Learning about LEGO has never been easy. No toy has had a more complex history over the years than has LEGO. This goes all the way back to the earliest years, and continues into the present.
One area that is surprisingly not well documented is the variations of the same LEGO sets in different regions of the world, writes Gary Istok who has contributed another article on the history of LEGO.
Prior to 1955, LEGO sets were all basically the same with either Automatic Binding Bricks (1949-53) or LEGO Mursten (1953-55) on the box tops. It wasn’t until 1955 that things changed, and sets produced for different countries in Europe had different box tops. This was mainly done for the different languages of Europe, but there were a few surprising exceptions to this. By 1960 so many countries were coming online to LEGO that the box designs were changed to “LEGO System”, which by 1973 was changed again to just the LEGO logo. But sets produced for LEGO licensees Samsonite (USA/Canada) and British LEGO Ltd (a Courtauld’s Corp. subsidiary) still had different box designs. And by the early 1990s when all the licensees were bought out by TLG, there were still box differences for the North American and rest-of-world markets.
In 1955, there were only three LEGO sales countries, namely Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In 1956 sales started in Germany and in early 1957 in the Netherlands and Switzerland. TLG produced LEGO boxes with writing on them in the local language. This was working fine until late 1957, when Austria, Belgium and Portugal started LEGO sales. So TLG had to do something to stop the proliferation of different boxes in local languages. The decision to go to common “LEGO System” boxes was decided, and all the local language box countries switched to boxes with “LEGO System” by 1958-59. Belgium and Portugal started immediately with “LEGO System” boxes, but Austria started using German language boxes identical to those of Germany (just as Sweden and Norway had identical boxes due to the similarity of their box text). What made this entire process even more complex was the fact that Denmark was not going to switch over to universal boxes until 1960, when new universal box designs were introduced.
This is the side-of-box design for the later basic sets of the 1950s. Only four of these however made it to box top designs. The rest were only seen on the sides of the boxes. Surprisingly Portugal (Portuguese) is not represented at all.
Here we have the basic set designs of 1957-60. This is the 700/3A Basic set, a mid-sized LEGO set. The upper left box is the Danish box, used from 1957-60 (no language changeover). The upper right box was the Swedish/Norwegian box of 1957-58. In the middle left we have a Dutch language 700/3A box of 1957-58. In the middle right we have the German/Austrian box of 1957-58. In the bottom right we have the Swiss Canister 700/3A set of 1957-60 in German/French. And in the lower left we have the universal “LEGO System” box that Belgium and Portugal first used in late 1957. When Italy came online in 1958, and France/Finland in 1959, they also used this same 700/3A box design. And in Sweden/Norway, Germany/Austria and Netherlands… as their local language box inventory ran out in 1958, they too switched over to the LEGO System box design. Only Denmark did not switch over to this design, retaining their local language “System i leg” box top. In 1960, all countries switched over to a new box design with the universal “LEGO System”.
In 1957 TLG came out with a new line of Town Plan sets (the earliest, the Esso Service, came out in 1956). At first appearance these sets had the universal “LEGO System” box design. But many of these sets had a printed “named beam” in the local language. And for a short period of time TLG still made local language boxes showing the printed brick of that particular country. Only starting in 1958 did TLG switch to universal box designs, with the box top showing a “LEGO” brick on the box top (even though there was never a brick with that name in these sets). Although the boxes became universal, the contents were still local language specific.
Here we have the 4 box variations for the 1307/307 VW Showroom Set. The 1957 produced boxes of (upper left) Sweden, (upper right) Germany, (lower left) Denmark/Norway had the 1307 set number. In 1958 these countries switched set numbers to 307, which was also sold in other European countries with this same 307 box design (lower right). The contents of each box still contained the local language brick, even though the box top shows the universal “LEGO” printed brick.
The spare parts packs of the 1950s were available in the language of each country, this included Belgium and even (in 1958) Italy. However Portugal was not given its own language spare parts packs. They had the “LEGO System” boxes. And when France and Finland came online to LEGO sales in 1959, they too began using “LEGO System” boxes. And eventually all the local language boxes switched over to the universal “LEGO System” boxes in 1959 (except for Denmark, which retained the local language “System i leg” boxes). In 1960, as with the basic sets, the spare parts pack designs were all remodeled with a universal box design.
Here are the 1957-59 LEGO spare parts pack box designs by European country. In the upper row (left to right) we have Italy, Belgium (bilingual), Switzerland (bilingual), and Germany/Austria. In the lower row we have Denmark, Portugal (universal LEGO System), Netherlands, and Sweden/Norway.
Some LEGO sets in 1958-60 had a variation on how they were labeled. They had the universal “LEGO System” on the box top, and the individual language writing on the back. This is the 236 Garage set that shows a hybrid of local language and universal box writing. By 1960 even this box design was changed to a universal “LEGO System” box.
1960 was the year that all LEGO sets had the universal “LEGO System” on the box. From 1960-62 Britain, Ireland, USA, Canada and Australia would all start LEGO sales, and maintain this uniformity of a universal box. However by 1964, the LEGO licensees that produced LEGO sets for these new countries, would again produce different box top designs, but with English writing on them (English/French for Canada).
The British licensee (Courtauld’s subsidiary British LEGO Ltd.) would start to use “True Building” on many of the box tops for sets of Britain, Ireland and Australia. The USA/Canada license (Samsonite Corporation) would start to use English writing on the box tops, and for the model sets, it would use “Model Makers”. Samsonite of Canada would produce bilingual English/French writing on the box tops.
Here we see several model sets of the 1964-70 era showing the box variations. The upper row shows the 326 Little House Set. This set was sold in continental Europe with the universal “LEGO System” on the box top (upper left), and in England, Ireland and Australia with English writing on the box top (upper right). The lower row shows the 340 Railroad Control Tower set. This set was sold in continental Europe with the universal “LEGO System” on the box top (lower left), and in the USA/Canada with “Model Maker” and English writing on the box top (English/French in Canada).
Part 2 of this series will cover the LEGO years 1973-Present.