Consider the Etch A Sketch, a thoroughly modern toy launched at the height of Mid-century design in 1960.

The Etch A Sketch, with its ability to create something mysteriously with the turning of a couple of knobs and then completely wipe it out within seconds with a shake or two, was the perfect postwar toy and a glorious metaphor for the Let’s-Start-Over times.

Etch A Sketch

Introduced in 1960, Etch A Sketch quickly became one of the best toys on the 20th century. 

Even more perfect, the Etch A Sketch was French, not American. French concept. French design. French name: “L’Ecran Magique” – the Magic Screen. Pretty cool, n’est-ce pas?

Back then, everything French was cool. Plop a beret on your head and suddenly you were international. Kids even took French as a second language in high school. American kids. Kids whose total understanding of the French culture was limited to three things: fries, toast and kisses.

And maybe the croissant, but only in the sense that they were pretty sure that was a French donut. Yep, those kids, taking high school French. God bless ’em.

French donuts? Close. They're croissants.

French donuts? Close. They're croissants.

Understanding global culture has never been America’s strongpoint. But toys are. So when French electrician Andre Cassagnes, who invented L’Ecran Magique, and his partners wanted to conquer the Toy World they went in 1959 to … the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany. It didn’t go well.

L’Ecran Magique? Not so much. Once again, the Germans had sent our French friends packing. Cassagnes and crew were shaken, but their dreams were not erased.

That’s why the next stop was the good old U.S. of A, where they knew Yankee ingenuity and – most importantly – our escalating love affair with television – the French, after all, are nothing if not romantics – coupled with our emerging skills to market directly, and without remorse, to kids hooked on TV, would guarantee success.

It was the perfect threesome: A French toy, an American Company (Ohio Art) and television marketing. A ménage à toy, if you will.

Etch A Sketch was even designed to look like a TV, a flaunting, lipstick-red framed TV that allowed endless fun … except if you wanted to dot an “i” – something the Etch A Sketch, with its single, roving line, couldn’t do.

It didn’t matter. The doodle-dialing toy that promised “fun for all” was simply so in tune with the times.

Vintage Etch A Sketch

The Etch A Sketch was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Of course, the French name was ditched. In America, we market America. Hence, the Etch A Sketch name was born. And it was beautiful. Why, it even sounded sophisticated. The name made it sound as if you were not playing. You were creating. You could conjure something memorable, something moving, something a veritable white-knob-turning Claude Monet would create if he was a kid and had an Etch A Sketch.

It was all so cosmopolitan. You could practically hear kids asking their friends to come over for milk and cookies and, while adjusting their beret, offer to share their etchings.

Alas, the thing that made the Etch A Sketch so technologically fascinating also rendered meaningful art hopeless.

The ability to completely erase an Etch A Sketch drawing is born of the toy’s simple and abiding technology. The toy’s secret sauce is that the underside of the gray screen is coated with fine aluminum powder. The white knobs control a stylus hidden beneath the screen. Turning the knobs draws the stylus through the powder, scraping it off in vertical or horizontal lines that appear on the screen as if by magic.

To erase the image, the user shakes the toy, re-coating the screen with aluminum. Tiny plastic beads mixed with the powder keep it from clumping.

Of course, some adult artists, through planning, patience and extreme finger dexterity – three things no kid has ever had – have cajoled the Etch a Sketch into rendering da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and other minutely detailed original images. Adults can ruin anything.

Etch A Sketch

The ‘Mona Lisa’ by show-off artist Jeff Gagliardi on his Etch A Sketch.

The Etch A Sketch was not designed to do anything remotely artistic. It came to us as a diversion, something to do because your mom hollered at you for watching too much TV.

So you picked up the Etch A Sketch instead, a toy that looked like a TV, which you hounded your folks to get you after watching Etch A Sketch TV commercials, which you saw while you were watching too much TV.

Ironic, n’est-ce pas?

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