Times have changed since the days when an imaginative kid was happy to play with an empty cardboard box. Today, about 2.6 billion toys are sold every year, creating a $20.3 billion industry. It seems that every decade manufacturers create a toy that launches a buying craze. Some just flash past on their way to a rummage sale table; others are timeless treasures. So without further ado, here are some of the best toy fads of the 20th century.
Silly Putty was developed in 1943 when James Wright, a General Electric researcher, was seeking a synthetic rubber substitute. His silicone-based polymer was elastic, could bounce, be easily molded, and always held its shape. Parents liked the fact that the putty was nontoxic and nonirritating. Since its debut as a toy in 1950, more than 300 million eggs of Silly Putty have been sold.
In 1943, naval engineer Richard James stumbled across an invention that would become a beloved toy worldwide. Made of 87 feet of flat wire coiled into a three-inch-diameter circle, the Slinky could "walk" down stairs when one end was placed on one step and the other on the step below. The classic slinky really took off in the 1950s, and today more than 300 million of the simple-yet-clever toys have sold worldwide.
Mr. Potato Head, with his interchangeable facial features, was patented in 1952 and was the first toy to be advertised on television. But for the first eight years, parents had to supply children with a real potato until a plastic potato body was included in 1960.
Intending to create a wallpaper cleaner, Joseph and Noah McVicker invented Play-Doh in 1955. Initially available in only one color (off-white) and in a 1.5-pound can, Play-Doh now comes in a rainbow of colors. The recipe remains a secret, but more than 700 million pounds of this nontoxic goop have sold since its introduction.
The concept of the hula hoop had been around for centuries. Then, in the late 1950s, Wham-O, a maverick California toy company, rolled out a plastic hoop for swivel-hipped kids. The concept caught on and 25 million sold in the first six months. They cost $1.98 each, and, by 1958, 100 million of them had been sold around the world -- except in Japan and the Soviet Union where they were said to represent the "emptiness of American culture." Ouch.
Barbie vamped onto the toy scene in 1959, the creation of Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot, who along with Harold Matson founded the Mattel toy company. Handler noticed that her daughter Barbara (Barbie) and her friends played with an adult female doll from Switzerland more than their baby dolls. So, Handler came up with her "Barbie" concept, and the rest is toy history.
Chatty Cathy, also released by the Mattel Corporation in 1959, was the era's second most popular doll. Yakking her way onto store shelves, Cathy could speak 11 phrases when a string in her back was pulled. "I love you" or "Please take me with you" could be disconcerting at first, but Chatty Cathy was a '50s classic.
Betsy Wetsy also made a splash with 1950s-era children. Created by the Ideal Toy Company, Betsy's already-open mouth would accept a liquid-filled bottle. The premise was simple and straightforward: Whatever goes in quickly comes out the other end, helping youngsters gain valuable diaper-changing experience.
Since 1963, when they were first introduced, more than 16 million Easy Bake Ovens have been sold. A light bulb provided the heat source for baking mini-cakes in America's first working toy oven. The original color was a trendy turquoise, and the stoves also sported a carrying handle and fake range top. As children, several celebrity chefs, including Bobby Flay, owned an Easy Bake Oven, which perhaps provided inspiration for their future careers.
Toy lovers have to salute manufacturer Hasbro for its G.I. Joe action figure, which first marched out in 1964. The 11-1/2-inch-tall doll for boys had 21 moving parts and was the world's first action figure. Hasbro's 40th Anniversary G.I. Joe collection in 2004 included a re-creation of the original doll, his clothes, accessories, and even the packaging. Nostalgic Joe pals snapped up thousands of these new recruits.
Hot Wheels screeched into the toy world in 1968, screaming out of Mattel's concept garage with 16 miniature autos. The glamorous Python, Custom Cougar, and Hot Heap immediately attracted attention and plenty of buyers. Track sets were also released in the same year so that children could simulate a real auto race. Today, more than 15 million people collect Hot Wheels cars.
"Weebles wobble but they don't fall down..." This was the unforgettable advertising slogan for these egg-shaped playthings first released by Hasbro in 1971. Each weeble had a sticker mounted on its short, fat "body" so it resembled a human or an animal. At the height of their popularity, the Weeble family had its own tree house and cottage, and a host of other characters and accessories were also produced, including a firefighter and fire truck, a playground, and a circus complete with a ringmaster, clown, and trapeze artist.
Also extremely popular in the '70s, the Big Wheel was the chosen mode of transportation for most young boys, and many girls, too. With its 16-inch front wheel and fat rear tires, this low-riding, spiffed up tricycle was even a hit with parents, who considered it safer than a standard trike.
Strawberry Shortcake was the sweetest-smelling doll of the 1980s. Created in 1977 by Muriel Fahrion for American Greetings, the company expanded the toy line in the 1980s to include Strawberry's friends and their pets. Each doll had a fruit- or dessert-scented theme complete with scented hair. Accessories, clothes, bedding, stickers, movies, and games followed, but by 1985 the fad had waned. The characters were revived in the 2000s with DVDs, video games, an animated TV series, and even a full-length animated film.
Xavier Roberts was a teenager when he launched his Babyland General Hospital during the 1970s in Cleveland, Georgia, allowing children to adopt a "baby." In 1983, the Coleco toy company started mass-producing these dolls as Cabbage Patch Kids. Each "kid" came with a unique name and a set of adoption papers, and stores couldn't keep them on the shelves, selling more than three million of the dolls in the first year.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who had both studied art history. As such, they named their characters Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. In 1984, with a mere $1,200, the Turtle creators launched the swashbuckling terrapins in a black-and-white comic book. More comics, as well as an animated television series, clothing, toys, and several full-length feature films followed, proving that the Green Team could earn some green, as well.
One of the biggest toy crazes of the 1980s was the brain-teasing Rubik's Cube. Created by Hungarian architect Erno Rubik, this perplexing puzzle was first introduced in 1977, and from 1980 to 1982 more than 100 million of the cubes sold. It sparked a trend and similar puzzles were created in various shapes, such as a pyramid and a sphere. The Rubik's Cube has seen a recent resurgence in popularity and retains a place of honor on many desktops.
From 1996 until around 1999, you couldn't escape the Beanie Baby. Like Cabbage Patch Kids and troll dolls of decades past, Ty Warner's Beanie Babies became a nationwide toy-collecting craze. The little plush-bodied, bean-filled animals came in dozens of different styles and colors and had special tags that included a poetic description of the character and its name. To feed the frenzy, Ty limited the release of certain Beanies and therefore sent the price of characters such as the "Blue Elephant" into the thousands. The fad died out before the millennium, but Beanie Babies still grace cubicles around the world.
Based on a Japanese toy called "Poketto Monstaa," Pokemon were tiny "pocket monsters" that battled each other when ordered by their "trainer." In 1996, Nintendo adapted the Japanese characters to promote its portable video game system, Game Boy. Pokemon trading cards and a television series were also wildly popular.
Undoubtedly the must-have toy of 1996, the immensely popular Tickle Me Elmo doll was based on the furry, red Sesame Street character. He'd giggle, saying, "Oh boy, that tickles," when he was tickled or squeezed. Manufacturer Tyco sold more than a million of the creatures that year, and when stores ran out of the dolls, some parents resorted to online auctions to secure one for their child.
Another plush gizmo, animatronic Furbies spoke their own "language" and became wildly successful in late 1998. Although they retailed for $30, they often fetched $100 or more online from desperate parents. More than 27 million Furbies sold in the first year, and a new, revamped Furby was introduced in 2005 with new features, including advanced voice recognition, so Furby can respond to questions based on its "mood."
The big fad toy of 2000 was the scooter, with approximately five million sold that year. These foot-propelled devices, a spin-off of the 1950s models, were made of lightweight aluminum and used tiny, low friction wheels similar to those on in-line skates. Weighing about ten pounds, they could be folded up and easily stored. Yet the scooters were relatively dangerous until operators became skilled at riding them. From January through October 2000, more than 27,000 people (mostly young males under the age of 15) were treated for scooter-related injuries.
Popular with kids of the new millennium (and adults, too), Heelys are a brand of sneakers with one or more wheels embedded in the soles. Somewhat similar to in-line skates, Heelys enable the wearer to roll from place to place, rather than mundanely walking. As of March 2006, manufacturer Heelys, Inc. has sold more than two million of these specialty sneaks, which are available in a wide variety of styles and colors for the whole family. And for added convenience and safety, they also sell helmets!
Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen