This week, Tidbits stacks up the facts on the favorite creative toy of millions, Lego bricks.

    In 1932, Ole Kirk Christiansen was the 41-year-old owner of a woodworking shop in Denmark, a carpenter specializing in furniture making. That year, because his furniture business was in a slump, Christiansen made the decision to expand into the production of wooden toys, including pull-along animals, yo-yos, and trucks. It wasn’t enough to keep him from bankruptcy, but a bail-out loan from his siblings allowed him to keep the company afloat.

    Christiansen chose to focus strictly on toys, and in 1934, he renamed his toy company “Leg godt,” Danish for “play well.” The toys were produced from birchwood cut from nearby forests, with pieces dried out for two years, followed by three weeks of drying in a kiln. Each toy was protected with three coats of varnish

    By 1947, Christiansen’s sons were a key part of the company, and suggested attending a demonstration of a plastic injection-molding machine. With the purchase of the machine, the Lego company’s focus switched to developing a plastic brick. It was a difficult challenge for father Ole Kirk to embrace, as his entire career had been spent working with wood. Early plastic Lego bricks merely stacked upon each other like traditional wooden blocks. The company used the next few years to modify the plastic brick into a self-locking one with hollow tubes on the underside and raised studs on top.    The patent for the interlocking Lego brick was issued in Copenhagen in 1958.

Initial sales were poor, due to customers’ preference for wooden or metal toys. Several shipments were returned from vendors.

By 1960, Lego had abandoned production of all wooden toys, resulting in one of the Christiansen brothers, who had been the head of the wooden toys department, leaving Lego and starting his own company. Employees in the plastics division numbered 450.

In 1961, Lego wheels were introduced, facilitating the building of cars, trucks, and other vehicles. Production expanded into North America, with the Samsonite Company hired to manufacture the products. There were lots of Lego vehicles, but no figures to drive them, prompting Lego to create figures with round yellow head embellished with facial features, along with movable arms, legs, and torso. Lego figures were launched in 1978.

The company branched out into themed sets in the 1980s, including the Lego Castle, Pirates theme, and Space collections.

•    Copenhagen was home to the first Legoland, a park that opened in 1968. More than 625,000 guests visited during the first year. There are now eight Legoland parks around the world, drawing upwards of 15 million guests annually. There are factories in Denmark, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, and China, with projected openings for one in Vietnam and the U.S. state of Virginia in the next year. Sales in 2021 topped $8 billion, with an employee count exceeding 24,000. The company remains in the family, under the ownership of Ole Kirk’s grandson.   

    Although the Lego Company has experienced enormous success, along the way, the Christiansen family experienced tragedy. Ole’s workshop and the family home burned to the ground when his young sons were playing with wood shavings and caused a fire. In 1942, a short circuit caused an electrical fire, destroying the factory, the entire stock of wooden toys, and all the blueprints. A 1960 warehouse fire consumed nearly all of the inventory of wooden toys, an event that contributed to the end of production of Lego wooden toys.