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Looking back on 50 years of G.I. Joe at Wenham Museum

Brothers Xavier (left) and Deacon Parsons of Salem study the Wenham Museum’s G.I. Joe display.

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Brothers Xavier (left) and Deacon Parsons of Salem study the Wenham Museum’s G.I. Joe display.

WENHAM — “I had that when I was a kid,” said Jared Ward, pointing to one of the many G.I. Joe action figures on display at the Wenham Museum.

“And I had that. And that,” he continued, pointing out more figures, vehicles, and accessories.

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“I used to play with these all the time,” said Ward, 58, a commercial banker from Wenham. “For a 10-year-old kid, there wasn’t anything more exciting.”

The exhibition, “Happy 50th Birthday, G.I. Joe,” recalls Hasbro’s introduction of “America’s Movable Fighting Man” at the annual toy fair in New York City in 1964.

Within two years, the line of action figures accounted for two-thirds of the Rhode Island-based company’s profits. G.I. Joe was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Over the years, Joe underwent a lot of changes — including temporarily shrinking from 12 inches to 3¾ inches tall in the 1980s — but he is going strong thanks to movies, comics, collectors clubs, video games, online games, and even social media.

Still, what appeals to many fans is nostalgia.

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“I think they are a real piece of Americana,” said Chris Bergan, 54, of Andover. “The 1960s was the golden age of toys.”

G.I. Joe “captured the imagination of boys with its realism, authenticity, and attention to detail,” he said.

Joe followed on the heels of the success of the Barbie doll for girls, which Mattel launched in 1962.

Hasbro had the idea of creating a doll for boys, although the company replaced the word “doll” with “action figure.” Like Barbie, the G.I. Joe figures have had plenty of accessories and a wardrobe of removable uniforms. Vintage military weapons, vehicles, and equipment — even tiny canteens and footlockers — are included in the Wenham Museum exhibition.

“At the time G.I. Joe came out, there was a lot of nostalgia for World War II,” said Ward. “Boys could play with them, could shoot guns, and blow them up. It was cool. And it was OK to play with these kind of dolls.

“Creating World War II battles was not considered to be bad,” he said. “It was considered creative play.”

Then in the late 1960s, with growing public opposition to the Vietnam War, the popularity of G.I. Joe and its military associations waned. Hasbro countered in 1970 by transforming the line into the Adventure Team, with figures dressed for the jungle, desert, mountains, and oceans to fight against evils such as ecological disasters.

The Adventure Team was discontinued by the end of the decade. In the early 1980s, the company reintroduced G.I. Joe as a much smaller figure.

Bergan, who is a member of the New England G.I. Joe Collectors Club, said Hasbro attempted to appeal to girls with the introduction of a nurse figure — G.I. Jane — in 1967. But it was a flop.

“Now, ironically, it is the most valuable G.I. Joe collectible, worth from $3,000 to $5,000,” he said.

Bergan, who played with G.I Joes as a kid, began collecting them about 2½ years ago and has about 60.

David Eden, an Ipswich resident whose collection makes up the display at the Wenham Museum, started gathering the figures in 1995, when he wanted to make a diorama for his father, a World War II veteran.

But for many men, G.I. Joe is about their childhood.

“As a kid you’d play with this stuff and break it, and that is the way it’s supposed to be,” said Ward. “It was only later that some people were savvy enough to think that someday these would be collectors’ items.”

“Happy 50th Birthday, G.I. Joe” is at the Wenham Museum, 132 Main St., Wenham, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, until May 11; $8, $6 for children. Call 978-468-2377 or visit www.wenham-museum.org.

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