From Furbies to pet rocks – the top-selling toys of Christmases past

Prepare for a seasonal saunter down memory lane. Research by musicMagpie has listed the holiday season’s most popular toys of the past 50 years – and it’s filled with absolute Christmas crackers.

The clearest trend is the rise of technology presents, and with it, skyrocketing prices. As recently as the 1990s, on average, the top five most popular gifts each year totalled a combined cost of $609 in today’s money – a far cry from the $2659 total for last year.

From the 1970s to the turn of the millennium, these are our favourite Christmas toys that you (or your parents) definitely played with as a kid.

Space Hopper, 1971

Also known as a moon hopper, hoppity horse, skippyball and a great many other things, the humble space hopper sprang into the nation’s living rooms with a satisfying ‘boing’ and more than a little collateral damage.

Ahead of the Mastermind memory game and the Etch-A-Sketch in the festive stakes, the hopper found success in a less technical era, when personal stereos and electronic entertainment systems were still some years off.

It was a simpler time. A bouncier time.

Pet rock, 1975

If you were to tell today’s youth that when you were a nipper, the Christmas craze was a cardboard box containing a pebble, they’d probably accuse you of being born in the Stone Age.

Nevertheless, the very literal ‘pet rock’ beat out a portable tape player, first-ever-successful-video-game Pong, and perennial stocking-stuffer Monopoly to take top spot in 1975. Each specimen was packaged with air holes, and came with a tongue-in-cheek instruction manual on rock welfare.

Creator Gary Dahl bought the rocks for a cent a piece from a Mexican beach, marketed them for $4 each and promptly became a millionaire.

Hungry Hungry Hippos, 1978

Beautiful in its simplicity, Hungry Hungry Hippos was a back-to-basics, fun-for-all-the-family festive option, after more expensive gifts like the Atari games console and 8 track cassette player found success in preceding years.

Published by tabletop giants Hasbro, the game debuted with a successful TV ad campaign featuring a line of cartoon hippos and a memorable jingle: “It’s a race, it’s a chase, hurry up and feed their face!”

Fun fact: The four original hippos were called Lizzie, Henry, Homer and Harry.

Rubik’s Cube, 1980
Part of the furniture in the modern toy shop, it seems almost strange that there was a time before the Rubik’s Cube, but these portable puzzles were invented by the Hungarian sculptor Erno Rubik in 1974.

Now thought to be the world’s bestselling toy, the cube was initially a mechanical experiment, designed to retain structural integrity despite consisting entirely of moving parts. After a quick rebranding, the puzzle went the toy equivalent of viral, delighting and infuriating children and adults, communists and capitalists alike.

Today, the coloured cubes have embraced the modern era with the rise of ‘speedcubing’, in which players compete against opponents and against the clock. The current world record for a single 3x3x3 stands at 3.47 seconds, set by Chinese cuber Yusheng Du.

It still sounds like child’s play compared to our favourite Rubik’s record – fastest time to solve three Rubik’s Cubes while juggling.

Optimus Prime, 1984
Two decades before Michael Bay’s smash ‘n’ bash Transformers movies pushed Autobots and Decepticons back into the public consciousness, Optimus Prime was topping the Christmas charts with a successful Hasbro toy line and a brand-new animated TV series.

The flagship Optimus figurine cost around $50 and could mechanically transform from truck to robot and back again. Now something of a collector’s item, factory sealed 1984 models are selling on eBay for upward of $4000.

The Batmobile, 1989
From the small screen to the silver screen, 1989 showcased an all too familiar trend for modern gift-givers – the inestimable influence of the summer blockbuster. Tim Burton’s hugely-anticipated Batman movie hit cinemas in June, and the studio approved Batmobile model promptly dominated winter wish lists.

Recent as-seen-on-screen hits include Elsa dolls from Disney’s Frozen, a Buzz Lightyear action figure from Toy Story 3, and the Star Wars BB-8 Toy Droid.

PlayStation, 1995

The early-Nineties saw a mini-Renaissance for conventional toys – Barbie, Action Man, Play-Doh, Silly Putty and the Cabbage Patch Kids all managed to cut through the tide of tech – but in 1995 the Sony PlayStation ushered in a new era of video game dominance.

The system wrecked the festive market. A September release in North America yielded 800,000 sales by the year’s end, while critics fell over themselves to praise the new emphasis on 3D. Nine years later, it became the first console ever to shift more than 100 million units.

By then the race between Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft was dominating Christmas lists across the land: 2005, 2006 and 2007 were topped by the Xbox 360, the Nintendo Wii, and the PlayStation 3 respectively, until they were displaced in 2008 by, of all things, a High School Musical-themed dance mat.

Furbies, 1998

Hot on the heels of Tamagotchi, these lovable electric pets provided a brief but noteworthy respite from the video game onslaught when they hit shelves in 1998. A classic playground phenomenon – ‘all the other kids have one!’ – Furbymania gripped the nation during holiday season, leading to a vastly inflated resale market and a cabal of online Furby fraudsters swindling desperate parents.

Looking back now, Furbies resemble a very basic form of household AI. Newly purchased units were programmed to steadily ‘learn’ English phrases from their owners, while the recent Emoto-tronic range comes with much more advanced facial expressions.

As far as we’re aware, no Furbies have yet passed the Turing test, but with another 20 years of ‘learning’ under their belts, who knows —

Did you have any of these toys? Did you buy any for your children? What do you think the top-selling gift will be this Christmas?

– With PA

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Written by Luke Rix-Standing


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