Move Over Barbie, GI Joe is Westport’s Toy Story
In the wake of the recently released movie “Barbie,” it seems timely to highlight another well-known toy — one with Westport connections — whose creator found inspiration at the annual Westport Friends book sale and Grundy’s Hardware Store (now known as Ace Hardware). The concept of this action figure was synthesized by the mind of a Westport summer resident, Sam Speers.
Al Lees, President of the Westport Historical Society, has fond memories of Sam and his wife Arlene, who spent their summers at Masquesatch Meadows. A GI Joe action figure is among Al’s treasured mementos of childhood:
“As a child, I like many of my generation had very few toys. They were simply too expensive. However, one Christmas, I opened the “big” present and there “he” was, GI Joe in a footlocker with all of his regalia. I will never forget that day. Now it’s tough to play soldier with only one soldier, but luckily Andrew and Peter Kirkaldy, two of my very best friends also got GI Joes. Now that was a game changer! We would play for hours fighting imaginary battles in the room next to Dr. Kirkaldy’s medical office, which at the time was in his house. I cannot imagine what his patients heard!”
“Years later, I had the distinct pleasure of becoming friends with Sam and Arlene Speers. Sam was the creator of GI Joe. I remember sitting in my mother’s living room with the Speers and hearing about how GI Joe came to be. Rarely do childhood dreams become adult realities. This was certainly one of those times. Thank you Sam and GI Joe. When life gets a bit overbearing, all I have to do is look in that footlocker and my mind goes back to a simpler and in some cases happier time.”
Speers (1924 – 2018) was a World War II veteran, having served two years as an airplane mechanic in the Navy. He then attended Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in industrial design. By 1963, he was working for Hasbro in Providence, and divided his time between a home in Attleboro and a cottage at Masquesatch Meadows. He was one of several on a Hasbro team challenged to create a “doll” for boys (but under instructions to never refer to it as a “doll”) and among the first to develop the concept of an action figure — a soldier — dubbed GI Joe.
Speers found inspiration for GI Joe at several Westport locations.
The design required innovative use of materials for special movable joints. At Grundy’s Hardware Store in Westport, he discovered a ring-threaded screw:
“it has concentric rings that can be forced into something but cannot be twisted out easily. Bingo. By Monday morning Norman Jacques and Walter Hansen, the other men on my team, were using them to fasten the fighting man’s limbs together.” (Interview with Speers by Paul Tamburello)
Speers was responsible for the ongoing evolution of stories and designs for GI Joe. Ironically, he found inspiration for GI Joe’s exploits at the annual Westport Friends book sale, picking up old issues of National Geographic which shaped his vision for the action figure. Speers may have found inspiration for deep-sea diver GI Joe within the pages of these magazines. With weighted boots and a special hard hat, deep-sea GI Joe would sink when tossed into water and could be brought back to the surface by blowing through a small tube. Speers’ imagination sent GI Joe on a hunt for a white tiger, brought him face-to-face with a giant octopus, and sent him to the moon.
Speers recalled a proud moment in the 1970s at Westport Harbor: “One of the thrills of my life was when my wife and I boated past Boat Beach and saw a little boy and his mother leaning over the side of a boat and dropping the deep sea GI Joe into the water. It was something I thought I’d never see.” (Interview with Speers by Paul Tamburello)
As GI Joe approaches its 70th anniversary in 2024, Westporters can proudly reflect upon this “sleepy” rural town’s role in inspiring a toy that remains a cultural icon of child’s play.
Sources for this article include: