Cool Vintage Toys: Stretch Armstrong

by AnomalousArtist

In 1976 a new kind of toy "hero" was born. He was muscular, thick, good looking...and had expandable limbs! Behold, the wonder and prowess of the original "Stretch Armstrong!"

Stretch Armstrong was, to those of us who remember him in the mid-to-late 70s, a sort of icon up there with "Star Wars" tie-in toys and the legendary sci-fi based "Micronauts." Toys of the era were fairly black-and-white in gender...there were "girls" toys that were all pink and lace and pretty things and "boy" toys: rugged trucks, mock-firearms and action/adventure themed games. In general, the message seemed to be that dolls were for girls; guns and sports were for boys.

Somewhere in the land in-between were science fiction and fantasy toys and "action figures," which were dolls with a "masculine" edge for boys OR girls. Amongst these was the weird and wonderful Plasticman-influenced "Stretch Armstrong," a pliable, stretchable wonder of modern petrol-technology that has achieved such legendary status his line has been revived and expanded over the years several times, his artifacts command top-dollar on eBay and there's even a Hollywood movie in the works!

But who, or what, really WAS Stretch Armstrong?

1) Rubber toys and "jigglers"

My quest to seek out the history of rubber as a use for playthings didn't yield much relevant information.  One is left to assume that rubber toys have been in existence as long as rubber trees have existed (the originals were South American) and produced the raw materials for this product. 

The substance we know today as rubber was first officially cultivated around the 1700s by the French but it appears to have been in use as far back as 1600 BC (well, that's what Wikipedia says anyway). 

One can only imagine the evolution of the rubber-made toy...a bouncing ball...a chew toy for an animal or teething child. 

By the late 50s and early 60s the first "jigglers" came on the scene.  These were rubber-almost-unto-liquid gelatin toys shaped like creatures: benevolent animals, soft-edged monsters, cartoony humans.

These spawned popular 60s "gumball" toys and cheap drugstore novelty or impulse items.  They were usually shaped as something "blecchy" like a spider, bat or worm and were perfect for chasing your siblings around the house.

These evolved into small multi-limbed, bug-eyed, slobbering late-60s latex monstrosities based on the work of popular underground artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth ("Rat Fink").

For a while it seemed rubber, latex and plastic were the waves of the future.  Post 1950s EVERYTHING was suddenly made of some form of polymer-based compound just waiting to contaminate a future landfill.  The problem in most cases was that no one predicted the shelf life of a lot of these jelly-like materials and many of them have not held up over time.  In some cases, the compound becomes "feral," that is, becomes a dangerous or destructive entity (see my companion article where I discuss the acidity of the rubber in the late 60s toys "The Outer Space Men").

While rubber is used today in various levels of elasticity and liquidity for all manner of things, the standard texture of the latex of the popular toys of the 60s and 70s has given way to much stronger and more durable materials, resulting in a higher quality of safety and satisfaction, but far fewer memories!

2) "Stretch" is born

There doesn't seem to have been a logical progression from the jiggly, wiggly rubber toys of the 60s to the advent of Mr. Armstrong.  The only connection I can find is that there were a lot of weird "science" toys where you could make latex toys of your own out of provided chemicals.  Craft kits like the "Thingmaker" were very popular as was the "Shaker Maker" and other similar packages, until some health hazard was discovered and the toys were quickly taken off the market. 

Out of these experimental toy "labs" Stretch burst forth one day, a wonder of chemical invention and structural planning...but not without his "Achilles' heel" as we will see further on...

3) What was "Stretch Armstrong?"

Stretch was, in short "Plasticman" from the DC comic book line.  He was a stocky blonde man with a lantern jaw, stern face and dark tan.  Dressed in either a regulation wrestling costume or his underpants depending on how you interpreted it (no one really explained his attire and I never asked), Stretch came in a big, fire-colored box, encased in two halves of hard Styrofoam.  When you pulled him out he sat staring, fixated, at some far-off enemy or quest with a tense expression not unlike Six-Million-Dollar Man Steve Austin's. His head was sculpted out of hard plastic and painted with fine details (like eye highlights).

His body was the real "magic" of the toy.  Molded out of thick, slick vinyl with very little detail, Stretch's skin was least under certain circumstances...and filled with a fluid material that allowed you to squish and pull the figure, much like you can do with modern day "stress balls."

The "fun" of Stretch was to pull on his arms and legs and expand him to twice his original 12" length (or more--we were always too scared to go further lest he'd snap). You could fold him, flatten him, tie his arms and legs around his body and Stretch would always, inevitably, return to his original shape, content to await further abuse with his perpetual worried expression.

He came with a mat for measuring his prowess as a "stretcher" and instructions on how to use, and not MIS-use him, a subject that would become increasingly important the more you played with the toy. Stretch Armstrong was a lot of fun for us as kids but despite his aggressive stance and durable figure, Stretch turned out to be, well...a big ol' "softy!"

4) Stretch's weaknesses

One of the first signals that all was not strength and fortitude in "Stretch World" was the small warning in the instruction book:  you were not supposed to pull Stretch TOO far, because you could break him!  But no need to worry; you were provided with a "first aid kit" in the unhappy event that Stretch got seriously injured.  This elaborate, specialized first-aid system consisted entirely of... Band-Aid!

Yes, that's right, the Kenner Toy packaging and marketing team came up with a "brilliant" method for repairing broken latex, a task that is something like trying to patch up wood, plaster or glass (ie, next to impossible), in short to fix Stretch you...put a Band-Aid on the "owie!"

Even as a kid I knew a Band-Aid wouldn't "heal" my beloved toy and I made sure I always treated it with care even as I, and my eager friends, stretched the thing halfway around the living room.

I didn't know that latex has a tendency to wear out no matter what you do to it--observe an old balloon sometime, it's the same; a balloon that is inflated and loses air loses its elasticity quickly and becomes loose and "shriveled" looking eventually...well...just like human skin does!

In time, despite my not pulling my Stretch Armstrong doll to extremes, his skin lost its shiny sheen and became noticeably thinner and more textured, particularly around his armpit.

I was already afraid for my toy's health but couldn't resist playing with it and in time the inevitable happened...

5) Toys that "bleed"

My parents were just as shocked as I was when I presented my injured Stretch Armstrong to them with, no doubt, a look of deep concern on my face. 

My Stretch had been pulled to breaking; a small hole had appeared in his armpit and... fluid was oozing out!

This, of course, answered the burning question everyone in my family had been concerned with as to what was INSIDE Stretch--my mom was convinced it must be some radiation-laced, sterilizing death fluid, of course, and without knowing for SURE we could only speculate.  Well, now we knew...Stretch Armstrong was filled with...

...corn syrup the color of blood!

My mom recognized it right away and seemed eased by the knowledge, and if it wasn't exactly edifying to me to know my toy was bleeding a food additive, it helped normalize the situation some. It also explained why Stretch was no fun to play with when cold and ridiculously pliable when warmed up.

But what to do? 

We tried to apply the supplied adhesive strip but of course one halfway decent tug and the Band-Aid slipped across the stretched skin; it didn't stretch WITH the skin, of course. 

From that point on Stretch became like something leprous to me...I was afraid to even touch my once-favorite toy lest I cause it further injury, and it just wasn't as FUN anymore now that it was damaged.

My love for Stretch, the one-time amazing wonder-toy, was fickle indeed.

6) "Stretch" stretches through history

My Stretch Armstrong doll ended his life in a sad, lonely way something akin to the most pathetic character in a Thomas Hardy novel; he was exiled to the basement, the "toy graveyard" of our house, as it were--a place where things were tossed that we weren't sure what to do with but weren't ready to throw away...maybe they'd have SOME use again, someday?  Or maybe not. 

Stretch lay there leaking onto the concrete for many years before my mom and dad found him while cleaning for a move out of my childhood home.  Mom claims she felt deep pity for the poor, deflated, rotting latex creature she found in a flat pool of hardened red goo; the only comfort any of us took was from knowing Stretch had been loved well and often; his injuries were a testament to how much fun we'd had with the toy in the 70s.

I was pleased to find the "Stretch" brand revived in the 90s.  While I personally still felt sensitive on the subject and didn't think about my once-beloved toy much, I liked seeing the name and character resurrected.

The "new" stretch had more of a cartoony face and seemed modeled after Hulk Hogan, minus the trademark handlebar moustache, but the "spirit" of the thing was the same, and my young nephews eventually got one for Christmas.

Beyond the original "Stretch Armstrong" there were related stretchy cousins in the late 70s: a green Stretch "Monster," Stretch "X-Ray" (its skin was clear), Stretch Hulk, an ultra-rare stretch "snake" and two cute stretch octopi--a blue boy and seductive-eyed pink girl.  The 90s "stretchers" included a kind of "vacuum-packed" monster filled with plastic Styrofoam balls and, as if coming full circle, a Stretch Reed Richards (an elastic man super hero like "Plasticman") to tie in with 2005's "Fantastic Four" movie.

These toys, being rather delicate in nature and somewhat rare, command incredibly high resale prices between private collectors and on eBay.  The odds of finding an intact stretcher are small indeed; even if you never played with the toy the elements might have gotten to it; Stretch's "blood" could freeze and harden if he got too cold and break down into thin fluid if he was warmed too much. 

Stretch has such a fan base a movie version of the character has been planned for 2014; while it's all still under discussion as of this writing, the mere fact that anyone would even THINK to make a film based on a single toy from 1976 lets you know that Stretch's...umm...arms...have...(oh boy, here it comes) "stretched" long and wide (many apologies for that last "groaner!").

Stretch Armstrong was a landmark toy for anyone who remembers it in the mid-70s and it's comforting to me to know that ol' Stretch has gotten the respect he so rightly deserves in contrast to the neglectful way I treated my  most beloved and cherished favorite-of-all-time childhood toy!

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Updated: 10/17/2013, AnomalousArtist
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lisa on 08/14/2013

Christmas is an exciting time for little girls and boys, who have been waiting for a year to receive their great presents that they always wish to get. However, the upcoming Christmas holiday is a hard task for the parents to choose a toy for their children.
the best cool toys for Christmas.

AnomalousArtist on 05/26/2013

Haha, that's SO true, Peggy!

PeggyHazelwood on 05/25/2013

I vaguely remember Stretch Armstrong (you're younger than me!). He sounds like quite a guy who should stay away from the stove.

AnomalousArtist on 05/25/2013

Rock 'em sock 'ems! Those things were AWESOME ha ha!

katiem2 on 05/25/2013

ME too, I grew up with three older brothers and always loved playing with their toys, rock em sock em robots was a fave, plus stretch arm strong is always a cool fave.

AnomalousArtist on 05/24/2013

Exactly! Stretch was, thankfully, neither/nor ...glad to spark a memory, hope you treated yours better than I did, ha ha!

belinda342 on 05/24/2013

Thank you for another trip down memory lane. Guess I wasn't the typical girl-child, because I loved Stretch too!

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