America’s Most Popular Toys and the Passions They Inspired

Americans are serious about their toys. The more popular the toy, the more passion, anger, and general strangeness it’s capable of generating. Here’s a look at the most intriguing and outrageous stories behind America’s favorite playthings.

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Bear Attack

Toy crazes are nothing new. More than 100 years ago, the Teddy bear electrified the nation. The story goes that Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a black bear cub captured during a 1902 hunting trip. Soon after, inspired by political cartoons depicting the Hunter-in-Chief’s mercy, Brooklyn businessman Morris Michtom created a stuffed rendition of “Teddy’s Bear” and put it on sale. By 1906, Teddy bears were all the rage. In 1907, the critter’s popularity led a group of bear-stuffers at the Bruin Manufacturing Co. in New York to demand higher wages. Unfortunately, according to The New York Times, their work stoppage was short-lived due to the fact they had neglected to form a “Teddy Bear Stuffers Union” before going on strike.

Best Toys That Feature Favorite Characters

Blaine Moats

No Monopoly on Ideas

It was believed that unlucky salesman, Charles Darrow, conceived Monopoly in 1933. But thestory behind this favorite board game is a bit more complex. While Darrow created today’s version, the game’s invention can be traced back to 1903. That year, Lizzie J. Maggie filed a patent application for The Landlord’s Game in which players circumnavigate a game board, buying properties, paying rent to owners, and trying to avoid jail.Testimony in a 1970s trademark infringement suit revealed Darrow had likely seen a version of The Landlord’s Game prior to approaching Parker Brothers with his game. Initially rejecting the game as “too complicated,” Parker Brothers bought the rights to Darrow’s version in 1935 and, later, to Maggie’s.


Scott Little

The Jig is Up

Monopoly wasn’t the first craze to hit Depression-era toy stores. That honor goes to the humble jigsaw puzzle. Invented in the late 1700s, jigsaw picture puzzles were originally hand-cut from thin sheets of wood. By the 1930s, mass-produced die-cut cardboard puzzles put the cost within reach of almost everyone. By early 1933, cardboard puzzle sales zoomed to around 2.5 million per week. Jigsaw-puzzle parties replaced bridge parties. Addicts who couldn’t afford to purchase puzzles found relief in rented ones. The coveted playthings were used as advertising giveaways and sales premiums. Like all fads, the jigsaw craze soon faded. Despite a few comebacks, notably in the 1960s, the Depression is regarded as the golden age of the jigsaw puzzle.


Scott Little

Slinking Along

Other than sticks and rocks, it’s hard to imagine a toy simpler than the Slinky. As Navy engineer Richard James watched a spring scoot around his ship’s deck, an idea was born. The toy made its debut in 1945 at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia, where 400 hand-crafted Slinkys sold out in 90 minutes. At the 1946 American Toy Fair, the simple walking spring was an immediate hit. Much of the credit for the Slinky’s success goes to Betty James, Richard’s wife. Betty coined the name, and after taking over the business in 1960, she expanded the product line to include the Slinky Dog. Now more than 300 million Slinkys have ambled down stairs in homes around the world.

girl using hula hoop

Perry L. Struse

Hoop Dreams

If there’s a golden age of toy crazes, the late 1950s is it. And much of the credit for that distinction must go to Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin, founding partners of WHAM-O Manufacturing. The 1958 introduction of the Hula Hoop secured their place in toy history. Though hoops had long been children’s playthings, WHAM-O rode a marketing juggernaut that propelled the Hula Hoop into popularity. And the Hula Hoop zoomed in popularity faster than anyone could have predicted. In 1958 alone, WHAM-O produced 25 million. But like a Roman candle, the Hula Hoop craze sputtered as quickly as it had begun. “It was born in January and dead as a doornail in October,” Knerr told historian Tim Walsh.

Barbie doll

Jay Wilde

Living Doll

Envisioned by Ruth Handler, Barbara Millicent Roberts (a.k.a. Barbie) was a radical departure in the toy world. With her curvaceous figure, endless occupations, and ever-expanding wardrobe, the 1959 debutant encouraged girls to imagine themselves as adults. Critics have responded strongly to Barbie, notably the 1992 introduction of “Teen Talk” Barbie. In addition to phrases like “I love shopping,” some dolls declared that “Math class is tough.” Feminists felt this played into one of the most limiting stereotypes applied to young girls. Political action group the Barbie Liberation Organization bought several “Teen Talk” Barbies and “Talking Duke” GI Joe dolls, switched their voice mechanisms, and replaced them on store shelves. Afterwards, little girls heard Barbie say phrases like “Vengeance is mine!”

Cabbage Patch Kid

Courtesy of Babyland General Hospital

The Era of Scarcity

In 1983, toy fads turned ugly. Jimmy Carter’s daughter, Amy, was spotted with one of the Cabbage Patch Kids, and suddenly the dolls were popular. That Christmas, stores sold out of them and, in a few instances, customers broke out into virtual riots. Tickle Me Elmo set off firestorms in 1996. A black market arose as parents offered to pay up to $1,500 for the toy. Beanie Babies were next in 1997. Maker Ty Inc. retired a number of Beanie Babies yearly, making the quest to collect them all the more urgent. Since the early 2000s, video game systems — notably the Nintendo Wii — have caused parental panic. Manufacturers will likely continue to update them, keeping kids wanting more.

Collie Webkin

Courtesy of Ganz

World Wide Webkinz

The newest toy craze is a distinct hybrid of old and new. Webkinz are small, adoptable stuffed characters. The twist is each critter comes with a unique code number for the Webkinz web site. Once logged on, Webkinz owners have access to a virtual world where they can play with animated on-screen versions of their pets, invite friends with Webkinz, and shop for goodies with virtual “KinzCash.” Naturally, kids want to collect as many of the critters as possible, which leads to frequent shortages. Some parents also worry interest in Webkinz can border on obsession. Of course, these are likely the same complaints parents made when Teddy bears became the “must-have” toy in the 1900s. Some things never change.

Copyright &copy 2009 Meredith Corporation.

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