Toy Building blocks have been part of society for a very long time. I have found online very good resources talking about different parts of the history of toy building blocks, but not a single resource where the whole timeline is explained. So, I have created this article to put together all I have found in one easy-to-access resource.
Throughout history, humans have been assembling objects, sometimes for fun, sometimes for necessity. But this article only talks about objects that have been manufactured for the specific function of play and that can be categorized as “blocks”.
16th Century – Hugh Plat and the first written proof of the existence of a toy building block
In 1594, Sir Hugh Plat published a very influential book titled “The Jewel House of Art and Nature”.
This book is a collection of discoveries that Hugh Plat had created or found out about over the years. It contains a total of 149 different proposals. Below you can find a few of them:
9. How to brew good and wholesome beer without any hops at all
47. How to harden the white of an egg into artificial gum
51. How to dry gunpowder without the danger of fire
78. How to keep walnuts good and moist for a long time
118. How to make the extraction of all herbs
130. How to keep the juice of Oranges and Lemons all year long
Inside this book, on page 45, we can find the first written proof of the existence of toy building blocks. This is the number 44 discovery of Hugh Plat, titled “A ready way for children to learn their A.B.C.”
In this section, Plat suggests creating four large dice made of bone or wood. On each side, Plat proposes to engrave one letter of the alphabet. Then, when the child plays with the blocks, the adults need to tell them which letter it is that the child is facing. By doing this, Plat assures, the child will learn the alphabet without realizing it. To finish the section, Plat explains that a similar principle is used for learning grammar, where the principal grammar rules are printed on a pair of cards. In this case, Plat assures that the School-Master (I assume it means the teacher) finds that a good sport for his schoolers (I assume it means the students).
17th Century – John Locke follows the same path as Hugh Plat
The next finding of a mention of a building toy does not appear until almost 100 years afterward. In 1693 published an essay titled “Thoughts Concerning Education”. John Locke was an English philosopher and physician. He is regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism”.
Between other views, John Locke stated that children should not be forced to work (a common practice back then), but simply let to play so they could develop their abilities. He said that each child should be taught with methods that are suitable to the temper of the child. So, even so long ago, he was already suggesting that there is no “one-size-fits-all” education strategy, but that the teaching should be tailored to the child’s personality.
One of the methods he suggests for learning the alphabet is the same as Hugh Plat suggested 99 years before him. He says that there could be dice or play-things, with letters on them, to teach children the alphabet with them.
18th Century – Maria and R.L. Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798)
For the next mention of toy building blocks, we need to fast forward another 100 years, all the way to 1798. In this case, we already find a very specific and much longer reference to toy building blocks and its importance in the children’s education. The mention can be found in an educational treatise titled “Practical Education”, written by Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth.
This book starts by describing a story between a mother and her child, with the mother being upset about the child destroying the toys by taking them apart. The writers justify this by the curiosity of the child to see what his toys are made of or to see if he can put them together again after putting them apart.
The book goes on to argue that children need to be given toys with which they can exercise their imagination and their inventive powers. The writers suggest that children should be left to experiment with all objects around and that anything that the parents don’t want the child to touch, should be simply out of sight. This way, children can explore with their senses all the reality that is around them without being scolded for doing something.
The first clear suggestion of something resembling a toy building block comes afterward. The writers suggest that models of common furniture, architecture or simple machinery should be created as toys, which could be dismounted in pieces so that all the parts, and the manner in which they are put together, can be seen distinctly. It is suggested that, before children can use more advanced tools, these models will help amuse and exercise their attention.
It is quite interesting to see how someone back in 1798 could imagine what toy building companies would do more than 100 years after.
19th Century – Friedrich Fröbel invents the Kindergarten and Fröbel gifts
The next big step in the history of toy building blocks would arrive with Friedrich Fröbel. Also known as the inventor of the Kindergarten, Fröbel designed what is known as Fröbel gifts for the first kindergarten at Bad Blankenburg. They are the first toy building blocks created that have not been lost in time.
Out of the six gifts that were initially designed (later it increased to ten gifts), gift number 3 is the first toy building block. This gift, aimed at children that were 2-3 years old, has the shape of a cube but is divided into eight cubes. These cubes can be taken apart, rearranged in many different ways, and reassembled back in the form of a cube.
Gifts 4, 5, and 6 are more complicated versions of the same principle, with the cubes being further cut into quarters, halves, planks, or triangular prisms.
Fröbel’s idea and design were brought into the United States by a man named Milton Bradley. His toy, named Bradley’s Original Kindergarten Alphabet and Building Blocks, was based on Fröbel’s sixth gift while adding letters and numbers to them.
20th Century – Montessori and the development of plastic bricks
The integration of toy building blocks into the education of children kept increasing in the 20th century. While at the beginning of the century a new school system in Italy helped to prove the educational value of toy building blocks, the middle of the century was a constant refinement of the toy brick industry until the appearance of LEGO in the game.
The Montessori Method of Education and the value of toy building blocks
One of the biggest reasons for the development of toy building blocks was the appearance and popularisation of The Montessori Method of Education. The Montessori Method of Education, developed by Italian physician Maria Montessori, is a child-centered educational approach based on scientific observations of children. The first classroom was opened in 1907, in Rome.
Within this method of education, one of the key points is a constructivist or “discovery” model, where students learn concepts from working with materials rather than by direct instruction. This, as you can see, ties in very well with the Practical Education book from Maria Edgeworth and Richard Lovell Edgeworth.
Within the Montessori teaching environment, the Montessori Sensorial Materials are a very important tool for children. Some of these materials are clearly inspired by Fröbel’s gifts and they helped to make toy building blocks an activity that is seen not only as a play but also as educational.
One example would be the pink tower. This building block is formed by ten pink cubes of different sizes, from 1 centimeter up to 10 cm in increments of 1 cm. The work is designed to provide the child with a concept of “big” and “small.” The main idea is that the child should start with the largest cube and put the second-largest cube on top of it. This is supposed to continue until all ten cubes are on top of each other in the correct order.
However, this type of construction lends itself to more creative shapes. Especially when used with the broad stair, another of the sensorial materials, the combination allows children to try many different designs only limited by their creativity, as can be seen here or here.
The popularisation of the brick as the module for toy building blocks
Up until this point, you may have realized that all the toy building blocks were made by cubes. It is not until 1934 that this will start to change. This year signals the beginning of 15 years of innovation until the appearance of LEGO into the game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and let’s talk about the first appearance of a brick as a toy building block.
Bild-O-Bricks (1934): First Rubber Brick
The first brick intended as a toy building block that there is a track of is the Bild-O-Brick, which started being sold in 1934. According to this page, the patent was requested back in 1932, and the toy looked like this.
These bricks came with instructions to connect them in different forms to create different types of buildings. In the images we have been able to find online, there appear to be 5 different types of buildings that could be created following different instructions.
MiniBrix (1935): The UK version of Bild-O-Bricks
One year after Bild-O-Bricks started selling their set in the US, there appeared a new actor in the UK. MiniBrix started selling its rubber bricks in 1935, one year after Bild-O-Bricks, and it was in business all the way until 1976.
MiniBrix, like Bild-O-Bricks, focused on using its rubber bricks for buildings. In this case, they had two series of kits, so both Tudor and Modern buildings could be built. The bases, roofs, and lintels were all, like the bricks, made of rubber.
American Bricks (1939): Compressed wood bricks
In 1939, a company named American Bricks started selling compressed wood bricks. With the same idea as the previous two companies, the proposal was to build houses and other types of buildings with these bricks. You can find a bit more information about this company here.
Kiddicraft (1940): The first plastic brick
Kiddicraft was the first company to start producing plastic bricks through injection molding technology. Founded by Hilary Fisher Page and other partners, Kiddicraft started business in 1932, importing wooden toys from Russia. Eventually, Page started creating its own designs and, in 1936, started using the injection molding technology.
In 1937, the first plastic bricks were sold under the BriPlax brand, with an Interlocking Building Cube among these creations. In 1940, Page received the patent for this cube, which would form the base for the brand’s future development. This interlocking cube is very similar to a brick LEGO started manufacturing in 1950 called LEGO Plastic-Byggeklodser.
American Bricks (1946): They created their first plastic brick
American Bricks created in 1946 what would be their first plastic brick. They were branded under the name of ELGO (I am not joking). The similarity between the name of LEGO and ELGO is most likely only a coincidence. ELGO was named after the two founders of the company Harold Elliott and Samuel Goss, Jr. They combined the EL from Elliot and the GO from Goss to form ELGO.
Kiddicraft (1947): Plastic brick very similar to the first model LEGO created
In 1947, Kiddicraft patented the first plastic brick in the series of Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks. These were 2×4 studded bricks and, when compared with the first version of LEGO bricks, the similarity is obvious.
LEGO (1949): First plastic brick from LEGO
LEGO enters the game of plastic bricks in 1949. Ole Kirk Christiansen (the founder of the company) became aware of the Kiddicraft brick after examining a sample that a British supplier of the first injection molding machine they had purchased gave them. Seeing the sample and the potential it had, LEGO modified the Kiddicraft brick and marketed its own version in 1949. That brick was initially called The Automatic Binding Brick, which would become the LEGO brick in 1953.
LEGO (1958): LEGO introduces extruded tubes on the underside in the bricks
From the first moment, it appears that LEGO saw the potential on the brick as a base for a system for creative play. However, in the beginning, the bricks still had some problems from a technical standpoint. For example, their locking ability was limited and they were not versatile. In 1958, the modern brick was presented. After 5 years of research, LEGO had found the right material for it, ABS polymer. So good was this finding that this is the material that it is still being used to this day. The modern LEGO brick introduced extruded tubes on the underside, which would become the base for what is being produced still today. The design was patented on the 28th of January of 1958.
This whole process starting at Bild-O-Bricks until the LEGO appearance is very well documented and presented in this great video you can watch on Youtube.
And with this, we have arrived at the end of this post. There have not been many more advances after the modern LEGO brick from a technical point of view. The main advancements might come in the near future, seeing the goal that LEGO has of building all their bricks from sustainable materials by 2030.
If you are interested in any big Lego ideas, then check out this Lego Ideas book on Amazon.