The Lego Group had humble beginnings in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen, a poor carpenter from Billund, Denmark. His innovative family-owned business would one day grow into one of the most respected toy companies in the world.
In 1916, Christiansen purchased a woodworking shop in Billund which had been in business since 1895. He earned his living by constructing houses and furniture for farmers in the region, with the help of a small staff of apprentices. His workshop burned down in 1924 when a fire, lit by two of his young sons, ignited some wood shavings. Undaunted, Ole Kirk took the disaster as an opportunity to construct a larger workshop, and worked towards expanding his business even further; however, the Great Depression would soon have an impact on his livelihood. In finding ways to minimize production costs, Ole Kirk began producing miniature versions of his products as design aids. It was these miniature stepladders and ironing boards that inspired him to begin producing toys.
In 1932, Ole Kirk’s shop started making wooden pull toys, piggy banks, cars and trucks. He enjoyed a modest amount of success, but families were poor and often unable to afford such toys. Farmers in the area sometimes traded food in exchange for his toys; Ole Kirk found he had to continue producing practical furniture in addition to toys in order to stay in business. In the mid-1930s, the yo-yo toy fad gave him a brief period of activity, until its sudden collapse. Once again, Ole Kirk turned disadvantage to his favor, turning the disused yo-yo parts into wheels for a toy truck. His son Godtfred began working for him, taking an active role in the company.
It was in 1934 that the company name Lego was coined by Christiansen from the Danish phrase leg godt, meaning “play well.” The Lego Group claims that “Lego” means “I put together” or “I assemble” in Latin though this is a rather liberal translation of a verb form that would normally translate as “I read” or “I gather.”