The Season’s Best
December 17th, 2012 by Elisabeth Kramer

Celebrating the most-beloved toys of Christmases past and present

toys1In the classic holiday movie “A Christmas Story,” there is just one thing 9-year-old Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun.

It’s a time of Ovaltine and Little Orphan Annie, of kids walking to school and listening to the radio.
In this world, the Red Ryder BB gun fits as perfectly as home-cooked red cabbage and handmade pink bunny pajamas.
The same “perfect-fit” quality is true for any must-have Christmas toy.
Name a specific decade and that time’s hottest toy says just as much about American culture as the latest movie or top-40 song.
Tinkertoys grew popular as skyscrapers redefined city horizons from coast to coast. G.I. Joe’s birthday fell smack-dab in the middle of the Vietnam War. Nintendo and Xbox became household names alongside the likes of Macintosh and Windows.
toys2Like a popular song or a president, a hairdo or a hot band, toys serve as landmarks in our memories. They are inextricably tied to our happy times, our childhoods and our holidays.
One Christmas not so long ago, Ralphie asked Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun.
What did you ask for?
Radio Flyer Wagon
His family sold their mule to get 16-year-old Antonio Pasin to America in 1913. When he arrived, Pasin settled in Chicago, where he crafted little red wagons first out of wood, then steel.
He christened the wagon a “Radio Flyer” to honor two of his favorite inventions: the radio and the airplane.
toys3The toy was a hit. Pasin was able to meet demand thanks in part to his adoption of mass production techniques developed in the auto industry. The practice led to Pasin’s nickname of “Little Ford.”
The yo-yo craze began in California with Pedro Flores, who based the toy on one from his Filipino childhood. Flores eventually sold his company to Donald F. Duncan of the now famous yo-yo brand Duncan.
In the 1930s, yo-yos grew even more popular thanks to widely promoted contests including the world’s first yo-yo competition.
Yo-yos remain a staple of childhood with competitions held every year for enthusiasts. There’s even a museum in California dedicated completely to the toy.
After being initially rejected by Parker Brothers, Charles B. Darrow handmade 5,000 sets of Monopoly. They sold quickly at a Philadelphia store, an unexpected popularity that won over Parker Brothers. In the decades since, an estimated 500 million people have passed go without stopping.
When the Slinky debuted in Philadelphia, all 400 units sold within 90 minutes.
toys5The toy’s fame only increased with the 1963 airing of the catchy theme song “It’s Slinky.”  The company continues to operate in Pennsylvania, where the Slinky is the official state toy.
Since 1945, more than 300 million of the toy have been sold. That’s enough Slinky to circle the earth 126 times.
Candy Land 
From one of the world’s worst diseases came this sweet game. Recovering polio patient Eleanor Abbot created Candy Land as an activity to keep children entertained when ill.
The game first hit shelves in 1949 with the tagline “the sweet tooth yearning of the younger set without the tummy ache aftereffects.”
Love her or hate her, Barbie has one of the best-known histories in the toy world. Modeled after the Lilli doll of Germany, Barbie got her start stateside at the 1959 New York Toy Fair as the pet project of Ruth Handler.
Barbie’s entourage has since expanded with friends, family and, since 1961, boyfriend Ken.
The couple shocked fans when they split in 2004. But after months of wooing his first love back, Ken and Barbie reunited shortly before Valentine’s Day 2011.
Etch A Sketch 
toys7The Etch A Sketch owes its magic to an extremely fine aluminum powder that coats the inside surface of the glass.
A French electrician named Andre Cassagnes first developed the concept; he called his creation the Telecran. When the idea reached the United States, The Ohio Art Company began producing the fine-tuned toy, which was renamed Etch A Sketch.
Ohio Art created its first Etch A Sketch on July 12, 1960, at a Bryan, Ohio, factory. From there the toy took off across the country.
The Etch A Sketch was such a hit that supposedly Ohio Art had to stay open until noon on Christmas Eve 1960 to meet all the holiday orders.
toys8Standing for “non-expanding recreational foam,” NERF first hit the market in 1970. The product was advertised as “the world’s first indoor ball.”
Four million NERF balls sold that first year, thanks in part to an advertising campaign featuring English boy band The Monkees.
Since 1970, NERF has reappeared in a number of shapes including the famous turbo football.
Rubik’s Cube 
One of history’s most iconic brainteasers, the Rubik’s Cube arrived in the United States from USSR-held Hungary. By 1982, more than 100 million cubes had sold worldwide.
The first International Rubik’s Championships was hosted in Budapest. Currently the world record for solving a Rubik’s Cube is 5.66 seconds as set by Feliks Zemdegs of Australia. He was 15.
Teddy Ruxpin 
Soft stuffing met hard-wired electronics for the world’s first talking teddy bear, with more than 800,000 sold in the first year. Despite the success, Teddy Ruxpin’s manufacturer, World of Wonders, went out of business in 1990.
The bear has since bounced from company to company, with little of the widespread success of his younger years. But Teddy still remains active online; he even has his own Twitter, @RuxpinOnline.
Beanie Babies 
Introduced in 1993, it took a few years for the likes of Hoot the Brown Owl, Bucky the Beaver and Freckles the Leopard to gain attention. But once the world noticed Beanie Babies, there was no going back.
Popularity peaked during the mid-1990s but even today collectors shell out hundreds of dollars for just the right Beanie. Company founder Ty Warner is worth an estimated $2.4 billion, much in part because of Beanie Babies.
With its broken English and big eyes, Furby won a place in American toy history. The 1998 Christmas craze led to a countrywide shortage of the toy, with the originally priced $30 to $35 model selling online for more than $100.
ZhuZhu Pets 
ZhuZhus are plush robo-hamsters that zoom around like the real thing (minus the mess). In 2009, consumers went so ga-ga over ZhuZhu that the little critters sold online for almost 10 times their original retail price of $8.
More recent ZhuZhu ventures include the release of a straight-to-DVD movie called “The Quest for Zhu.” As a nod to their techy roots, ZhuZhu Pets offer an entire online world. At, ZhuZhu fans play games and watch videos inspired by the toy.

Toy Box Trivia

1. What was the first toy to ever have a TV commercial?

2. Which toy was considered a potential national security threat because of its voice-recording abilities?
3. What’s the most sought-after Beanie Baby?
4. What was the brand name of ZhuZhu Pets marketed in the United Kingdom?
5. How many little green houses have been created since Monopoly was first introduced?
6.  Who is the youngest Rubik’s Cube solver ever recorded?
7. Which Minnesota Vikings kicker invented the NERF football in the early 1970s?
8. What is the Italian name for Garbage Pail Kids?
Toy Box Trivia Answers 
1. Mr. Potato Head 
2. Furby  
3. Peanut the Royal Blue Elephant, which sells for upwards of $3,000. A manufacturing error left 2,000 Peanuts a darker shade than the typical light blue, making the elephant one pricey Beanie Baby.
4. Go Go Hamsters 
5. 5.12 billion  
6. Yi Hui of China. He was only 3 years, 6 months and 5 days old when he solved the cube in two minutes and 43 seconds in 2011. 
7. Fred Cox 
8. Sgorbions or Snotlings

Home of the World’s Best Toys

Long after Christmas ends, there is a place toys go to be cherished forever: the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York.

Founded in 1998, the organization honors those select toys that, the organization says, “inspire creative play and enjoy popularity over a sustained period of time.”
Because toys “foster imagination, creativity and critical thinking,” the organization honors them as “among the most important human artifacts.”
Currently, 49 toys have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, with new ones added every year.
Being chosen for the honor involves an extensive public nomination and national selection process. Some of the more surprising additions include Cardboard Box (2005), Stick (2008) and Ball (2009).
A more recent inductee, Blanket (2011), earned its spot because of the toy’s versatility.
A blanket, according to the Hall of Fame, transforms into whatever a child’s imagination calls for, be it “a king’s robe, a bride’s veil (and) a superhero’s cape” or “a Roman soldier’s cloak, a princess’s flowing gown and a wizard’s flying carpet.”
Originally housed at A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon, the Hall of Fame made the move to Rochester in 2002.
The new location offers more space to better accommodate the growing number of toys joining the ranks of the world’s most-beloved playthings.
In Rochester, the Hall of Fame is housed alongside the collections of The National Museum of Play, which is home to the world’s largest collection of toys and dolls.
During their visit, people are encouraged to interact with the toys.
The museum features hula-hoops, blocks and a giant Mr. Potato Head, all available for the activity toys are made for: playtime.

Two Famous Playtime Spoofs

From the Garden to the Garbage

Where one is sweet and smiley, the other is smelly and slimy.
Popular lore about Garbage Pail Kids claims the cards were created as an alternative to the “more feminine” Cabbage Patch Doll.
First produced in 1985 by The Topps Company, the collectible cards grew so popular that schools banned them. Parents worried, as one mother told The New York Times, that the Garbage Pail cards were “not at all healthy.”
Coleco, makers of Cabbage Patch Dolls, weren’t too keen on the Garbage Pail Kids either. The company sued Topps, resulting in a makeover of the Garbage Pail Kids to less resemble their more wholesome counterparts.
Today, Garbage Pail Kids continue to be popular, with a film currently in production.
No word yet on which kids—Allie Oops, Hard-Boiled Meg or Disgustin’ Justin, to name a few—will dump the trash can for the silver screen.
Talking Twins
In the early 1960s, Chatty Cathy changed the way Americans think about dolls.
Produced by Mattel, Cathy was one of the first toys to talk using a pull-string.
Cathy had 11 different phrases, including “Please brush my hair” and “I love you.” Reproduced in recent years to meet collector demand, a mint condition model can sell for more than $600.
Not so popular is Cathy’s crazed counterpart, Talky Tina. Introduced in a 1963 episode of American television series “The Twilight Zone,” Talky Tina spends the show terrorizing a family.
To add to the creep factor, the same woman who recorded Cathy’s catchphrases speaks for Tina, too. Her most famous line for the psycho plaything: “My name is Talky Tina and you’ll be sorry.”