Take a Trip Down Memory Lane with Some of the Most Popular Christmas Toys of the 20th Century

Most Popular Retro Christmas Toys by Year
Scott Kalapos on Dec 13, 2021

One of the most coveted achievements for any business is to put out that one toy that just can't stay on the shelves in the days leading up to Christmas. In addition to being a tremendous windfall financially, manufacturing the #1 holiday toy in any given year immortalizes a company within popular culture. Today, we're going to take a look at the very most in-demand holiday toys of the year from the 1960s through the 1990s. In the process, we'll show you some of the genius advertisements that provided the promotional propulsion to marketplace victory. Many of these items have enduring popularity to this day, with some of them even being represented among the 4AllPromos inventory.

1. 1965: Operation

We'll get the ball rolling by turning back the calendar 56 years to 1965. While things have changed a great deal since then, the number one holiday toy of that year is one that's still beloved by children today. We're referring to the classic board game Operation. You know the one we're talking about. It's the board game where tweezers are used to pull out little plastic bits from slots inside of the (kind of disturbed) looking patient's body. Pun-heavy items such as the "bread basket", "spare ribs", "broken heart", "wish bone", among others lie inside of the small slots. When players reach in, they have to extract the item without hitting the edges. When the edges are hit, the patient's red light bulb nose lights up, a loud buzz is heard, and the player gets a bit of a shock to the hand. The 1965 version of the game involved play money as well as "doctor" and "specialist" cards, though newer versions have phased those features out. Here's a fun fact for you - did you know that the patients official name is Cavity Sam? The video below contains a commercial for this Milton Bradley classic.

2. 1970: Lite-Brite

Now we'll move 5 years ahead to 1970. It's a crazy thought, but did you realize that the year 1970 is further away from today than 2070? Anyway, back to the matter at hand. The most popular holiday toy of 1970 was the Lite-Brite. The Lite-Brite consists of a white box containing a light bulb, over which black construction paper overlays are placed. The front surface of the box features a board with several peg holes included. The colored pegs included pierce through the overlays to go into the holes, reflecting the light from the bulb inside of the box for an almost LED-like effect. Most of the overlays have guides to show where to place the pegs to create a specific picture. Others lack this feature, allowing users to create any image that comes to mind. While the original Lite-Brite is likely the one most of us think of when we hear the name, modern versions have been created with flat screens, in a 3D cube setup, and even as a smartphone app. Here's an early commercial for the Lite-Brite, created before the now-famous jingle had been composed.

3. 1973: Walkie-Talkies

1973's top toy was the walkie talkie. These toys actually existed for quite a while before 1973, but with a more serious use in mind. They were first put into usage during World War II. Early models were known as "handheld transceivers" and were used for military communications. The version that eventually was marketed as a toy was made far less powerful, so as not to interfere with commercial and government radio waves. Still, they were a lot of fun for kids to use and can be thought of as something of a very primitive cell phone. Most walkie talkies include a speaker, microphone area, and antenna. When users wish to speak, they can hold down the microphone button and then release it to hear their playmates' messages. Many variations have been made over the years, with imaginary spy, police, and space themes being some of the most popular. Early models came with Morse code key stickers for sending more covert messages, often ones that kids didn't want their parents knowing about.

4. 1975: Pet Rock

Kids and adults alike were clamoring for Pet Rocks during the Christmas season of 1975. What started out as a joke gift became a raging success, if only for a 6 month period. The idea behind them was that they were the perfect pets, as they required absolutely no care. Despite this, each one arrived with a 32 page manual filled with care and training instructions. Each pet rock was sourced from a beach in Mexico and packaged in a straw-filled cardboard container that resembled a cat carrier. The idea was conceived by Gary Dahl, an advertising executive who really knew how to strike a chord with the public. Although the Pet Rock was on the market for less than a full year, more than a million were sold. This was the one item we couldn't find a commercial for, so instead, we're presenting a video that tells the story behind the Pet Rock fad.

5. 1978 - Simon

For our final toy of the 1970s, we're going to talk a bit about Simon. This wildly popular toy was actually based on a poorly reviewed arcade game called "Touch Me". The premise of the game was fairly similar, though the presentation, particularly the audio, was far more pleasing. First exhibited at Studio 54, Simon was an in-home arcade game featuring red, green, blue, and yellow panel buttons. When each player took their turn, the panels would light up and play a musical note. The person playing would have to memorize the notes played and then replay them by pressing the buttons in the correct order. The musical patterns became increasingly complex with each turn. The winner would be the player who managed to correctly play back each pattern for the greatest number of turns. The game was named after Simon Says and the sounds it played were based on the 4 notes that a bugle is capable of playing. The game remained a smash hit throughout the remainder of the 70s and well into the 80s. It's still sold today and like the Lite-Brite, more elaborate and high-tech versions have been released in recent years.

6. 1980 - Rubik's Cube

In 1980, almost every kid around had a Rubik's Cube on their Christmas wish list. Several adults did as well. Invented by a Hungarian architecture professor by the name of Erno Rubik, this was toy that truly stimulated the mind. The original Rubik's cube featured 6 panels with 9 squares each. A plastic sticker went over years square, with 9 stickers each being included in the colors of white, red, blue, green, orange, and yellow. The goal was to turn the spinning sides of the cube vertically and horizontally until every panel was fully covered by a single color. While this proves an exceedingly difficult task for most people, others have a natural talent for it. in fact, there's even a World Cube Association, dedicate to competitive Rubik's Cube solving. The toy boomed in popularity worldwide, thanks to a very well executed set of television and newspaper advertisements. Its popularity remains strong today, with several promotional Rubik's cube items being available for purchase at 4AllPromos.

7. 1982 - BMX Bikes

Two years after the Christmas of the Rubik's Cube, BMX bikes found themselves as the most sought-after holiday toy. They were born out of the motocross craze that swept the southern portion of California in the mid 1970s through mid 1980s. BMX bikes are designed for off-road use, often for either racing purposes or the execution of stunts. Today, dirt, street, race, and park versions exist, but the dirt BMX is closest to the 1982 original. These bikes were built low to the ground and were extra sturdy. Most were made from steel blends and featured extra wide tires with thick treads, as well as wheels with up to 48 spokes. The goal of the extra spokes was to more evenly distribute the rider's weight at all times, creating extra stability. This is a pretty important factor when pulling off daredevil style tricks in competitions or for neighborhood bragging rights.

8. 1985 - Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)

After the video game crash of 1983, many competitors within the industry thought it was Game Over. To the delight of gamers everywhere, both past and present, some companies weren't afraid to give it one last try. During the Christmas season of 1985, the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, was THE gift to find under one's tree. Nintendo first introduced the system in Japan under the name "Famicom", which was short for "Family Computer". The first consoles released in the USA came with a cartridge featuring 3 different games: the original Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, and Clay Shooting. Two controllers also came standard, as did the Nintendo light gun known as the "Zapper". This console almost single-handedly resuscitated the gaming industry, making it possible to reach the heights to which is has soared today.

9. 1987 - Jenga

Though Jenga was the top-selling toy of the 1987 holiday season, it remains popular today with users of all ages. It's often played at parties and corporate events and can be employed for physical therapy purposes as well as team building exercises. It's also just plain fun. The rules of the game are fairly simple. Players need to stack the 54 included blocks in sets of three, alternating between horizontal and vertical orientations. Once the tower has been built, a block must be removed from the lower portion of the tower and placed back on the top. This exercise is repeated until the tower falls, with the person or team who knocks it down losing the game. Jenga was created by Leslie Scott, an English board game designer. The name is derived from a Swahili word which means "to build". This game's global popularity reached a great enough height that it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

10. 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Action Figures

Any child of the 1980s or 1990s is sure to remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Though they started out as a comic strip, they became much more well-known through their Saturday morning cartoon series, which premiered in 1987. The cartoon was an instant hit with kids and made Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael into household names. In 1990, their first big-screen feature was produced, throwing Turtlemania into full swing. Kids couldn't get enough of the various action figures, accessories, play sets, video games, and other toys related to the TMNT franchise. In 1990, their action figures were the best selling Christmas toy. This came right on the heels of a big Halloween success, as the Ninja Turtles were also the #1 Halloween costume of the year.

11. 1995 - Beanie Babies

Moving on to the mid-90s, we arrive at the Beanie Baby craze. During the holiday season of 1995, no other toy was more popular or profitable in the USA. These small novelty animals were produced by Ty Incorporated. Rather than stuffing, each was filled with small bean-shaped plastic pieces. These made them more flexible and posable than traditional stuffed animals, as well as creating a very unique texture. They became huge collectors' items, as they were intentionally produced in scarce quantity and sold only in specialty shops. This created somewhat of a black market for them. By 1995, they were being sold online at prices much higher than they were originally purchased for. Most consumers were happy to pay these prices to get them under the tree by Christmas morning. As a result, Beanie Babies were the first Christmas toys to be bought through the internet in large volumes. The Beanie Baby craze was key to helping a fledgling eBay grow into the giant that it is today. The following year, McDonald's released "Teenie Beanie Babies" as Happy Meal toys. 25 years later, they're still some of the most highly prized Beanie Babies around.

12. 1996 - Tickle Me Elmo

The last toy we'll cover in this retrospective is the Tickle Me Elmo doll. Elmo is the small, red, and (to some) kind of annoying puppet on Sesame Street. He shuns pronouns, but is still beloved by children the whole world over. In 1996, Tyco came out with a prototype toy of a stuffed monkey that would vibrate and giggle when given a squeeze. Originally, Tyco planned to make a new version of this toy featuring Looney Tunes characters, though shortly after, they lost the rights to that franchise. They chose instead to feature Elmo, as they did have the rights to produce toys in the likeness of Sesame Street characters. The giggling Elmo was desired by nearly every toddler who knew of it. It was the biggest Black Friday release of the year, with consumers resorting to chaotic and even violent behavior in the attempt to snag one. In fact, one Walmart employee in Canada was trampled by an Elmo-hungry mob and sustained serious injuries. Thankfully, he recovered, preventing the Tickle Me Elmo from becoming a tragic figure.

Shop 4AllPromos for the Best Promotional Holiday Toys & Gifts

Did we bring back any fond memories of your favorite childhood toys? If you were born after 1996, did we introduce you to any toys or games you'd never heard of before? In either case, it is our hope that this was both a fun and informative read for you. If we left out any of our favorite toys or if you'd like to suggest one for us to cover in a future blog post, feel free to contact us today. With that said, we wish you the happiest of holidays and a wonderful 2022!

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