Who invented Trolls?
This weekend I was hanging out with a friend and somehow we started talking about trolls. Um, hello, what an awesome Daily Doodle topic! We both agreed the jewel-belly troll would be the most fun, but upon researching, I decided against that decision. You'll find out why if you keep reading.
The story of troll dolls began in the small town of Gjøl, Denmark, during the precarious economy following World War II. According to board game designer Tim Walsh’s 2005 book Timeless Toys, Thomas Dam (1915-1989) was a baker whose livelihood vanished when the local flour factory shuttered. Struggling to support his young family, Dam shoveled snow for cash while formulating a new plan for earning a living. Early in the morning, or at night when he returned, Thomas Dam would sit near the fireplace, carving bits of wood while he thought. He often carved funny creatures to entertain his children, and eventually, his wife persuaded him to try selling the figurines. Dam packed up as many as he could carry and traveled to Aalborg, the nearest city, where he planned to knock on doors. He came home having successfully sold them all.
As Dam’s figurines found fans in Aalborg, customers began commissioning bigger projects. Before long, Dam became a working sculptor whose reputation eventually exceeded Denmark’s borders. In 1956, a Swedish department store hired him to create a large sculpture of Santa Claus, kicking off the chain of events that nudged Dam to fully embrace toy making.
When he finished installing the Santa Claus sculpture, Dam realized that it wasn’t completely visible from the street. He proposed an accompanying window display with a clever design. First, he sculpted tiny figures of Christmas elves (designed in a similar style to his soon-to-be-famous troll dolls) and dismantled a mattress, hiding a spring in each figurine’s body. Next, Dam built a display with a mechanism that lifted and dropped a long piece of wood. When the dolls were fixed to the wood, the gently undulating motion caused their springs to bounce. “[These trolls] were standing there waving, jumping up and down and their heads were rolling,” recalled Niels Dam, Thomas Dam’s son, in Timeless Toys.
The window display worked, and the store was flooded with requests from customers eager to purchase dolls of their own. Dam raced to fulfill the orders, selling out his entire stock by Christmas. But the original dolls were expensive to produce, requiring painstakingly handmade details and expensive springs.
When demand showed no sign of slowing, Dam began tweaking the design to scale up production. He had already switched from hand-carved wood to rubber molded in reusable gypsum casts. Under a newly minted company dubbed Dam Things, he replaced the dolls’ springy bodies with more affordable rubber ones stuffed with wood shavings. By 1959, Dam established a small factory in Gjøl, and in 1961, he switched to an even more efficient production process called rotational molding, using the same PVC plastic that troll dolls are made of today.
By 1962, Dam’s trolls had become an international sensation, fueled by a new network of factories spanning New Zealand to Florida. With prices ranging from roughly 65 cents up to $5.95 per doll, trolls were a vehicle for pricier add-ons, such as clothing and accessories. A 1966 Sears advertisement tempted shoppers with exclusive releases, including a troll village playset and a “prehistoric model home furnished in true Troll decor.” Dam’s original Good Luck Trolls (renamed Wishniks when sold by a U.S. distributor) encouraged children to rub their trolls’ colorful hair for good fortune.
Trolls continued their rise to fame. When President John F. Kennedy welcomed Betty Miller, the first woman to pilot a solo trans-Pacific flight, to the White House on July 19, 1963, he also greeted her troll doll, Dammit, who served as a good luck charm onboard her famous flight. First lady Lady Bird Johnson was also fond of trolls, and reportedly had a doll of her own. According to Walsh, Americans purchased more than one million Dam trolls in 1964 alone. The record sales even drove Dam Things to purchase Iceland’s entire harvest of sheepskin for use as the dolls’ iconic hair.
Americans collectively spent more than $100,000 on trolls per month in the toy’s heyday. Although only one company, Uneeda, was licensed to sell official Dam trolls, competitors including Lucky Schnooks, Fauni Trolls and a host of unbranded mimics exploited a gap in U.S. copyright law, pumping out similar toys with cheaper materials. Although Dam obtained a U.S. copyright for his trolls in 1965, Uneeda had already sold countless troll dolls by then, miring them in the public domain. Children may have been indifferent to the branding, but for the Dam company, the competition stung.
With copyright issues still unresolved, unlicensed varieties continued to emerge during the late 1980s through trolls’ second peak during the early 1990s. Among them, Ace’s Treasure Trolls added an iconic rhinestone belly button marketed as a lucky “Wishstone” (borrowing heavily from Dam’s original Good Luck Trolls playbook). Hasbro took a different tack with its line of Battle Trolls, which had bulging muscles and brandished theatrical weapons like a band of miniature pro-wrestlers.
So, now you know why I felt I couldn't paint a jewel-bellied troll. It just didn't seem right to highlight a copyright infringement on today's Daily Doodle page.