History Stories

How do today’s must-have holiday toys stack up against those of the past?

In a turbulent world, you can count on one thing to stay the same: Kids will always put toys at the very top of their holiday lists. Global toy sales topped $88.8 billion in 2016, and the array of choices is larger than ever, with classics like puzzles, games and dolls holding their own alongside trendy collectible toys, movie licensing tie-ins and high-tech interactive toys. But every year, a few standouts will enthrall masses of children, with some particularly trendy items (remember Cabbage Patch Kids?) causing sellouts and stampedes.

Here’s a look back at some of the most popular holiday toys of decades past, as well as the present-day counterparts that kids may be hoping for under their tree this year.

Beanie Babies and WowWee’s Fingerlings

Beanie Babies and WowWee’s Fingerlings. 

THEN: Beanie Babies (1990s)
NOW: WowWee’s Fingerlings

Launched in 1993 by toymaker Ty Inc., the line of squishy stuffed animals known as Beanie Babies didn’t sell well at first. But after their creator, H. Ty Warner, decided to discontinue certain animals and colors, turning them overnight into rare collectible items, a full-fledged craze soon spread from the Chicago area to the rest of the country. By the end of 1996, Ty Inc. had racked up more than $250 million in sales. The earliest collectors would end up with six-figure fortunes, according to Zac Bissonnette, author of The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, a 2015 book about the craze.

Today’s contemporary counterpart to Beanie Beanies is a line of similarly adorable plastic monkeys called Fingerlings. Made by WowWee, Fingerlings are even more interactive than their ‘90s counterparts. They can perch on a kid’s finger, hang upside down and even blow kisses—all of which makes them one of the most sought-after toys of 2017. So sought-after, in fact, that there’s apparently a thriving market of counterfeits; WowWee recently filed a federal lawsuit against 165 sellers of counterfeit Fingerlings.

Barbie Dream House and Barbie Dream Horse

Barbie's Dream House, 1994, and Barbie's Dream Horse.

THEN: Barbie’s Dream House (1960s and beyond)
NOW: Barbie’s DreamHorse 

When Mattel’s iconic glamour girl got her first Dream House in 1962, it was a modest studio apartment with minimalist furnishings, designed by Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, and crafted out of…cardboard? (For adult collectors, the toy company still offers a reproduction of the original classic.) Since then, the perennially top-selling Barbie living space has undergone a number of upgrades, culminating in the three-floor, seven-room mansion with an attached garage and working elevator sold today.

But with Barbie merchandise not selling as well as it used to, this year Mattel is banking on a new offering: the interactive Barbie DreamHorse, introduced at the 2017 New York Toy Fair. Barbie’s new equine companion (which comes with its own accompanying doll) has long blonde hair to brush and style. It walks and turns up to 360 degrees, neighs, nuzzles in response to touch, plays music and even dances.

Red Ryder BB gun and Nerf's Rival Nemesis

Red Ryder BB gun and Nerf’s Rival Nemesis.

THEN: Red Ryder BB Gun (1940s)
NOW: Nerf Rival Nemesis 

One of the must-have toys on kids’ Christmas lists in the early 1940s probably wouldn’t pass muster with most safety-conscious parents today. The Red Ryder air rifle, which the Daisy Outdoor Products Company introduced in 1940, was modeled on the Winchester rifles wielded in Hollywood Western movies, and named for a popular Western comic strip hero. Reintroduced after World War II halted Daisy’s toy production, it was selling more than 1 million units a year by 1949, an astronomical number at the time. The Red Ryder enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, thanks to its prominent appearance in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story. (Little Ralphie Parker wants a classic Red Ryder, but is repeatedly denied with the phrase, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”) The Red Ryder is still in production, and is considered the most popular and recognizable BB gun on the market.

This year’s most-coveted toy blaster, the Nerf Rival Nemesis MXVII-10K, bears little resemblance to the Red Ryder. For one thing, it comes in two bright colors (blue or red) and looks more like a paintball gun than a realistic weapon. But it packs a punch: Introduced early in 2017 at the New York Toy Fair, the Rival Nemesis has an easy-to-load, gravity-feeding hopper that can hold up to 100 rounds and shoot them at a velocity of 100 feet per second.

Cabbage Patch Kids and Hatchimals

Cabbage Patch Kids and Hatchimals. 

THEN: Cabbage Patch Kids (1980s)
NOW: Hatchimals

Back in the early 1980s, the must-have Christmas toy atop many kids’ lists was a soft, squishy-faced, so-homely-it’s-adorable Cabbage Patch Kid. People were rioting in the stores, and the dolls (originally created by Xavier Roberts, although he later settled a lawsuit alleging he stole the design from another dollmaker) were selling on the black market at 10 times the retail price of $25. By the end of that first year, toymaker Coleco had sold some 3 million of the dolls, each of which came complete with its own “adoption” papers from Babyland General Hospital; sales reached $2 billion in 1984. By the late ‘80s, the craze had died down, leaving Coleco in financial difficulties; Hasbro later bought it.

Hatchimals were the Cabbage Patch Kids of 2016. The furry, plastic-egg encased creatures that sparked last year’s Christmas craze (and made their Canadian makers into billionaires) continues its run near the top this year, with Spin Master introducing six new types for kids to collect. There are also new “Collegtibles,” mini versions that run about 1/10th of the size of the original Hatchimals.

Teddy Ruxpin and Roarin' Tyler

Teddy Ruxpin and Roarin’ Tyler.

THEN: Teddy Ruxpin (1980s)
NOW: Roarin’ Tyler 

When Teddy Ruxpin made his debut in 1985, he was the original animatronic toy. Released by toy company Worlds of Wonder, Teddy would move his mouth when telling stories (thanks to a cassette player inserted in his back), a feature that made him the most wanted toy of the 1985-86 holiday seasons. “Kids adored Teddy Ruxpin so much that he became a multi-billion dollar product in five years,” Jeremy Padawer, president of Wicked Cool Toys (which recently launched an updated version of Teddy Ruxpin), told CNN Money.

Unlike his ‘80s predecessor, the new Ruxpin will have to compete with other animatronic toys on the market—such as the latest entrant from Hasbro’s FurReal line, Roarin’ Tyler. The plush tiger responds to touch and sound, closing his eyes when kids pet his head, roaring back at them if they roar and even playing tug-of-war when they wave a little squeaker toy near his mouth. In addition to the orange-and-black-striped Roarin’ Tyler, the must-have toy also comes in a white tiger version named Ivy.

Robert the Robot and Think & Learn Teach ‘n Tag Movi

Robert the Robot and Think & Learn Teach ‘n Tag Movi. 

THEN: Robert the Robot (1950s)
NOW: Think & Learn Teach ‘n Tag Movi

In 1954, the Ideal Toy Company debuted Robert, the first plastic robot to be manufactured in the United States, in the Sears Christmas catalog. Priced at just under $6 (almost $54 in 2016 dollars), Robert the Robot came accompanied with his own remote control, and according to Ideal’s vigorous advertising campaign: “He walks, talks, and his eyes light up.” Originally intended as a tie-in with the movie Tobor the Great, Robert became a sensation all on his own. Ideal later licensed T-shirts and other related merchandise and he made a cameo in the 1956 movie There’s Always Tomorrow with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.

Think & Learn Teach n’ Tag Movi, an interactive learning robot from Mattel’s Fisher Price, is geared at a younger audience than Robert, but has capacities far beyond walking and talking. With his rugged tires and ability to turn 360 degrees, the little guy is able to get kids moving, through games like “red light, green light” and “Movi says.” It can also teach kids to identify various animal noises, and is definitely more expressive than your average robot, with more than 60 facial expressions in its display.

1970s Luke Skywalker action figure and Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

1970s Luke Skywalker action figure and Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, action figure. 

THEN: “Star Wars” action figures (1970s)
NOW: “Star Wars” Black Series 

Released in May 1977, the first of George Lucas’ Star Wars movies launched a worldwide craze that never really stopped. But because the movie wasn’t predicted to be such a success, Star Wars action figures (manufactured by toy company Kenner) weren’t even released until 1978. By the end of that year, Kenner had sold some 42 million. The original figures of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and other characters inaugurated the trends of collecting action figures and making movie tie-in merchandise; they’re now worth as much as $200,000 each.

As 2017 is the 40th anniversary of the original film—plus the latest installment, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is out this holiday season—it seems a particularly auspicious time for the launch of a new Black Series of action figures. At the New York Toy Fair, Hasbro unveiled the new line, which recreates the original artwork and style of Kenner’s figures. At six inches (rather than 3 ¾ inches) tall, the figures are more detailed than their smaller counterparts, and seemed designed to please even the most rabid fans and collectors. In addition to action figures, the Black Series line also features Force FX light sabers, vehicles and other collectible items.

RELATED CONTENT