driven, it’s comforting to know that Lego is still with us. With entire family generations brought up on it, the act of giving Lego to young children has become a kind of family ritual – a way for different age groups to connect and reminisce.

It is this wholesomeness that makes it very unlikely it will go away anytime soon.