When Sterling Ashby launched History in Action Toys in 2005, he had to decide whether his finished product was most valuable inside or outside of the original packaging. “First and foremost, I’m trying to make something that a kid wants to play with,” the 38-year-old Mount Pleasant resident says of his richly detailed, 6 1/4ninch history-based action figures. “The box is attractive and displays the toy well if you want to keep it in the box as a collector,” he adds, but “it’s a toy for kids, too.”
Ashby says the idea behind his fledgling company struck him several years ago while shopping for a Christmas gift for his best friend’s son. A set of toys depicting famous people from history—including Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, and William Shakespeare—caught his eye. Ashby purchased the Einstein toy; when the child opened the gift he asked his father, “Who is that?” That moment alone, Ashby says, made the gift worth his 20 dollars. “The kid initiated a conversation about something of substance,” he says. “I tricked him!”
A self-described “devourer” of historical biographies, Ashby began to mull over a list of names that might make for good action figures. “There’s some black folks from history that people haven’t really focused on that have some great stories,” he says, noting Ralph Bunche and Paul Robeson as two of his favorites. Later, Ashby began shopping his black action figure concept to friends at cocktail parties. “There were some naysayers,” he says. Undeterred, Ashby left his job as an attorney at the prestigious firm Skadden, Arps in August 2004 to practice law at a smaller firm, and eventually quit firm practice altogether so that he could focus on what he calls his “toy project.”
For his first set of figures, Ashby chose Bessie Coleman (pictured), the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s licence; Matthew Henson, one of the first Americans to explore the North Pole; and Benjamin Banneker, the famous mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. He found an artist to sketch the concept and a sculptor to create an actual mock-up—a process that wasn’t without its challenges.
“With Bessie, we didn’t want to make her too boyish,” Ashby says of the aviatrix. “At first, [the sculptor] gave her a big busty chest and her hairstyle was too Josephine Baker-ish. We had to look through a hair magazine to find a style that worked.”
Ashby says the key to action toys is “points of articulation”—the hinges from which the toy gains movement. Most action figures have about five points of articulation; his have 18. With that many joints, the figures can do much more than strike a pose—their bodies can be contorted into pretzel-like shapes. Ashby considers his toys more playable because they are crafted with softer plastic and the details of each figure’s clothing and accessories are more finely sculpted.
In January of this year, Ashby received his first shipment of 9,000 units, paid for with his personal savings and a “small loan to get over the last production hurdle.” Though you won’t find the Bessie Coleman action figure in Toys “R” Us just yet, Ashby says that “On the museum side, it’s been a home run.” Almost every museum he’s approached has said yes, including the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Baltimore, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The National Park Service approved Ashby as a suitable vendor, and now he’s working to get individual NPS sites to carry his products.
Though the figures depict historical African-American figures, Ashby doesn’t want their popularity to wane after February. There’s “been a big push because of the natural connection with Black History Month,” he says. “But I’m building a toy company for all kids.”