Everyone fortunate enough to have toys as a child has a favorite one that sticks in their mind for the rest of their life, no matter how old and boring they get. For some lucky children in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that toy was the Boglin, maybe the greatest monster toys of all time.
Boglins were uniquely monstrous puppets made out of foam latex that looked and felt so real, it seemed like they could have been movie props. But unlike the movie or TV tie-in toys of today, Boglins didn’t have any other media presence. They were simply ultra-cool, satisfyingly gross monsters that kids could bring to life.
“Boglins make their way on the toy itself,” says Patricia Hogan, curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. “There’s no Saturday morning cartoon, no comic, no trans-media existence.” While their lack of media saturation probably contributed to their brief life and quick demise, Boglins became quite popular in their short few years on the toy shelves. And to those that remember the toys, they are one of the coolest playthings of all time.
While their tagline claimed they were from “a swampy bog that time forgot,” Boglins were actually the brainchild of creature and prop designers Tim Clarke and Maureen Trotto. Clarke had been working with the Jim Henson Company, on projects such as The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock, when he realized that he and his colleagues could bring their mastery of puppetry and design to the toy world. Jim Henson, however, disagreed—and in doing so, inadvertently spurred the creation of the Boglins. “I went to Jim Henson and I said we should be designing toys here and licensing them to toy companies,” Clarke says. “He said to me, ‘Tim, it’s a great idea, I just don’t want to do it.’ I’ve always said that’s the best kick in the pants I ever got.”
After Fraggle Rock ended, Clarke continued to work for Henson, as well as creating props for commercials with Trotto. Teaming up with toy agent Larry Mass, Clarke and Trotto created their first toy line, the Sectaurs, which were based on a fly puppet glove he had created for one of Henson’s Halloween parties. “I don’t known if you can even begin to imagine what it was like to come up with something unique and different to go to a Henson Halloween party,” Clarke says. The Sectaurs were bug puppets that kids could control with their hands with action figures that rode on top. The incorporation of the hand puppet control would go on to inspire the Boglins’ functionality.
Clarke began to see the potential for creating a figure out of foam latex, utilizing the expressive properties of the material. Inspired by the Olmec colossal heads of Ancient Mexico, the first ever Boglin was a green creature that kept about the same shape, with the addition of arms, ears, and a tail. Oh, and of course, a delightfully gruesome, and malleable face. Clarke added a simple mechanism that could control the eyes, and another that would allow one of the monsters’ pudgy little hands to grab something. Clarke and Trotto sculpted a number of smaller models of the creatures and brought them to toy company Coleco, which was handling their Sectaurs.
Coleco liked the idea, but wanted to change the design, adding a tubular body, and creating something described as “awful.” The idea was that the rubber monsters were slated to be rolled out as a race of foils to Clarke’s Sectaurs. But before these abominations could be released, Coleco decided to drop the line, shelving the Boglins along with them.
Toy agent Mass then took the Boglins to Mattel, who loved them. By 1987, when commercial Boglins were available on the store shelves, Clarke and Trotto’s vision of the toys was remarkably unaltered save for the removal of the grabbing hand because it was too expensive to mass produce. The original line produced three different, full-size Boglins by the names of Dwork, Vlobb, and Drool. The toys were made of an artificial rubber called kraton, suggested by Mattel.
The greatest addition or change to the final released toys was the unique design of the box they came in. Designed by Trotto’s husband, the box was made to look like a wooden crate that the Boglin had been shipped in from its far-flung swamp. The front of the box was a plastic cage grate that could be lifted to release the creature. There was a hole in the bottom of the box in case kids wanted to bring their Boglin to life while keeping it in its cage. The back was also printed with the fictional field notes of a Boglin researcher who expounded on the new field of “Bogology.” All together, the entire package gave kids the feeling that they were taking home their very own monster. Some have pointed to the innovative packaging as one of the primary reasons Boglins took off.
After their release, Boglins became a brief, but bright hit in America. “The notion of horror and humor combined became big in the 80s,” says Hogan. “Especially around toys like Boglins, and others like the Gremlins[…], Ghostbusters. They combined the horror of the monster genre with comedy, so that you’re screaming one minute, and laughing the next.” Boglins certainly personified this notion with their goofy names and frightening features.
The original trio of full-size Boglins was joined by an expanded line of smaller Boglins that lacked the eye mechanism, and were closer to finger puppets in function. With names like Squidge, Sponk, and Shlump, they fit right in. Other species of Boglin were released including Halloween-themed variants (Bog O’ Bones and Blobkin, painted like a skeleton and a pumpkin respectively), and Soggy Boglins, which were a trio of all-new full-size Boglins designed with an aquatic bent that had new features like squirting water or a sticky tongue (Snish, Slobster, and Slogg). There was even a line of Boglins with wings that got to the prototype stage, but never hit store shelves.
Unfortunately, despite the explosive line growth, about two years after the U.S. release of the toys, Mattel fell out of love with the Boglin line and left it out in the advertising cold, essentially rendering the American Boglin extinct. “The first year they did very well,” says Clarke. “Going into the second year, Mattel had seven million dollars in orders for the second year.” The rights to Boglin-related licenses for things like sheets and clothes was originally sold to a third-party marketing firm, but Mattel insisted on owning those rights as well, purchasing them, and then letting the property stagnate. Clarke was baffled. “[They bought the rights] and then did absolutely nothing with it. To this day I do not understand why they put out all that extra money and didn’t go anywhere.” After just two years on the American shelves, Mattel discontinued Boglins.
But they weren’t dead yet. Boglins were an even bigger hit in the United Kingdom than they had been in the U.S. By the end of the 1980s, Boglins had been discontinued in America, but had continued to thrive in the U.K., where they were distributed by toy company Ideal. Across the pond, the Boglins line exploded. There were glow-in-the-dark Boglins and wacky wall walker Boglins. “There were all kinds of variations,” says Clarke. “There are some that I’m still learning about.”
There were also Mini-Boglins, many of which were sculpted by Clarke and Trotto (some of which came in little buckets of slime). These immovable little figures were unpainted, molded Boglins that were targeted at the same market inhabited by Monster in My Pocket and M.U.S.C.L.E collectable figures. These Tiny Boglins, the first ones which were not created as puppets, were divided into themed “tribes” like the Greedies, The Rude Dudes, and the Disgustings.
Eventually, even in the U.K., the Boglins were sent back to the swamp, and the line was fully discontinued in 1994. There was a half-hearted attempt to relaunch the Boglins in 2000, including the release of new Boglins with battery-operated features like pop-out eyes, and sound effects. These more cartoony Boglins were launched in the U.S. and Europe to little fanfare, and were poorly supported by an anemic ad campaign that soon saw the Boglins fall back out of the popular consciousness.
Why don’t we see unique toy lines like the Boglins anymore? Clarke says that the market no longer exists. “Right now, everything has to have a cartoon animation, or a movie, or a TV show tied to it, that was still in the day and age when independent toy designers could place products at companies, which is unheard of now.” However it was the magic of movies that inspired Clarke to create such high-quality toys in the first place. “What I had wanted to do many, many years ago was to give kids the ability to play with something they were seeing in special effects movies,” he says. “They are seeing Yoda, they are seeing Jabba the Hutt, they are seeing the creatures in The Dark Crystal, and being fascinated by movie monsters [made of foam latex]. Here’s this incredible material, and yet kids are ending up with rigid, non-malleable toys.” It was an issue the creepy, expressive little Boglins tried to fix.
Today Boglins live on mainly in the nostalgic minds of the grown children who once played with them. (Though if you can get to Rochester, New York, you can see them in person—as a result of our inquiries for this article, the Strong National Museum of Play has purchased a few Boglins for its collection.) Clarke says that the Boglins may soon be reborn as a high-end collectable figure for adults. It would be a bit different—more of a designer action figure. Whenever and however they return, Boglins will continue to live on in the memories of every former kid who got to bring home their very own monster.
Corrections: Previously the article stated that Clarke worked on Fraggle Rock prior to working on The Dark Crystal, and Maureen Trotto was not originally noted as a co-creator of the Sectaurs line. The timeline of Clarke’s work has been corrected and Trotto has been credited for her work on the Sectaurs line.