This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the Cabbage Patch Kids, the doll that drove parents to do desperate things — even fighting each other in stores — to get their hands on one to give to a child for the holidays.
“Every toymaker hopes their toy will be the next Cabbage Patch Kid,” says James Zahn, editor-in-chief of The Toy Book, a trade publication that covers the toy industry.
While Cabbage Patch Kids are the OG of crazed toy buying, other toys have also caused frenzies of out-of-control holiday demand — in 1996 Tickle Me Elmo had parents scheming to snag one, some paying more than $1,000 for the $28.99 toy. In 1998, the “it” toy was the Furby, a stuffed mechanical, interactive plush that spoke Furbish. In 2016, parents were lucky to find a Hatchimal.
“Parents get caught up in the hype. Can you score that hot product?” says Adrienne Appell, executive vice president of marketing communications for the New York based Toy Association, a trade association for the toy industry.
It’s hard to say what makes holiday toy demand essentially go viral, she and others say. “If there was a secret formula, we would all have it and we would be millionaires,” Appell says.
Here are some toys that caused a holiday fever from the past 65 years:
ORIGINAL PRICE $3
The Barbie doll appealed to children because it wasn’t a baby or a show doll to be kept on a shelf, says Christopher Bensch, chief curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester. “There had been other fashion dolls but none of them had the kind of traction Barbie did,” he says. Mattel drove demand by advertising Barbie on the popular “Mickey Mouse Club” TV show, he says. The original Barbie Dream House, incidentally, came out in 1962 as a cardboard, foldout dollhouse, not the enormous, three-story, pink plastic house with elevator and flushing toilet and swimming pool released this season.
1962 Etch A Sketch
ORIGINAL PRICE $2.99
“The design was exactly like a television set of the time,” Bensch says of the classic toy with the red frame. A gray screen sat in the middle and control knobs sat on each side just like a tuning knob and a volume knob, he says. Children “drew” on the screen by manipulating the knobs; they reset it by shaking it. “There was nothing else like it,” Bensch says.
1963 Easy-Bake Oven
ORIGINAL PRICE $15.95
“The Easy-Bake Oven was an immediate hit,” Zahn says. The turquoise oven ran off a light bulb that allowed kids to bake their own edible, hockey-puck size cakes, he says. Bensch posits that the autonomy the play oven offered children was key. “You don’t have to be supervised in the way that working in a real kitchen requires. Kids were always playing kitchen, but the Easy-Bake Oven went on to inspire countless toys that kids could cook and bake with,” he says.
1964 Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots
ORIGINAL PRICE $8 to $10
“I grew up in that era, and I remember the kind of crazed popularity it had,” Bensch says, spurred by television advertising. “Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots was in front of every kid, especially on Saturday morning cartoons.” The Red Rocker and Blue Bomber robots battled in a ring and let kids “knock each other’s blocks off,” according to the box, by aiming for the opponent’s jaw. Zahn agrees that the toy is an icon. “It became a toy box staple,” he says.
1968 Hot Wheels
ORIGINAL PRICE 59 cents
“Hot Wheels is a prime example of an early stocking stuffer. It was perfectly sized and perfectly priced,” Zahn says. The cars in the original 1968 release came to be called the Sweet 16; one of the first ones was a model of a Chevy Camaro. Of course, there was then the necessary signature orange racing track. “Kids all wanted these orange pieces of track and made the most epic racecourses they could,” he says.
1977 Star Wars figures
ORIGINAL PRICE $7.99 for four-pack
“‘Star Wars was an unexpected box office behemoth,” Zahn says. The toymaker, Kenner, could not get action figures into stores fast enough to meet holiday demand, so it launched the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package. Children would fill out a certificate with their address and mail it in along with $2, entitling them to be mailed a set of four figures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2D2 and Chewbacca when the sets were ready. “It sounds ridiculous … but it was simpler times,” Zahn says.
1979 Atari 2600
ORIGINAL PRICE $189.95
NO LONGER SOLD
“It was really the breakthrough in letting people play games on their television sets. It wasn’t the first, it wasn’t the best, but it had broad distribution,” Bensch says of the Atari 2600. Marci Gower was 13 years old in 1979. “Atari came out and I was like, ‘I’m getting that.’ I was mesmerized by it. You’d never seen anything like it before,” says Gower, 57, who grew up in Merrick, but now lives in Colorado where she is a retired marketing specialist. She says she remembers playing “Pong” on the console until she went to college. Says Zahn of the Atari 2600: “It really started the home video game craze.”
1983 Cabbage Patch Kids
ORIGINAL PRICE $25
Ah, Cabbage Patch Kids. The cuddly, cloth dolls ushered in the era of buyers behaving badly. They might shove, trample and even attack each other to claim one. “The toy industry had never seen that before,” Zahn says. People waited on lines at stores for hours or paid crazy amounts of money on the secondary market for the chance to own the doll whose backstory was that it needed to be adopted; each came with adoption papers and a name. “Boys and girls alike wanted to have a Cabbage Patch Kid to call their own,” Zahn says.
1989 Game Boy
ORIGINAL PRICE $89.99
VERSION NO LONGER SOLD
“Game Boy was revolutionary because it brought cartridge-based video games into a handheld form. Nintendo made it so you could put fairly complex video games into your pocket and build up libraries,” Zahn says. It was the precursor of today’s kids getting hooked on playing on an iPad.
1996 Tickle Me Elmo
ORIGINAL PRICE $28.99
“That was one that had parents clamoring to get that product in the store,” Appell says. Zahn agrees. “They didn’t make enough of them because they didn’t expect it to be as big as it was,” he says. “I worked for Walmart in 1996; I watched a grandmother whack somebody in the face with a Tickle Me Elmo box.”
ORIGINAL PRICE $17.99
“The Tamagotchi was the first truly portable virtual pet,” Zahn says. “This was something kids could interact with. It was a perfect size to take to school and play with on the bus. You had to nurture and take care of the Tamagotchi.”
ORIGINAL PRICE $35
“When the Furby came out, people thought it looked like Gizmo from ‘Gremlins.’ It had the big eyes and big ears,” Zahn says. “It had the companion aspect — kids felt like they had a friend.” The hype built because of how the toy — its name is a play on fur ball — spoke to owners in a fantasy language called Furbish. The Furby is back this holiday season for the 25th anniversary along with new palm-sized Furblets.
2005 Guitar Hero
ORIGINAL PRICE $69.99
NO LONGER SOLD
The original game was for PlayStation 2 and came with a physical guitar that acted as the game controller. Users played guitar following prompts along with the game music. “Guitar Hero was a ‘had to have it’ game,” Zahn says. Music stores reported that it translated into more kids wanting to learn to play real-world instruments, he says.
2006 Nintendo Wii
ORIGINAL PRICE $249.99
NO LONGER SOLD
The Wii brought physical activity into playing a video game, with competitors facing in virtual tennis, bowling and other matches. The game appealed across generations because everybody knew how to play the familiar sports — there was no killing aliens or other complicated video graphic challenges like in other video games. “It was easy to get the point of what you were doing,” Bensch says. Even the older crowd was all-in on the Wii.
ORIGINAL PRICE $59.99
Hatchimals offered an element of suspense, being one of the early entrants into the “blind box” era of toys, Bensch says. The Hatchimal came inside an egg and poked its own way out; buyers didn’t know which Hatchimal they would get until the creature had finished hatching. “You’ve got that surprise factor,” Bensch says. With the growth of secondary online marketplaces, Hatchimals were selling for way over their list price on eBay or Craig’s List.
ORIGINAL PRICE $14.99 each
Parents had grown savvy by 2017 — members of parenting Facebook groups would give each other a heads up as early as September when it seemed like a toy might become hard-to-get for that year’s holidays so they could buy early and sock it away for December. And the demand in 2017 was for Fingerlings Baby Monkeys from WowWee, which would hang on kids’ fingers and come to life, with 40 realistic monkey sounds and blinking eyes. They came in six colors and inspired knockoffs and scalpers, Zahn says. This holiday season, TikTok content creators have made them popular again. “It was the toy of the year. It went away, and now it’s a thing again,” Zahn says.