Hans Beck (b. 1929) is often called "The Father of Playmobil." Beck received training as a cabinetmaker but worked simultaneously on model airplanes, a product he pitched to the company geobra Brandstätter. The owner of the company, Horst Brandstätter, asked him to develop toy figures for children instead.
Beck spent three years developing what became Playmobil. Beck conducted research that allowed him to develop a toy that would not be too complex but nevertheless flexible. Playmobil hands were capable of gripping and holding objects. The toy, at 7.5 cm, would also fit in a child's hand and its facial design would be based on children's drawings (large head, big smile, no nose). "I would put the little figures in their hands without saying anything about what they were," Beck remarked. "They accepted them right away....They invented little scenarios for them. They never grew tired of playing with them.
Earlier figures had arms of one piece and another piece for the legs. Later sets allow hand rotation and independent leg and foot movement.
The 1973 oil crisis made it possible for Playmobil to be considered a viable product. Rising oil prices imposed on Geobra Brandstätter, for whom Beck worked as Head of Development, demanded that the company turn to products that required less solid plastic material (during the 1960s, the company had been producing hoola-hoops and large plastic toys).
In 1974, the company put the series on show in its display rooms. Initial visitors were reluctant to accept the toy. Nevertheless, the toy was shown at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, which was taking place that same year. The toy remained popular with children. A Dutch firm subsequently agreed to buy a whole year's production.
Playmobil began to be sold worldwide in 1975.
Playmobil pop-up books, in which buildings and settings corresponded to the height of actual Playmobil figures, were sold for a time, as well as a series of comic books, coloring books, and puzzles.
Playmobil has been a successful toy line for more than 25 years and they have been a major competitor to Lego toys. Examples of directly competing toys in both their product line are not hard to find. Within the limitations of the Playmobil toy world, the Playmobil toys are usually realistic, and present accurate representations of arms, armor, costumes, and tools from a recognizable time period. Especially notable for a fine attention to detail are the modern construction and city life toys (cars, cranes, fire-engines, trains, boats, etc.).
Playmobil toys are specifically aimed at children from the ages of six to twelve. The company believes that older children tend not to play with these types of toys and so it has resisted creating toys from other, less well known, historical time periods. However, many adults own or collect Playmobil and make movies with the toys.
What's your 'Playmobil' worth? Here are some recently sold items (USA):