While the human species is not alone in our pursuit of play, we have certainly taken it to a uniquely human art form; I defy anyone to hold a Pet Rock in their hands and not succumb to the weight of its genius. While other primates might be content to make do with sticks and mud, that isn’t going to satisfy a year’s worth of unbridled greed on Christmas morning when hordes of expectant children are jacked up on Yuletide spirit and unrepentant entitlement, and where ‘All Sold Out’ just isn’t going to cut it. Children damn well know that if Susie Sutcliffe down the street can get a Barbie Easy Bake Oven, then they damn well can too, no matter how many other feverish parents you’ll likely have to battle on Christmas Eve to do so.
The 1960s were a time of unrivaled production in the industry that gave rise to many of what remain the most popular toys on Earth, possibly surpassed only by the 1980s which saw much of the biggest selling icons and fads of all time. Today, consumers have simply given in to the frantic desires of their offspring to provide them with the latest and greatest toys human ingenuity can create, and are doing so to the tune of record amount of money being spent on toys annually. Yet some of these toys seem to come up over and over, year after year as though their chronological age had nothing to do with their popularity and continued appeal. In fact, despite the technological advancements micro-chipped toys now employ, many of the world’s best-selling toys are nostalgically simplistic by comparison, while remaining steadfastly popular. In the coming spirit of seasonal shopping disorder then, let’s look at 10 of the world’s highest earning toys.
In 1960 the Ohio Art Company began manufacturing a toy they had recently purchased the rights from a French inventor named Andre Cassagnes who had developed what he called the Magic Screen. Resembling a miniature television screen, it allowed children to create images using two little knobs that moved vertically or horizontally scrapping aluminum powder from the inside of the screen, leaving a dark line behind, while shaking it vigorously cleared the previous image to allow an unlimited number of new works. Renaming it Etch-A-Sketch, the iconic red-framed dynamo was an instant hit, even adults were fascinated by its simple, elegant design and sturdy construction that made it virtually indestructible (with the accent firmly on ‘virtually’). Over fifty years later, it is still as popular as ever, having sold a whopping 100 million-plus units to date and counting.
9) Cabbage Patch Kids
These adorably melon-faced dolls made their debut for the Christmas holiday shopping season in 1983 and proceeded to rewrite the book on popular fads for all time. To suggest these toys were a sensation is like suggesting that Thriller was a decent album. People lined up for hours, fought each other for them and even bought and sold them at exorbitant prices in an organized and highly lucrative underground market that had these things trading like Colombian cocaine, though admittedly not as well regulated. By their 30th anniversary in 2013, over 130 million Cabbage Patch dolls had been sold, and with their initial price of $24.99 (though currently they can go for up to twice that much retail, and gobs more through private sales), these toys have made their creator Xavier Roberts a mega-millionaire, and remain one of the most beloved toys in history.
8) Nintendo NES
By 1985 the fledgling home video game industry was in dire straights. Despite the inroads previously made by Atari and Commodore video consoles, it appeared as though the heyday of home gaming was over before it had really begun. All that changed with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System or NES, which rapidly became the best-selling video game console of all time. A compact, relatively powerful system for the time with scores of popular games like Mario and Zelda, the NES was a phenomenon that has commonly been referred to as the savior of the industry, and video games have never been the same since. With an estimated 60 million-plus units sold worldwide at an original cost of $199.99, the NES single handedly resurrected the video game industry, making Nintendo a household word and incredibly successful to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
7) G.I. Joe
When Hasbro introduced their G.I. Joe action figure (‘A Real American Hero’) in 1964, no one could have predicted the impact it would have on the toy industry. Young boys were absolutely obsessed with owning one and by 1965, Joe was accounting for 75% of all Hasbro sales. Complete with fatigues, boots, helmet, rifle and dogtags, the doll was a massive success, stores literally couldn’t keep them in stock. Fully articulated and indisputably American, generations of kids grew up with these pop-culture icons leading them into mock battles and secret missions that spelled hours of fun for those too young to understand the horrors of war. With Vietnam still raging by 1970 however, Hasbro redesigned G.I. Joe to have less of a militaristic bent and more of the adventurous have-gun-will-travel persona, and it worked; the doll continues to be immensely popular. Though it has changed significantly by paring down in size, with an estimated 375 million figures sold worldwide, Joe should come with his own abacus.
Originally developed by Parker Brothers before being bought out by Hasbro in the early 1970s, the current NERF empire had its humble beginnings with a single foam ball that became an unexpected hit. Having outlasted numerous copycats, NERF products have continued to expand and innovate the idea of soft, foam toys that won’t break anything, even one’s bank account, deftly summarized in the company’s ad campaign; ‘It’s NERF or nothin’!’ Later versions included basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, dart guns known as NERF Blasters, water guns known as Super Soakers and even their own video games. With hundreds of millions of NERF products sold to date, the little foam ball that could has become one of the most enduringly popular toys of all time, reaping a fortune for Hasbro and redefining what it is to play safe, even while you’re trying to blast your little sister’s eye out with a foam dart at close range before she re-loads.
5) Rubik’s Cube
For anyone not familiar with this Borg-like torture device (such as the deceased, shut-ins, comatose patients, etc.) designed to make any moderately intelligent human being feel as unsophisticated and as stupid as possible within 30 seconds, the Rubik’s Cube is literally the gold standard of pop-culture toys. Created in 1974 by Hungarian architect and inventor Erno Rubik, the handheld puzzle almost instantaneously became one of the most popular toys of all time, and one of the most frustrating. Rubik was looking for a three dimensional model to aid him in teaching geometry principles, but wound up with something that could provide hours of fun or torment for those obsessed with solving it or simply driven mad in the attempt. For years, you couldn’t walk around without seeing someone engaged in this devilish little brain crusher whose popularity has never waned, as its over 350 million units sold worldwide can attest to.
4) Silly Putty
In 1943, General Electric engineer James Wright was attempting to formulate a synthetic rubber compound for use by the American Armed Forces during WWII. Although unsuccessful in that endeavor, he did manage to create one of the most popular toys in history purely by accident. His Nutty Putty became a favorite among his family and friends, inspiring Wright to consider re-imagining the amorphous goo as a toy. He spent years trying to entice manufacturers to produce it without success, until a toy store owner named Ruth Fallgatter got wind of it via her advertising consultant Peter Hodgson, and she began selling it through her mail order catalog. Soon it was outselling all her other products, though she sold her interests in it to Hodgson not long after.
Armed with a large supply of what he renamed Silly Putty, in 1950 Hodgson enlisted the aid of dozens of Yale students to package the stuff in plastic eggshell containers, and the rest is history. Hodgson had managed to convince both Doubleday publishers and Nieman-Marcus retail stores in New York to stock the item, and it was in a Doubleday outlet that a New Yorker magazine writer discovered it, wrote a glowingly favorable article about it, and basically launched the Silly Putty revolution, which even saw Apollo 8 astronauts take it with them to lunar orbit in 1968. With tens of millions of these little eggs sold every year for the last 50 years, the little accident that could has become one of the most popular toys ever.
3) Hot Wheels
In 1968 the toy car market was dominated by British manufacturer Lesney Products and their Matchbox line (later to be bought by Mattel) that was hugely popular. Not to be outdone, Eliot Handler (one half of the founders of Mattel) began envisioning a distinctly American competitor. That year saw the first of 16 designs (a gleaming blue Camaro) hit the market and the response was immediate and unprecedented. The cars were sold individually and were combined with a series of assembled plastic tracks to run on, further enhancing Hot Wheels as utterly unique from their rivals. With incredibly realistic details, flashy paint jobs and basically indestructible design, the toys instantly became classics. Still only around $1 for each vehicle, Hot Wheels are enormously collectible which partly accounts for their ongoing popularity; it’s estimated that Mattel has sold billions of dollars worth of them, with no signs of slowing down as they approach their 50th anniversary.
A play on the Danish words ‘leg godt’ meaning ‘play well,’ Lego is as synonymous with childhood as gap-toothed smiles and scrapped knees. In 1949 they introduced their Automatic Binding Bricks which were the unwitting blueprints for their iconic Lego building blocks introduced in 1953. The simplistic nature of Lego belied their incredible durability, and it has become universally regarded as one of the most idolized toys in history. The product has grown even more popular over time, with more complex designs that would include such iconic items as Star Wars-themed creations among others. It would be almost impossible to estimate the volume of Lego toys sold worldwide, but suffice to say that the company is today the single largest toy manufacturer on Earth, with literally tens of millions of dollars worth of Lego products sold each week. For what it’s worth, the Danes routinely explore the option of changing their word for ‘money’ to Lego.
Well, this should surprise no one, because Barbie rules. When Mattel introduced a thin, largely unremarkable brunette doll in 1959, they had no idea they would be rolling out an institution. Ruth Handler (the other half of the Mattel founders) had watched her own daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls, and was inspired to create something more durable to excite her imagination. The result was Barbie, The Teenage Fashion Doll complete with two-tone bikini and bouffant hair. The toy was a smash hit selling over 350,000 units in its first year, and Barbie has basically gone on to conquer the world ever since. With an estimated one billion-plus dolls sold to date, Barbie is the undisputed King, Queen and Court Jester of the toy world, supplying Mattel with countless billions in revenues, but even more than that, she has endeared herself in the hearts of generations of children that find her sophisticated plastic style irresistible and has made her the best-selling toy of all time.
Take that Pet Rock poseur.