Ah, childhood: those sweet early days where the only things on your to-do list were acquiring object permanence and putting it to use during playtime. A time when acquiring the sweetest toys on the market was your way of escaping the drudgery of elementary school. While each decade had its own best toys – toys from the ’70s and ’80s were different than ’90s toys – the real créme de la créme toys had a little thing called staying power. After all, Crayola Crayons hit the market in 1903, and they still beat RoseArt every day of the week.
Just which toy you best identify with, be it the hovering flight of a Frisbee, the Boardwalk frustrations of Monopoly, or the creaky electrified blinking of a Furby, says something about you. That’s because particular toys, much like particular fashion trends, had cultural moments that are inextricably bound up with the era in which they stormed childhood. And, sorry 1940s, but you really thought it was fun for kids to recreate WWII battlefields? Honestly, that’s kind of a creepy toy idea.
1990s: Furbies Taught You How To Love; Giga Pets Provided Existential Lessons
One of the earliest “smart” toys, the plush, doe-eyed Furby burst onto the 1990s toy scene with a gimmick that thrilled slumber parties the world over – it could speak. Furbies came loaded with a smattering of “Furbish” phrases and were programed to pick up more language through extended interaction with their users. While the dolls, which were huge sellers, never quite achieved full enough English proficiency to say much more than variations on “I love you,” their animatronic jittering and thousand-yard stares more than cemented them in the lives of children growing up in the last decade of the 20th century.
For the angst-filled ’90s kid – or the one whose parents wouldn’t let them have a real pet – virtual pets, AKA “gigapets,” offered a little taste of responsibility and consequences. Feed your virtual kitten – or else it would die. The good news? In the case of your virtual pet expiring, the tiny reset button was always an option.
If you wanted to be a cool, with-it kid in the ’90s, you didn’t have to stick exclusively to animatronic pets, however. Beanie Babies offered good, clean, plush fun with the added benefit of maybe one day being worth lots of money. Ty Warner, the stuffed animals’ creator, generated enormous public fascination with his toys throughout the 1990s by pushing narratives of their scarcity in the press and “retiring” older models, generating a furor among collectors in the process. While the Beanie Baby craze predictably crashed, at the height of their popularity, some dolls were being sold for thousands of dollars.
1980s: The Rubik’s Cube Made Jocks Of Brainy Puzzle-Lovers, And My Little Pony Captured The Colors Of An Era
Wanna be a cool nerd in the ’80s? Easy. Buy a Rubik’s cube, throw on some sneaks and a trench, and get really good at solving it. Everyone will be impressed, guaranteed. Even though the Rubik’s cube is technically a product of the ’70s, the ’80s saw it get rebranded with its inventor’s now-synonymous last name. If you just couldn’t figure out how to solve the complex, simple: peel the colored stickers off and move them around.
Around the same time the Rubik’s Cube was making its splash, at the other end of the toy spectrum, a few turtles bearing ninja moves and Renaissance monikers were making themselves known. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who emerged from the comic book world in 1983, became a fixture of the 1980s. The quartet spawned movies, TV shows, and merchandise that never really went out of style.
For the more colorfully minded kid, dazzling, rainbow-colored ponies with brushable manes cantered onto the toy scene. My Little Pony was the superman ice cream of toys – visually staggering with very little flavor.
1970s: NERF Brought Sports Indoors Where The Speak And Spell Was Teaching Kids Literacy
NERF, or “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam,” stormed the living rooms of rowdy kids the world over when Parker Brothers introduced their legendary foam ball in 1970. The company touted its – debatable – safety for indoor use and sold millions in the process. Before long, the sheer variety of forms NERF material could take led to a veritable foam arms race, with NERF footballs, guns, bow and arrows, and more debuting in rapid succession.
The Speak and Spell was basically the antithesis of NERF. Designed for single-user play and decidedly less active, the toy debuted in 1978 from Texas Instruments. The company, which is also behind the popular line of scientific and graphing calculators, brought their signature innovative streak to the world of educational toys, which could synthesize speech and was available in seven languages into the 1990s.
1960s: Cooking Became A Game With The Easy-Bake Oven, And Hot Wheels Led To A Nation Of Kids Mimicking Car Sounds
The success of the Easy Bake Oven isn’t hard to understand – making your own sweets at an age when next to nothing is in your control has an obvious appeal. While those sweets, which were “cooked” by the Easy-Bake’s red-hot internal light bulb, did not always emerge in quite the solid state a child baker might hope, the culinary toy still did gangbusters following its debut in 1963. Designed by Kenner Products (which has since been absorbed by Hasbro), over half a million of the original units sold in the oven’s first year on the market alone.
Hot Wheels, the die-cast mini vehicles that debuted in 1968, made a big splash in the crowded toy car market by introducing functioning axles and wheels. Their signature looks – flame-emblazoned muscle cars, exposed exhaust hotrods, and bizarre one-offs quickly caught the eye of collectors and young car aficionados alike. After all, they were the fastest toy car a kid could buy.
1950s: Barbie Came To Town, And The Frisbee Graduated From College And Made It Big
It’s tough to overstate the icon that was and continues to be Barbie. However, the plastic mainstay of so many childhoods since her 1959 US debut hasn’t been without controversy. After all, she’s based on the German Bild Lilli doll, a working gal. Not only that, but in her tenure at the top of toy market, Barbie has been blamed for everything from introducing unhealthy body image standards to cultural appropriation.
The Frisbee’s cultural ascension trended, much like one of the famed spinning disk’s typical flights, steadily upward. A mainstay of New England college lawn leisure time, what became the Frisbee started out as humble pie tins made by the Frisbie Baking Company in Connecticut, which bored young folks in the late 19th century took to throwing around to one another.
Spotting opportunity in the tin’s popularity as a projectile, Walter Morrison and Warren Franscioni set about manufacturing plastic versions to sell at fairs. The pair capitalized on the widespread fascination with UFOs gripping the country in the late 1940s as a marketing gimmick. It was only when Morrison and Franscioni’s outfit was acquired by Wham-O (creators of the Hula Hoop) in the 1950s that the Frisbee name rightly came into being, and the saucers’ sales took off.
1940s: Kids Replicated WWII Battlefields With Toy Soldiers, And The Slinky Began Its End-Over-End Tumble
A kind of strange thing happened in the 1940s – marketed toward young boys, toys imitating the battlefields of WWII graced many a living room carpet. Their “pod feet” allowed them to stand freely, and a kid could get his hands on Allied and Axis forces, so the battlefield really could come to you!
A less violent plaything, the Slinky was a fortunate mistake. Originally designed by mechanical engineer Richard James while he was developing springs aimed at keeping ship equipment steady, it was only when he accidentally knocked one of his prototypes off a shelf and witnessed its graceful end-over-end “walking” that he turned to manufacturing it for children. And the kids loved it.
1930s: An Attempt To Expose The Cruelties Of Capitalism Gave The World The Cruelties Of Monopoly, And View-Masters Brought The World To You
One of the few hit toys whose original intention was to teach a moral lesson about the severe cruelty of America’s economic inequality, Monopoly was the name ultimately given to Elizabeth Magie’s “Landlord’s Game” when it was published by the Parker Brothers in 1935. Magie developed two versions of the game in 1903 as an instructive form of protest against the business practices of the robber barons of her day, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. In one, players were rewarded for generating communal wealth. In the other, players were rewarded for generating monopolies and driving other players into bankruptcy. Players were supposed to see that the first was better than the second.
Despite her original vision, the latter version gained more traction, and one Charles Darrow made millions selling a ripped-off version to the Parker Brothers, while Magie was rewarded with a measly $500.
For the more visually oriented child, the View-Master was invented in 1938 and introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. From scenic attractions to Disney characters, kids got a very close view of the world from their living rooms.
1920s: Yo-Yos Finally Gave Meaning To The Phrase “Walk The Dog,” And The Wagon Debuted
Even though its origins technically stretch back millennia, the modern Yo-Yo first broke onto the childhood scene in the 1920s by way of a Southern California bellhop originally from the Philippines. Pedro Flores spotted opportunity when guests at the hotel he worked at would stop to stare as he played with his Yo-Yo (which means “come home” in a native Philippine language) on breaks. Clocking their fascination, he turned to mass-manufacturing the toy, only to be bought out before the end of the 1920s by Donald F. Duncan, the magnate behind Good Humor ice cream bars.
Another immigrant success story, Antonio Passin’s Radio Flyer Wagon was inspired by his early days growing up in Italy, the country where the radio originated. Once in the US, he created the stamped metal wagon for “every girl and boy” and sold 1500 a day at the height of the toy’s popularity.
1910s: Raggedy Ann/Andy Opened Kids Up To The Wonders Of The World Beyond Adult Supervision, And The Erector Set Fired Up Young Engineers
If there’s one thing that’s essential to making a toy a great success, it’s a marketing campaign. Children got one of the world’s best in the 1910s, when they were introduced to Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, the disheveled, red-headed moppets created by John Gruelle in 1915.
As the story goes, Gruelle dreamt up Ann when his daughter presented him with her worn ragdoll, which he spruced up with the now-unforgettable ear-to-ear grin. Andy came a few years later, and it was the duo’s adventures, which Gruelle recounted in nearly a book a year for two decades, that really connected with kids.
For children hoping to try dip their toes in the waters of structural engineering, the Erector Set burst onto the scene in 1911. Like Raggedy Ann/Andy, A.C. Gilbert’s creation quickly became the subject of one of the biggest marketing campaigns in early 20th century toy history. What distinguished his was its extremely gendered advertising language, as boys alone were encouraged to assemble the mock steel girders as they saw fit.
1900s: Children Were Finally Liberated To Draw In A Range Of Colors Or Meet Bears, Up Close And Personal
The Gilded Age was marked by towering personalities. With his brash, hero-like personality and his love of the outdoors, it’s no wonder that one of those figures, Theodore Roosevelt, left his mark not just on the office of the president, but also on childhood. He did so in the form of the cuddly companion that took his nickname, the Teddy Bear. The plush toys took the world by storm in 1902 following the publication of a political cartoon depicting Roosevelt refusing to kill a bear in an unsportsmanlike manner.
For the turn-of-the-century kid whose interests ran toward the creative end of the spectrum, Crayola debuted its signature Crayon line in 1903. Binny & Smith, the company behind them, set their format from their very first box of eight crayons, which featured the same color combination that are still in the company’s basic box today.