Major Matt Mason: Mattel’s Man in Space, 1966 – 1970

Exhibit / July 13, 2017

Object Name: Major Matt Mason toys
Maker and Year: Mattel, Inc., 1966-1970
Object Type: Toys
Image Source: atomic_hunter/Flickr
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

The Matt Mason line was developed by Mattel to compete against Hasbro’s G.I. Joe, which debuted in 1964 along with the the descriptor “action figure”—the social reality of the day dictated that boys would not and should not play with “dolls.” While the “Joes” were 12″ tall, Matt Mason and his “space buddies” were reduced to 6″, a brilliant decision by Mattel that allowed the creation of an extended play universe of vehicles, accessories, and playsets. The figures were “bendy”—a rubber frame wrapped around a wire armature. This allowed for maximum maneuverability but greatly reduced durability: if an underlying wire broke, the figure would no longer be fully poseable.

Though Hasbro chased the quickening Space Race with G.I. Joe’s “Official Space Capsule and Authentic Space Suit,” it was Mattel that went all in at the right time. Outside of the 1966 industry toy fair in New York, with nearly 200,000 American troops now committed in Vietnam, protesters held up signs that read “Toy Fair or Warfare?” Inside, Major Matt Mason made his debut—not as a soldier but as an explorer “ready and able to cope with any space task or fierce danger.” The popularity of G.I. Joe waned as American casualties entered the thousands: romanticizing war became a losing proposition. Matt Mason, on the other hand, followed the triumphant arc of NASA’s Apollo program. The “bravest astronaut yet” was an immediate hit, and the Major appeared on coloring books, lunch boxes, Halloween costumes, wallets, puzzles, and a board game.

Matt Mason (named after Mattel co-founder Harold “Matt” Matson) was a hero, but he wasn’t a superhero. He and his team, including African-American Jeff Long, represented “the face of every astronaut,” and their equipment was “based on official space program designs” that were featured in magazines such as Life, Jane’s, and National Geographic—Mason’s Moon Suit was a near-exact replica of a prototype that graced the cover of Life in April 1962. Many of the designers of the Matt Mason toys were, in fact, former aerospace engineers, including John Northrop, the son of Jack Northrop, founder of the Northrop Corporation (now Northrop Grumman) and innovator of the flying wing aircraft model.

After Apollo 11 fulfilled President Kennedy’s 1961 promise of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” the fickle American public and its politicians quickly lost interest in the space program. Mattel followed suit. Because of a dock strike in December 1969, Matt Mason and friends—including a few science fiction-inspired additions like “mysterious ally” Scorpio—were unavailable for the Christmas season. When the strike ended, momentum was lost, and Mattel phased out the line to fund other projects. (Another casualty of the strike was the Outer Space Men by Colorforms, a line of beautifully designed bendy space alien figures designed by Mel Birnkrant to serve as foils to Matt Mason.)

Although the 12″, 13″, and even 14″ action figure continued to dominate the market throughout the early- to mid-1970s, the benefits of the smaller scale introduced by Mattel were eventually realized: Fisher-Price’s 3.75″ Adventure People (1975)—again, not superheroes, but paramedics, construction workers, and scuba divers, accompanied by the larger scale tools of their respective trades—harked back to the design aesthetic and “everyman hero” philosophy of Matt Mason. Then, in 1976, after industry leader Mego passed on the toy license for an upcoming sci-fi film called Star Wars, the deal went to Kenner, known at the time for its imaginative and commercially dependable Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman toy lines. Kenner’s Star Wars figures (3.75″) and toys—production was delayed until 1978 due to the unexpectedly overwhelming demand—changed the toy industry forever. The smaller figures were cheaper to mass produce and priced accordingly, allowing middle-class parents to buy more for their kids, and the sophisticated playsets (the Death Star Space Station is a clear model of Matt Mason’s Space Station) directly echoed Mattel’s “exciting place, the world of space.”

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