Buying children’s gifts for the holidays is a perilous process. A doll or a phonics book? A miniature fire truck or a wooden robot that teaches 3-year-olds how to code?
These are the decisions parents must make as they balance their tastes with the happiness of their children.
This was true, too, a century ago. A Christmas Eve dispatch from 1911 in The New York Times observed:
The Christmas toy market is an illuminating commentary on modern life and the conditions of the moment and reflects the attitude of the adult population rather more than it expresses the ideas at work in the childish minds.
With that thought, here’s a look at some of the much-loved toys of past generations and what they meant to those parents and children.
1. Toy soldiers
The toy soldier has been at the mercy of changes in the adult world, increasing in strength and complexity during national militarization, but stumbling when war becomes too real or unpopular. Toward the end of the Vietnam War, some stores even refused to stock war-related toys. This was a particularly delicate problem for Hasbro, the makers of G.I. Joe, which was carefully branded “America’s Movable Fighting Man.”
In 1988, The Times’s editorial board warned about the effects of G.I. Joe and He-Man saturation in young minds. But as time wore on, it didn’t appear to matter much for G.I. Joe. A Hasbro representative told The Times the company was seeing “mostly adult sales” of the toy by 1998.
2. The hula hoop
The hula hoop startled the world in the summer of 1958 with its simplicity and the gyrations required to keep it aloft. By fall, the hoop had spread to London, Paris, and Tokyo — where the allure was tempered when the toy was blamed for injuries, burns and a death.
In the spring of 1959, the hula hoop was already being labeled a short-lived fad with the rise of the Diavolux and, in 1961, the yo-yo.
In the aftermath of their fall from the hip, hula hoops became a cultural reference point for things in decline, with furniture, female jockeys, and other items or people claimed to be going the way of the hula hoop.
In 1988, hula hoops surprised everyone, including the manufacturers, with a surge in popularity. As our reporter Richard W. Stevenson wrote:
The sociological significance of the Hula Hoop in 1988 remains open to question. Perhaps the rediscovery of the hoop by members of the aging baby-boom generation is an expression of yearning for lost youth. Perhaps it is a way of getting some low-impact, aerobic exercise in an age of ever-increasing health consciousness. It could even be that, after years of video games, Lazer Tag and computer-driven teddy bears, children have a new appreciation for simple toys.
3. Cabbage Patch Kids
Whether it was the schtick of adoption papers, the individualization of each doll or a psychological need to provide care, Cabbage Patch Kids quickly outpaced their cohort of gentle toys on the market in 1983.
By November they were in fierce demand, with some customers willing to paying twice the regular price. The news media scrambled to profile the inventor, and other doll makers stepped forward claiming credit. Nancy Reagan, the first lady, was questioned about her source for the coveted dolls but kept it a secret.
The next year, there was a camp for Cabbage Patch Kids, and stores started stocking up in October. As Christmas neared, the dolls were scarce, and their birthplace in Georgia had become a place of pilgrimage. On Christmas Eve, parents were still on waiting lists for Cabbage Patch Kids that would never arrive in time. The toy’s decline finally came in 1985, when Teddy Ruxpin and others toppled the squishy megahit, whose sales exceeded half a billion dollars before the craze waned.