What Was Given?
Back in the days of Ancient Rome, a citizen might have received the makings of a nice salad for Saturnalia; a Victorian chap might have had the pleasure of a new pipe or a snuff box. But what about here in North America?
In the first part of the twentieth century, gifts were a great deal simpler than they are today. Clothing was a staple for adults and children, with the latter getting a toy or two for enjoyment. The first decade of the past century, however, gave us two childhood classics: the Crayola crayon, which was first produced in 1903; and the teddy bear, which came along four years later.
After Rosie Michtom made a stuffed bear cub in 1907, her husband displayed it in the window of his store, along with a cartoon of Roosevelt saving a bear cub, which had inspired her. The bear was very popular, and eventually the Michtoms received permission from the president himself to mass market the stuffed cubs as Teddy Bears.
The teddy bear was created by Morris and Rosie Michtom, after they saw a cartoon of the day that detailed a hunting trip taken by President Teddy Roosevelt. The president had refused to shoot a bear that had been tied up for him; in the cartoon, the bear was portrayed as tiny and helpless.
For youngsters who liked to tinker, Tinker Toys came along in 1914. Raggedy Ann dolls were mass produced in 1918, becoming one of the more popular dolls of that time. In general, dolls and games were favorites during this period, as they still are today. Other highlights of this time were rideable toys: sleds, rocking horses, and red wagons.
Toys of the Great Depression
Despite the Depression of the 1930s, toy manufacturers continued to come up with occasional classics that people somehow managed to scrape enough money together to buy. Yo-yos were quite popular, and the Red Ryder BB gun was a big seller. Introduced in 1938, the gun got its name from a comic-book character, one of the first of a very long (and ever-growing) list of toys based on comic, television, or movie characters.
Guns as a whole were popular at this time, along with other cowboy and cops-and-robbers paraphernalia. War toys were also big sellers, especially toy soldiers. A fascination with science and science fiction also seems to have begun in this period, as witnessed by the popularity of chemistry sets and fantasy stories.
After America made it through the Depression and World War II, the country began to prosper as never before. Industry and technology were in high gear, and more and better jobs meant Americans had more discretionary income to spend on things like Christmas gifts. It was the beginning of a glorious time for toys.
The Postwar Toy Boom
The number of American children exploded in the years after the war, and so, not surprisingly, did the national appetite for toys. Some of the most enduring playthings of today — such as the Etch-A-Sketch, Play Doh modeling clay, and the Barbie doll — were introduced in the decade and a half following the end of World War II.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, science-fiction toys remained popular, while toys connected with comic characters and other media-driven figures began to loom large in the market. Television left its mark on the gift-giving tradition in the 1950s, as toys associated with characters benefited by being seen by a steadily larger audience.
For a time, Howdy Doody presents were all the rage. Dolls of Howdy, Clarabell, Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring, puzzles, sewing kits, stuffed animals, comic books, paint sets, and more made their way under a lot of Christmas trees in the early 1950s.
The bestselling toy of 1953 was an update of that 1930s classic, the Red Ryder No. 960 Noisemaker BB gun. It did everything a real BB gun did — except shoot. Perhaps the most popular toy for boys in the early 1950s was the electric train. These were times to remember for Lionel, American Flyer, and Marx.
Not all the big gifts were connected to Howdy and his gang, of course. A Jackie Robinson doll was quite popular in 1950. This may have been the first mainstream doll portraying an African American that did not parody racial characteristics.
Buck Rogers had a very big year in 1954, but the adventurer was outdone the following year, when Davy Crockett coonskin hats and guns topped many a boy’s Christmas list. Crockett merchandise was incredibly popular. One story has it that a tent manufacturer, stuck with thousands of unsold units, stenciled the words “Davy Crockett” on each — and got rid of them all in a matter of days. Total 1955 retail sales of Crockett-related items was estimated at a cool $100 million.
What else did the initial wave of Baby Boomers want for Christmas? The list from the decade of the 1950s includes: Silly Putty; Frisbees (originally called Pluto Platters); hula hoops; Mr. Potato Head sets; slot cars; Betsy Wetsy dolls; Lego blocks; the Game of Life; pogo sticks; matchbox cars; and, for the younger set, the classic Chatter telephone from Fisher-Price.
Barbie Takes Over
Although she made her debut in the 1950s, it was in the following decade that Barbie hit the big time. It’s hard to fix a single event that marks Barbie’s emergence as a perennial favorite, but she appeared in the Sears Christmas catalog for the first time in 1961. From that day to this, Barbie, Skipper, Ken, and their many companions and accessories (sold, as ever, separately) have brightened many a young girl’s Christmas morning.
Barbie’s male counterpart, G.I. Joe, enjoyed a similar robust popularity during the 1960s. Although he was put to rest in 1978, he later made a major comeback in the 1980s.
Other popular 1960s Christmas gifts included: Beatles records, coloring books, toy guitars, lunchboxes, and related merchandise; Hot Wheels miniature cars; the Super Ball; Instant Insanity, a colored cube game akin to the later Rubik’s cube; Tonka trucks; and the Twister game (Right foot, green!).
After about 1966, spy-related toys and dolls (or, to use the preferred terminology, action figures) were brisk-selling Christmas gifts. Products based on the James Bond movies and the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were the hits in this category. Kids could go undercover with briefcases, cigarette cases, and fake lighters that concealed toy cameras and the like. Also available were lunch boxes, cars, puzzles, bubblegum cards, costumes, books, and records, all specially designed for the preteen espionage crowd.
Board games were also a very popular gift category in the 1960s. Strong sellers included: Clue, Risk, Candyland, Goto the Head of the Class, Cooties, Scrabble, Yahtzee, Operation!, Parcheesi, and Jeopardy (the Art Fleming, rather than Alex Trebek, incarnation). The Mousetrap game sold 1.2 million copies in 1963.
By the middle 1960s, against the background of a supercharged economy and a generation that was beginning to rebel against the “establishment,” the American middle class was buying for Christmas at a fevered pitch—and children weren’t the only ones on the receiving end. Adults were indulging in some “toys” of their own, and not all of them were cheap. There were home steam baths and saunas, jewelry, and, for quiet (or not-so-quiet) evenings at home, newfangled color television sets. As one Chicago retailer put it, Americans were loaded.
And it seems that some retailers priced their merchandise based on that belief. For one Christmas buying season, Tiffany’s in New York offered their upscale patrons the opportunity to purchase a $550 sterling-silver watering can. Neiman-Marcus’s offerings included $300 lace hankies, $10,000 wristwatches, $20,000 teapots, and $125,000 diamond rings. Not to be outdone, San Francisco’s Joseph Magnin sold three-liter flacons of Shalimar perfume for $2,500, to be delivered to the lucky recipient via Rolls-Royce.
Into the 1970s
The unparalleled prosperity of the middle 1960s yielded to social division, inflation, and an energy crisis in the 1970s. Despite all that, America still found the stamina to purchase Big Wheels, Inchworms, Huffy bikes, Mrs. Beasely Dolls, and Pitchback baseball. For adults, Christmas 1973 brought novelty “I Am Not a Crook” watches bearing an image of President Nixon, his eyes shifting back and forth with each movement of the second hand. Other memorable Christmas gifts of the era included eight-track cartridges and players, trolls with tufts of incandescent hair, and Super Spirographs.
The merchandising/mass-entertainment link reached new heights of commercial success as George Lucas’s Star Wars movies launched scores of lucrative toys, books, and related paraphernalia. In a foreshadowing of the video boom to come, the first basic home arcade games appeared at the end of the decade. A television-friendly version of the arcade hit Pong (which seems quaint and simple by today’s gaming standards) was a huge hit.
Christmas giving in the 1970s was also affected by fads (CB radios and pet rocks) and fashion diversions (puka-shell necklaces and mood rings), about which the less said, the better.
From the Cabbage Patch to Bart Simpson
In the 1980s, America entered the consumer-electronics age in earnest. Along with the usual stereo, photographic, and appliance electronics, there were now compact disc players, video cassette recorders, and sophisticated video games. It was during this decade, after a brief incursion by the ubiquitous Cabbage Patch Kids, that the word video began to figure prominently in just about anything that found its way to the top of the average kid’s Christmas list.
In one year, the Nintendo company was responsible for three of the top 10 toys sold at retail, including the number-one item, the Nintendo Action Set. Coming years would bring Nintendo NES, Nintendo Super Mario Bros., Nintendo Game Boy, and Nintendo Game Genie, among countless other offerings. For a time, blinking, beeping video games of one brand or another (but usually Nintendo) were poised to take over every living room and young, unoccupied palm in the country. And then, it seemed, they did.
The 1980s marked the debut of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, whose reign would extend well into the next decade (and who are even now making a comeback attempt). Radioactive turtles may have seemed an implausible idea for a toy, game, film, and video juggernaut, but young boys had an insatiable appetite for the heroes.
Other popular toys from the 1980s included the talking Pee-Wee Herman doll, assorted Smurf paraphernalia, the Li’l Miss Makeup doll, and, for younger kids, the Fisher-Price tape recorder. For adults, top gifts of the era included exercise bikes, ice cream makers, Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary games, camcorders, VCRs, and, toward the end of the decade, laptop computers.
As the 1990s began, yet another television-spawned merchandising bonanza enjoyed remarkable popularity, but this time the innocence of Howdy Doody was nowhere to be found. Bart Simpson, who would probably do something quite rude to Howdy if he could get within a yard of him, became one of the biggest television stars in the country. Bart and his antiutopian world, complete with odd relatives, served as a weekly vehicle for biting social satire and remarks likely to embarrass teachers when repeated in class. Kids couldn’t get enough of him, and cash registers rang up huge sales for his books, clothes, and other products during the holidays.
The 1980s success of high-tech toys carried over into the 1990s. Yet ironically, and despite white-hot sales of things like Power Rangers sets, the toys that have remained popular through decades of trends are the ones that don’t require batteries, plugs, headphones, or TV tie-ins—just imagination, the desire for fun, and maybe a few friends.
A New Century Dawns
The close of the 20th century saw Beanie Babies and Tickle Me Elmo enjoying their time in the spotlight, but technology also remained strong: The transition was made from videos to DVDs and from portable CD players to digital audio players such as the Apple iPod and the MP3 player. For younger children, computer games often sported an educational factor, such as the LeapPad series of educational handheld games. For older children, computer simulation games have become ever-more sophisticated.
Toys based on movie and cartoon characters remain very popular, from Buzz Lightyear to Spiderman; however, the chances are good that children will, for the foreseeable future, wake up Christmas morning and find that Santa has left them one or two things that he left for their parents many years ago. As the twenty-first century unfolds, dolls, board games, building blocks, stuffed animals, Play Doh, Legos, crayons, and bicycles are sure to make that journey, too.