Skip to main content

History Stories

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. 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.

Beanie Babies (1990s)

Beanie Babies

Beanie Babies

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.

Barbie’s Dream House (1960s and beyond)

Barbie Dream House

Barbie Dream House

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.

Red Ryder BB Gun (1940s)

Red Ryder BB gun

Red Ryder BB Gun

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.

Cabbage Patch Kids (1980s)

Cabbage Patch Kids

Cabbage Patch Kids

Recommended for you

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.

Teddy Ruxpin (1980s)

Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin

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.

Robert the Robot (1950s)

Robert the Robot

Robert the Robot

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.

Star Wars Action Figures (1970s)

1970s Luke Skywalker action figure

Luke Skywalker action figure

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.

WATCH: The Toys That Built the America premieres Sunday, November 28 at 9/8c. Watch a preview now.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us! HISTORY reviews and updates its content regularly to ensure it is complete and accurate.

RELATED CONTENT