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:
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.
Mattel’s Barbie was an icon and a lightning rod as soon as she was released. In 1968, Ruth Handler, the doll’s creator, sized up the problem: “Eighty per-cent who saw it said, ‘The American public will not buy it. It would not want a doll with a teen-age body — a bust and such shapeliness.’”
Barbie’s cultural staying power for half a century proved that people would indeed buy the doll, though not without controversies along the way.
In 1974, Barbie’s little sister Skipper was portrayed hitting puberty. With a flick of her arm, Skipper grew three-quarters of an inch, slimmed and grew “a modest pair of breasts,” outraging parents and the National Organization for Women.
Other dolls that raised objections included Puerto Rican Barbie; Share-a-Smile Becky, who was in a wheelchair; and Dentist Barbie, skewered in The Times by Maureen Dowd. When Christie, an African-American friend of Barbie’s, was introduced in 1968, she was criticized for her vapid prerecorded phrases.
In 1993, a group of guerrilla artists calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization went so far as to swap the voice boxes of G.I. Joes and Barbies and place them back on store shelves.
Mattel hoped the doll would “broaden girls’ vision of what’s possible” with its “Barbie for President 2000,” complete with a Girls’ Bill of Rights.
Critics included Patricia Schroeder, a former Colorado congresswoman and onetime presidential candidate, who wrote in an Op-Ed: “Portraits of past presidents tell us that being a hunk is definitely not a job requirement. So why should we feel great about a message that says a woman can go to the White House if she looks like Barbie?”
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.
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:
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.
The Rubik’s Cube, “a fiendishly hard puzzle that requires you to align cubes of the same colors,” as The Times described it in 1980, was intended as a practical gift for adults in a nation still in a malaise, but was quickly adopted by children, who had more patience.
The first person to try her skill publicly with the cube in the United States was Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was hired to promote the creation of her fellow Hungarian, Erno Rubik, a teacher of architecture and design in Budapest.
At 13, Patrick Bossert became the youngest author on the New York Times best-seller list with his book “You Can Do the Cube.” By 1982, trend spotters declared that the Rubik’s Cube was being overtaken by E.T. and video games.
By 1982, home video games rivaled the profitability of the film business. Home game consoles and cartridges settled into steady but less drastic growth in the late ’80s. Home computers stepped in as competition, and dolls and teddy bears grew more sentient and chatty.
In 1988, Nintendo, a 99-year-old playing card company from Japan with a deep bench of beloved arcade game characters (Donkey Kong and the Mario Brothers), released a home game console that took over 80 percent of the market in one year. And the next year, Nintendo released the Game Boy in competition with the Atari Portable Entertainment System and cemented its hold on consumers.
Or at least for a little while. The target audience is nothing if not fickle.