Focus on Toys: Dennis the Menace

For collectors of character toys, many of the richest pickings are to be found among the playthings inspired by panel comics and comic books.

The stories, jokes and pratfalls of these ink-outline characters fix them firmly in children’s imaginations and memories; and the sketchy outlines of these comic characters easily make the leap to toy form.

Single-panel cartoons have proved a much less fruitful area for toy inspiration than multi-panel comics, however – even though everything began with a single-panel newspaper cartoon.

“The Yellow Kid” of the 1890s, still famous among cartoon historians, was situated at the beginning of both American comics and American comic-character toys.

Yet Yellow Kid toys were few in number; and although single-panel cartoons would remain a part of daily newspaper comics for decades to come, almost no toys based upon them would appear on the playroom floor.

So it remained for the first half of the last century, at least. When the 20th century reached its mid-point, however, a new single-panel cartoon appeared that would break the mold. From the pen of Henry King “Hank” Ketcham, the cartoon featured a captivating central character: a rapscallion boy named Dennis with combed-over yellow hair and expressively heavy eyebrows.

Mischief was his middle name – although it may have been his childlike honesty and directness that made Dennis the Menace so memorable.
Ketcham came up with the notion for this cartoon in late 1950, when his then-wife famously said to him, “Your son is a menace!” – of their four-year-old son named Dennis.

Ketcham’s strip saw its debut that next spring, in 16 papers. The number rose to nearly 200 by the spring of 1953.

Toy companies must have noticed this rapid rise in popularity – or else the licensors, New York’s Kennedy Associates, knew their business extremely well. By the mid-1950s several toy lines embraced the mischievous boy, with stuffed dolls appearing from Glad Toy Co. and activity sets appearing from Pressman Toy Corp. Both were New York City firms.

Pressman was heavily active in the character-licensing business, producing not only its share of the abundant Walt Disney items on the market but also tie-ins for Annie Oakley, Groucho Marx, Pinky Lee, and TV’s Romper Room. The kits the company made for Hank Ketcham’s creation were typical of its line. They included Dennis the Menace painting kits, chalk-and-slate drawing sets, and playtime dentist tools.

Pressman soon added school bags featuring the infamous imp, while doll production by 1957 moved over to another New York doll firm, Brookglad Corp., that also made the Poor Pitiful Pearl dolls.

One of Pressman’s competitors was a Rhode Island pencil manufacturer enjoying success with an expanding toy line, named Hassenfeld Brothers. This ambitious company was beginning to use the “Hasbro” trade name on its activity kits. Like Pressman’s they included doctor and nurse kits, craft kits, and art sets. Unlike the New York company, the Rhode Island firm engaged in few licensing deals, restricting them to obtaining a few dependable Disney characters for decorating pencil boxes.

As it happens, Hassenfeld made miniature versions of its activity sets to be sold as impulse items, on display racks. In the 1950s one such impulse item was a “Mischief Kit” – a selection of jokes and tricks cheaply manufactured in Japan and mounted on cardboard.

The fact that the company already had a steady source of such jokes and tricks may have helped it make the leap into production of a licensed tie-in activity set. It was introduced in 1955 with advertisements in Life magazine: the Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace Mischief Set.

The original version showed Dennis holding teddy bear, bag, and slingshot. When the set was renamed the Dennis the Menace Mischief Kit two years later, the box also showed an image of Dennis with the Hasbro Box clutched in his hands.

Retailing for $2, these sets included a Snake Bow Tie, Squirt Flower, and Imitation Ink Bottle and Blot. The latter was a cube-shaped bottle of “Jet-O Black Ink” with ink staining one side, giving it a tipped-over look. The “blot,” a glossy black pool of ink, was effectively portrayed by a piece of rounded and enameled sheet metal.

Imitations were a big part of these tricks. There were false teeth, fake sugar cubes, and imitation bugs,” made from the same sheet metal as the ink blot.

Other pieces of mischief, such as the Snake Bow Tie and Squirt Flower, depended upon squeeze-bulb action. One inventive item was the Palpitator and Plate Lifter, which involved a thin hose connecting a large squeeze bulb with a small balloon.

“Hold large bulb and place other end under table cloth, underneath plate. Just squeeze bulb to make plate move,” went the instructions. “For imitation heart beat, put under shirt and squeeze the bulb.”

The set’s “Safe, harmless, hilarious fun” included a few items of a slightly more mean-spirited nature, such as the Finger Trap (“Once a finger is inserted and trap is pulled, it will be hard to take out unless pushed back into original size”) and the pack of purposely misspelled “Wriggeyl’s Spearmint” gum.

Looking very much like an opened pack of gum with a single stick left inside, this “Wriggeyl’s” was “Snappy Gum … it perks you up.” All the mischief-maker had to do was offer a friend a piece. Pulling out the stick triggered a mousetrap-like device that snapped against the finger – sharply, but essentially harmlessly.

The later Mischief Kits featured a few new items, such as the “Rubber Razzer,” with a wooden mouthpiece attached to a flattened rubber tube for producing the blurting “raspberry,” as well as a spring-shooting cigarette lighter.

The Dennis the Menace kit must have sold well, through the later 1950s, inspiring Hasbro to experiment with more licensing deals. By 1960, its line featured TV characters from Maverick and Leave It to Beaver and such cartoon characters as Felix, Huckleberry Hound, Popeye, and Charlie Brown. By then, however, the Mischief Kit was a thing of the past, making it a distinctively 1950s product.

If Dennis the Menace toys seemed a bit less rambunctious after the 1950s, it may have been because production of the cartoon toys was being centralized in Menlo Park, Calif., as that decade was coming to a close. The new company was named, appropriately enough, Dennis Play Products.

After beginning with official Dennis the Menace dolls and puppets around 1958-59, Dennis Play Products entered the 1960s with a broadened line including Dennis the Menace Moonmaster Rockets and Dennis the Menace Whiffenpoofs.

While other companies would produce other Dennis items in the new decade, including Standard Toykraft and Brittain Products companies, none would quite equal the the toys of the 1950s – that wonderful decade when toymakers could act as enablers for mischief-makers.

These earliest toys are the most characteristic. And since the character in question is Dennis the Menace, that makes them the best.