Milton Bradley Company History

Address:
443 Shaker Road
East Longmeadow, Massachusetts 01028
U.S.A.

Telephone: (413) 525-6411
Fax: (413) 525-1767

Wholly Owned Division of Hasbro, Inc.
Incorporated: 1860
Employees: 2000
Sales: $540 million (1995 est.)
SICs: 3944 Games, Toys & Children's Vehicles

Company Perspectives:

Now a division of billion-dollar corporate parent, Hasbro, Inc., Milton Bradley Company produces more than 30 of the best-selling 50 games, including The Game of Life, Candy Land, A Question of Scruples, Operation, Connect Four, Battleship, and Yahtzee. Milton Bradley produces, sells and markets a broad line of popular card and board games, puzzles, skill and action games and educational activity toys.

Company History:

Founded in 1860, Milton Bradley Company is the oldest game manufacturer in the United States. Over the years Milton Bradley has marketed such classics as The Game of Life, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Twister, and Yahtzee. Since 1984 the company has operated as a division of the world's largest toy company, Hasbro, Inc.

Founding in the 19th Century

Milton Bradley was one of the great 19th-century American inventor-industrialists. Although he is now best known for the game company which still bears his name, Bradley's many non-game inventions including the zoetrope and color wheel, as well as his promotion of the early kindergarten movement, have also had a lasting influence on American culture in the 20th century.

Bradley was born in Vienna, Maine, in 1836 and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, at the age of 19. Trained as a draftsman, the young Bradley got a job with the Wason Car Manufacturing Co., drawing the plans for the company's line of locomotives and railroad cars. It was after Bradley was given a color lithograph of a particularly lavish car which he had helped to design for the ruler of Egypt, that he decided to go into the lithography business himself. In 1860, at the age of 24, Milton Bradley formed the Milton Bradley Company to produce lithographs for Springfield businesses. With the only lithograph machine in Massachusetts outside Boston, Bradley was soon busy with orders, but the erratic nature of his lithograph machine, and the men he hired to run it, made making a profit difficult.

Milton Bradley began to search for new applications for his lithograph machine. One evening while visiting his best friend, George Tapley, who was to have a profound influence on the Milton Bradley Company, Bradley played an old English board game and conceived the idea of inventing a distinctly American game. Bradley's game was designed around a play on the word "checkered," in the sense of fluctuating fortunes, and the checkerboard pattern of traditional games. Calling his game "The Checkered Game of Life," he borrowed the format of the familiar checkerboard and incorporated into it a narrative of life as seen through the eyes of the New England puritan tradition. Squares were labeled with opposed moral positions which led to inevitable consequences up or down the board--bravery upwards to honor, idleness downwards to disgrace. The object of the game was to achieve "Happy Old Age" instead of "Ruin." Bradley spent weeks producing several hundred copies of the game and then set off for New York City to try selling this first production run to distributors. To Bradley's surprise, dealers were unreservedly enthusiastic about the new game, which could be sold as a lesson in morals as well as an entertaining pastime, and within a few days Bradley had sold his entire stock.

On his return to Springfield, Bradley was temporarily sidetracked from further production of The Checkered Game of Life by a request to produce a colored lithograph of the young Republican candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln. His lithograph of a beardless Lincoln became a best seller until Lincoln grew a beard, leaving Bradley with thousands of obsolete likenesses. Fortunately, the seeds Bradley had sown by selling his game in New York bore fruit that winter as The Checkered Game of Life suddenly became a nationwide fad. Thousands of orders for the game poured in first from New York City and then from across the eastern United States. Bradley produced and sold 40,000 copies of The Checkered Game of Life over the course of that winter, and by the spring of 1861 he became convinced that the Milton Bradley Company's future lay in games. Unfortunately, the invasion of Fort Sumter on April 14 of that year put all thought of games out of the minds of Americans as the United States was plunged into the Civil War.

Bradley temporarily abandoned games production at the outbreak of war, applying his drafting skills to plans for new weaponry, but as the war dragged on Bradley began a tradition that was to be revived in every major American conflict for the next century. Seeing the boredom of the troops stationed in Springfield, Bradley produced a small kit of games for soldiers to play during their long hours of inaction. Included in the kit were chess, checkers, backgammon, dominoes and, of course, Bradley's own Checkered Game of Life. Priced at one dollar apiece, the Milton Bradley Company's Games for the Soldiers, sold by the thousands, first to individual soldiers and, later, to charitable organizations who purchased the game kits in large quantities for distribution to dispirited troops. By the end of the war, the Milton Bradley Company was solidly profitable and ready to embark on the production of more games.

By the 1870s, the Milton Bradley Company was producing dozens of different games and puzzles including rebus-based games, word games, games of knowledge, biblical games, traditional games (marketed under the title "My Grandfather's Games"), and a game entitled "The Way to Make Money" in which a player bought and sold property for play money. In addition to designing new games the company was always ready to capitalize on current fads. When croquet wickets, and arguments over the correct way to play, sprung up on lawns across America in the mid-1860s, Milton Bradley became the first American manufacturer of croquet sets. Bradley's sets came complete with mallets, balls, wickets, stakes, and a set of authoritative printed rules for play that Bradley himself had concocted from various oral traditions as well as his own sense of fair play. Bradley's rules became the standard with which American croquet continued to be played through the 20th century.

Bradley and the Kindergarten Movement in the Late 19th Century

The Milton Bradley Company took a new direction in 1869 after Milton Bradley went to hear a lecture about the kindergarten movement by early education pioneer, Elizabeth Peabody. Peabody promoted the educational philosophy of the German scholar Friedrich Froebel, who maintained that, if properly guided, a child becomes educated through his or her own creative activities which are developed at an early age. Bradley was taken with the theories of the German movement which encouraged the creation of classes offering guided creative play for pre-school age children. Bradley would spend much of the rest of his life promoting the kindergarten movement both personally and through the Milton Bradley Company.

Bradley's company's involvement with kindergartens began with the production of "gifts," the term used by Froebel for the geometric wooden playthings that he felt were necessary to properly structure children's creative development. As he became more and more committed to the movement, Bradley began manufacturing other educational materials considered essential by Froebel including colored papers and paints. Bradley spent months devising the exact shades in which to produce these materials; his final choice of six pigments of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet would remain the standard colors for children's art supplies through the 20th century.

For most of the first two decades of Bradley's involvement with kindergartens, the educational materials produced by his company, much of which he provided free of charge to the only two kindergartens in Springfield, cost the company much more than they brought in. As long as the company's games were solidly profitable, Bradley's business partners, who had invested in the firm during the 1860s, allowed Bradley to pursue his obsession with kindergarten materials. However, when a recession hit in the late 1870s, his partners insisted that either they or the kindergarten work must go. Bradley chose to continue producing educational materials. His good friend George Tapley agreed to buy out the two men's interest in the company and himself took over as president of the Milton Bradley Company, leaving Bradley free to develop his designs for both games and the kindergarten movement.

Growth of the Company in the Early 20th Century

By the turn of the century Milton Bradley's experiments in educational materials had finally fulfilled their promise. Not only were kindergartens springing up around the country, but teachers of all the primary grades, who were usually responsible for providing their own teaching aids, were purchasing the Milton Bradley Company's art supplies, multiplication sticks, movable clock dials, toy money, and huge variety of educational games. During the first decade of the 20th century, the company's education department became a major source of earnings as the company began production of practically every form of supplies used in the nation's public schools ranging from furniture to story books.

Although the Milton Bradley Company began to define itself as an educational supplies company, the company also continued to design and manufacture a large variety of games. Parlour games played primarily by adults were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the company produced games with such names as "Word Gardening," "Visit to the Gypsies," "Happy Days in Old New England," and "Fortune Telling." The company also made a variety of jigsaw puzzles, including a best selling line of puzzles featuring wrecked vehicles, which were apparently particularly attractive to young boys.

Milton Bradley continued as the driving force behind his company until his death in 1911, when direction of the firm was assumed by Ralph Ellis, to eventually be passed on to Bradley's son-in-law, Robert Ingersoll, and George Tapley's son, William. By 1920 the company's games and educational materials, manufactured in five factory buildings in Springfield, were reporting net earnings of about $350,000 a year on sales of around $3.5 million.

Lean Years and Recovery in the 1930s and 1940s

The Milton Bradley Company began to falter in the mid-1920s as the personal genius and charisma of the company's founder faded into legend. The company's aging factories could no longer keep up with its huge variety of products, and clever new games appeared less and less often. The educational department, for which Milton Bradley had fought so hard, became the company's primary source of income, with colored wax crayons producing almost one-third of profits by the late 1920s. The decline of the 1920s plunged into a free-fall in the 1930s as the Great Depression left little money for people to spend on games and as school appropriations were slashed. Even as most American business began to recover in the mid-1930s, Milton Bradley continued to lose money until, in 1940, sales had sunk to only $2 million and banks were demanding payment on loans totaling about $900,000.

By 1941, Milton Bradley's board of directors, scrambling to avoid bankruptcy, persuaded a well-known Springfield businessman, James J. Shea, to take over the presidency of the company. Shea first moved to pay off bank loans by obtaining a lower interest loan from a credit corporation and then began a major campaign to clean up and renovate the Milton Bradley plant which had been accumulating old inventory since the turn of the century. Workers called the campaign "Shea's big bonfire," as piles of old material burned continuously for days.

Shea later maintained that the turnaround of the company during the war years of the 1940s could be attributed to three major products. Ironically, two of these items had nothing whatever to do with games or education. The first was a type of universal joint which Shea himself had designed to be used on the landing gear of fighter planes and for which he had obtained a contract worth $300,000 from the U.S. Army. With a large part of the company factory devoted to manufacturing these joints, Shea then set out to find a use for the then virtually idle woodworking shop and obtained a contract for $272,000 worth of gunstocks. The third item that made money for the company during the war, however, was very firmly within the company's tradition. Shea began production of a revised version of the Milton Bradley Game Kit for Soldiers that had helped build the company back in the 1860s. The company sold over $2 million worth of the kits over the course of War World II.

Growth and Foreign Expansion: 1950s and 1960s

As the country emerged from war, the Milton Bradley Company was once again solidly profitable with earnings of $117,000 on sales of $4.5 million by the end of the decade. Under Shea, the company revived some of Milton Bradley's teaching aids from the turn of the century, in particular reading instruction games that were based on phonetics, a teaching method that was enjoying one of its periodic resurgences in the early 1950s. New games including Candy Land, Rack-O, and Chutes and Ladders were introduced, and some old Milton Bradley games were modernized and reissued. Although some analysts were predicting that the growing popularity of television would spell the end of the games industry, Shea made the canny decision to capitalize on the new form of entertainment instead of trying to compete with it. In 1959 the company released a memory game called "Concentration" that was based on a television game show of the same name. Within eight months Concentration had sold one million copies, the largest sale of a game in its first year in the history of the game industry up to that time. The company's centennial was celebrated in 1960 with the reissue of a modernized three dimensional version of Bradley's original "Checkered Game of Life." Called simply "The Game of Life," the goal of the 20th century version of the game was no longer to reach "Happy Old Age." Now players were aiming to become millionaires.

As the Milton Bradley Company entered its second century of business, educational materials which had carried the company during many of its leaner years, began to contribute less and less to profits, dropping from seven percent of revenues in 1961 to only three percent by the end of the decade. During the early 1960s, the company began to look overseas for new markets by signing licensing agreements with European toy makers in England and Germany to manufacture the company's products. By the end of that decade Milton Bradley had opened its own manufacturing facilities in Holland, England, France, and Germany and within a few years foreign sales accounted for 20 percent of revenues. Back at home, the century-old factory in Springfield could no longer support another renovation, and the company began construction of a new multi-million dollar plant and office facility in neighboring East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Milton Bradley continued to introduce new games through the 1960s with a number of enduring successes. Chief among these was a one-of-a-kind game called "Twister," which involved the physical manipulation of a player's whole body. Milton Bradley publicists scored a coup which became legendary in the industry when they succeeded in having Johnny Carson play the game on "The Tonight Show" with his guest Eva Gabor. Gabor's gyrations and Carson's suggestive comments launched the game as an adult phenomenon, with over three million games sold in its first year alone. Just as Milton Bradley's croquet sets had defined American middle-class gentility in the 1880s, Twister became an icon of the liberated 1960s.

Expansion into Electronic Games

In 1968 James Shea was succeeded as president of Milton Bradley by his son James Shea, Jr. By that time annual earnings had risen to $4 million on sales of $69 million and the company had begun a program of acquisitions that would see sales gains accelerated through the 1970s. Milton Bradley's largest acquisition was that of the Playskool Mfg. Co. Playskool was the second largest manufacturer of preschool toys in the country at that time with a sales volume of some $60 million. In 1972, the company also acquired the E.S. Lowe Company, the makers of the immensely popular dice game, Yahtzee.

The 1970s and 1980s saw tremendous upheavals in the toy and game industry as electronic technology changed the way American children played. Milton Bradley was a latecomer into this market in 1977 with the release of "Simon," an electronic game similar in concept to the old parlour game "Simon Says," in which players tried to imitate the electronically generated pattern of tones and lights of a table top unit. Like many successful games, Simon's simple concept appealed to the basic instincts of game players of all ages and the units were an immediate hit. By 1980, Simon was Milton Bradley's top selling item and largely responsible for the success of the company's electronic line which contributed 30 percent of Milton Bradley's record $360 million in sales.

Under James Shea, Jr., Milton Bradley management initially avoided entering the video game segment of the electronic market, feeling that these items represented an over-priced fad. By 1982, however, it became clear that popular video consoles, like Warner Communication's Atari, were siphoning off large amounts of the toy and game market. Milton Bradley's sales dropped for the first time in decades and earnings fell by 37 percent. The company moved quickly to develop its own video game system, but after a huge investment in research and development, the company was obliged to write the project off as a $30 million disaster in 1983, resulting in the company's first net loss since the restructuring of the 1940s.

Acquired by Hasbro in 1984

In spite of the video game debacle, Milton Bradley remained the number-one seller of games in the United States, and sales of its traditional games were able to return the company to profitability by 1984. Meanwhile Hasbro, Inc., a company with its own 40-year history in the toy industry, was looking to grow through acquisitions; Milton Bradley, with its stable of classic games and international facilities, was an ideal match. Hasbro acquired the firm for $360 million in May 1984. By the following year combined sales totaled $1.2 billion, making Hasbro the largest toy company in the world.

Milton Bradley continued to provide steady sales to parent Hasbro through the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although the company failed to develop any new megahit products like Twister or Simon, its line of classic games provided reliable, secure profits, a luxury in the fad dependent toy industry. By 1988, Milton Bradley was providing about 20 percent of Hasbro's sales and an even greater proportion of its profits. In 1989 Hasbro acquired Coleco Industries, Inc., adding the 50-year-old classic word game Scrabble to Milton Bradley's product line. Two years later, Hasbro acquired Parker Brothers, and although the two oldest game producers continued to operate under separate brand names and management, much of the production for Parker Brothers games was moved to the Milton Bradley facilities in East Longmeadow.

The Milton Bradley Company continued to design and manufacture new games and puzzles through the 1990s. With such names as "Gator Golf," "Crack the Case," "Mall Madness," and "13 Dead End Drive," these products were primarily designed to capitalize on current trends rather than to create an enduring legacy. At the same time the company launched a major advertising and marketing campaign for its classic board games including the 135-year-old Game of Life. "Classics are really the cornerstone of our business," explained senior vice-president of marketing, Dale Siswick in Adweek's Marketing Week. "Therefore, in a tougher economy, we don't retrench from our ad and promotional strategies, we get behind them.... Mom and Dad will go to the retail store to make those [big-ticket] purchases, but if their discretionary income is somewhat restricted, they'll go with the names they know, that have established play value," Siswick added. The classic games of the Milton Bradley Company are certain to maintain that play value into the next century.

Further Reading:

  • Grimm, Matthew, "Christmas Comes to Candyland," Adweek's Marketing Week, November 12, 1990, p. 19.
  • "Hasbro Inc.: Milton Bradley, Parker Units to Combine Some Functions," Wall Street Journal, January 12, 1995, p. 6.
  • "Hasbro: Merging with Milton Bradley to Get Nearer the No. 1 Spot," Business Week, May 21, 1984, pp. 90--93.
  • Horowitz, Shel, "All Work and All Play--Milton Bradley Prepares for Another Record-Setting Year," Business West, November 1994, pp. 17--18.
  • Kaye, Marvin, The Story of Monopoly, Silly Putty, Bingo, Twister, Frisbee, Scrabble, et cetera, New York: Stern and Day, 1973, pp. 97--102.
  • Mathews, Carol, "Educational Game Trend Benefits Milton Bradley," Investment Dealer's Digest, November 20, 1961, pp. 44--45.
  • "Milton Bradley Agrees to Acquire Playskool for $25.4 Million Stock," Wall Street Journal, May 2, 1968, p. 21.
  • "Milton Bradley--Game Plan Calls for Smart Earnings Rise," Barron's, October 2, 1978, pp. 43, 45.
  • "Milton Bradley: Playing Catch-Up in the Video Game Market," Business Week, May 24, 1982, pp. 110, 114.
  • Shea, James J., It's All in the Game, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1960.
  • Stern, Sydney, Toyland: The High-Stakes Game of the Toy Industry, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1990, pp. 120--26.
  • "Who'll Survive the Toy Shakeout," Financial World, October 15, 1980, pp. 106--07.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 21. St. James Press, 1998.