She isn’t as well known as Dr. Seuss or Jonas Salk, but San Diego schoolteacher Eleanor Abbott has touched the lives of tens of millions of kids.
Abbott is the creator of Candy Land, a board game for children she imagined to pass the time while recovering from polio (for which Salk ultimately created the vaccine) in a San Diego hospital in the early 1940s. Little else is known about Abbott, however - even at Hasbro, the toy company that currently produces the game.
The San Diego Historical Society’s sole notation: a phone book that shows Abbott’s old phone number.
Since the game’s release by Milton Bradley in 1949, more than 40 million copies have been sold worldwide. Children who can’t yet read or count well can still have fun playing the game - an important innovation, according to Samira Kawash, Professor Emerita in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, who has written about Candy Land in academic journals.
“Candy Land changed the way games can be played,” Kawash says. “Before Candy Land, board games were something that could be played with the whole family. But Candy Land was the first manufactured game that could be played by kids alone.”
While simplicity may be central to Candy Land’s success, Tim Walsh, a toymaker and director of “Toyland” (a documentary about the people who make toys) thinks the real genius was naming the game after candy.
“If it were ‘Vegetable Land,’ it wouldn’t sell,” he says. “To my mind, the key to its success may be its illustrations, which were well done, mouth-watering.”
But while Candy Land has been a consistent seller since its introduction, the game didn’t really get noticed as a classic until the 1970s, which, according to Kawash, may be why Abbott’s own biography is so miniscule.
“When Candy Land was created, it wasn’t important to Milton Bradley, which, at that time, mostly did school supplies,” Kawash says. “The interest in the game really grew in the 1970s when parents started paying attention to the educational value of games.
Except for a few occasional news articles, it wasn’t until the game’s 50th anniversary that Abbott’s name was released to the public.
“I’ve tried and tried to get information about her,” Kawash says, “but she lived and died in obscurity. There was one article I found from the 1960s, so she did live until then.”
Eleanor Abbott never had a statue or a street named after her, and it’s unknown whether she ever married or had kids. But her legacy lives on wherever toys are sold.
In a time when many kids were bedridden by polio, Candy Land gave them a chance to take a journey, even if only an imaginary one.
Regarding the woman who created it? Sweeter than candy: “It seems that [Abbott] gave much of her royalties to children’s charities,” Kawash says.
In December 2005, a Forbes magazine article cited Candy Land as the most popular toy/game in the 1940s. The game was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York, that same year. Hasbro sued an adult web content company over the use of candyland.com, ultimately winning the case and taking ownership of the URL.