Are You a Toys ‘R Us Kid?
I like toys. You like toys. We all like toys. Like you, I am a marginally responsible adult, so my annual toy budget takes a backseat to utility bills, insurance copays, and oil changes. Never is parenting more enjoyable than those minutes spent browsing aisles of blister packages and licensed graphics to find that Zombie Cave Minecraft LEGO set or that three-pack of Paw Patrol doggies (But NOT Rubble, Daddy. I don’t like Rubble). I don’t mind searching because—Chapter 11 be damned—I am a Toys ‘R Us kid.
I chose one of the most popular, if not THE most popular, toy each year from 1955 to 1985. Considering this website diverse audience, I covered the childhood of several generations, from Baby Boomers to Millennials.
*When making selections for each year’s top toy, no preference was made for boy or girl toys—I did my best to cover each equally. Selections are based on total sales for that year, NOT the year the toy was released to market. Cost inflation values from the Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
1955: Mouseketeer Fan Cub Typewriter
Brilliant colors and graphics aside, this was a real, working typewriter and capitalized on the success of the Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-1950s. It included red ribbon for typing and cost roughly $4 in 1955 (about $39 in 2020).
1956: Slinky Dog
This ubiquitous toy experienced a surge of popularity in the mid-1990s after being featured in the Toy Story franchise, far greater than even its original release. Voiced by Jim Varney, “Slink” would have cost roughly $2 in 1956 ($19 in 2020).
1957: Robert the Animated Robot
The launch of Sputnik in 1957 inspired the “Golden Age” of science fiction in the late-1950s, and Robert the Animated Robot fit right in. Controlled by a boxy wired remote, his eyes flashed, he moved in any direction (in sudden lunges), and had a fairly clear voice box. Most amusing of all is the nearly three-minute commercial introducing him to the toy market—it’s almost a documentary. In 1957, he cost about $5.50 ($53 in 2020).
Like many Fisher-Price toys, the Pull-a-Tune is nearly eternal. My parents had one. I had one. My kids had one. The metallic jangle of this rolling xylophone was organized well enough that a kid could play rudimentary tunes on it. Playing with my children’s Pull-a-Tune only a couple years ago, I was able to tap out the melody to the 4th Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. That’s a heck of toy. Cost was also a bonus: only about $2.50 in 1958 (about $25 in 2020).
The Original Barbie Doll stormed the toy market in 1959, selling almost a half million in its first year. Mattel marketed her as the “Teen-Age Fashion Doll” and were amazed at how the doll appealed to a wide swath of ages. Coupling her with a flood of accessories and friends, Barbie remains one of the most popular toys in American history. She cost $1.30 in 1959 (about $12 in 2020).
Invented in France, made in Ohio, and owned by a Canadian company, the Etch-a-Sketch is simply aluminum powder, plastic, and a couple knobs. Over a half million sold in 1960 and by 2019, over 100 million of these drawing toys have been sold worldwide. It has remained virtually unchanged, save the replacement of its plate glass screen with a plastic one in 1969, and its price—$3 in 1960 (about $26 in 2020).
1961: The Flintstones Play Set (made by Marx)
The Flintstones TV show became the “perfect storm” of American entertainment. It appealed to the young and old, flooded markets with licensed products, and was the first animated show with a slot on primetime television.
Louis Marx and Company introduced one of the most popular products with this $5 Flintstones Play Set (about $43 today). With 15 figures, 4 cars, a plastic mat and assorted trees, prehistoric creatures, and foliage, this was an investment in imagination.
Board games are nothing new…but when Ideal introduced its Haunted House Game in 1962, toy stores couldn’t put them on shelves fast enough to meet demands, despite its hefty price tag—$7 in 1962 ($60 in 2020). Four players duked it out while exploring this massive, 3-D haunted house, finding surprises and scares as they went. Ideal had mastered the art of molded plastic, creating a game that didn’t need multiple players to enjoy.
1963: Farmer in the Dell TV Radio (by Fisher-Price)
It only played a single song and it wasn’t Fisher-Price’s first toy radio, but something about 1963’s Farmer in the Dell TV Radio resonated with kids. Once wound, it would play a tinny, tinkling version of “The Farmer in the Dell.” The wooden case was covered end to end with brilliant graphics, including the complete lyrics on the back. It cost a significant $4.50 in 1963 ($39 in 2020), but its heavy, hefty construction was built to last.
1964: Mouse Trap Game by Ideal
Although Ideal introduced Mouse Trap to the board game market in 1963, it wasn’t until 1964 that the American public fell in love with this Rube Goldberg-inspired family game. Players cooperated to build the complex machine, then turned against each other to avoid the “mouse trap” spaces. Many families bought the game for the simple pleasure of building the colorful contraption, even with its $4 price tag ($33.50 in 2020).
1965: G.I. Joe Action Soldier
In 1964, Hasbro set out to create a fully-articulated toy soldier, adding equipment and uniforms to make them as realistic as possible. It wasn’t patriotism or a love of the military that inspired Hasbro: the toy company wanted to create a “Barbie for boys”. Fully a foot tall, G.I. Joe figures had versions in every branch of the military and, reflecting the growing Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, had an African-American soldier as well. The most popular GI Joe cost $4.75 ($39 in 2020) and included a machine gun emplacement.
1966: LEGO Construction Set
Although LEGO had been a popular toy overseas in the 1950s, they weren’t a hit with American kids until the company perfected the manufacture of the blocks (using an ABS polymer) and marketed them as a complete toy set in the mid-1960s. The selection was limited, with only three set sizes available. Costs ranged from $3 to $10 per set ($23 to $80 in 2020).
1967: Portable Record Players
The toy was popular because it wasn’t a toy. Using the then-advanced technology of transistors allowed electronic companies to shrink the size and price of items that once cost hundreds of dollars and took a hand truck to move.
The portable record player—Zenith offered one of the most popular versions—weighed only a few pounds and could run on batteries. They played the most popular record speeds (16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm), so teenagers could enjoy the records of the day at their leisure. These weren’t cheap though. Most cost around $18 in 1967, ($140 in 2020) but solid construction meant they lasted for many years.
1968: Baby First Steps by Mattel
Baby First Steps crossed into Uncanny Valley territory by today’s standards, but kids from the mid-1960s adored this doll. It was only on the market for a few years, and its manufacture ended in its most popular year: 1968 (the above commercial jumbled dates). It wasn’t cheap either: Baby First Steps cost $12 in 1968 ($93 in 2020), but the price didn’t seem to slow sales. Mattel advertised it as “the first and only doll that can walk all by herself” and they were absolutely right. Although it jerked and lurched a little in its movements, she really did walk…or skate on the included roller skates. She was as much a technical achievement as a commercial one.
1969: Revell’s Collector’s Set American Space Program
Revell remains one of the modeling world’s most prestigious names, especially among military model enthusiasts. America’s infatuation with the Space Age waned a little after Apollo 11, but Revell’s large set capitalized on the very crest of that wave with this collection. It highlighted the Gemini and Apollo missions, and cost $11 in 1969 ($77 in 2020).
1970: Silly Putty
In 1970, for the low cost of $1 ($4 in 2020), you could buy an egg of this gummy, rubbery, somewhat-greasy substance. That doesn’t sound awe-inspiring, but the marketing worked. Although its direct inventor is still debated, historians do agree it was originally created during WWII in an effort to formulate a rubber alternative. Silly Putty entered the market in the mid-1950s and saw success, but its numbers crested in 1970, after receiving an advertising boost from the crew of Apollo 8.
1971: Fisher Price Play Farm
My four-year-old daughter stopped talking mid-sentence when she saw the above picture of the Fisher Price Play Farm, proving some vintage toys are just as effective today as they were in decades before. Released in 1968, its sales peaked in the early-1970s.
Little People had been around since the 1950s, but by the late 60s they were made of plastic instead of wood, had a variety of animals, and the barn went “MOO!” went opened. The cost? Roughly $9 in 1972 (or $50 today).
1972: Toss Across Game
It doesn’t sound exciting: tic-tac-toe on a giant scale. But Ideal (and later Mattel) hit the motherlode with its Toss Across Game. Set up outside, players would toss bean bags in the air in an attempt to land on a targeted square and win tic-tac-toe. The bean bags provided a randomizing factor, so it became a game of skill, chance, and mind.
When initially released, the game squares only spun in one direction, allowing players to predict the next spin. Today, squares spin in both directions, making it more random…and a little more fun. Toss Across cost $9 in 1973 ($56 in 2020)
1973: Pocket Transistor Radios
Transistor technology, in a nutshell, helps amplify and control electrical power or signals. Essentially that means doing a lot more with electronics in a far smaller space. This tiny transistor radio had been around since the 1960s, but was generally marketed to adults, since its high cost (~$20 or $160 in 2020) was out of most children’s reach.
By the early-70s, the cost had lowered significantly, and kids could now walk around “blasting” their Top 40 tunes from their pocket for the low cost of $4 ($25 in 2020).
1974: Matchbox Super Station
Matchbox cars—called so because of the ”matchbox” packages the cars came in—was having a hard time competing with Mattel’s Hot Wheels line in the late-1960s. While Hot Wheels weren’t as detailed as Matchbox, Mattel’s wheel/axle design allowed them to move much faster on the familiar orange tracks. Matchbox was briefly saved from insolvency by the Super Station in the mid-1970s.
This set folded and unfolded, allowing Matchbox cars to move up and down the brightly-colored levels. Its modular design allowed kids to use their imagination in creating multiple versions of the set, and the entire station collapsed neatly for storage. It wasn’t cheap though—$12 in 1974 is equal to $66 in 2020.
They were uncomfortable, the hard plastic head squeezed your palms tightly, and after a few years in a toy box, these Burt and Ernie Puppets would smell of musty dust, but they were an absolute blast. They looked exactly like the dueling buddies on Sesame Street, albeit with heads of molded plastic instead of felt. The low cost of only $5 also helped the sales numbers (about $25 in 2020).
1976: Evel Knievel Stunt Bike
In the mid-1970s, Evel Knievel was a living and breathing super-man (at least until he tried to beat a guy to death in 1977). During his career, he suffered 433 bone fractures and just kept going. His brand appeared in many toy versions, but none as memorable as the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, released in 1973.
Although Ideal ended its marketing with Knievel in 1977 after his assault charge, the company claimed to have sold $125 million in Knievel merchandise—with the flywheel-powered Stunt Cycle its biggest seller. It cost $9 in 1977, equivalent to $40 in 2020.
*Just typing this ad made me want one, even at the age of 40.
1977: Stretch Armstrong
The secret to Stretch Armstrong’s limitless flexibility? Gelled corn syrup. In 1977, kids couldn’t get enough of this floppy latex rubber doll and did their best to destroy him, paying $13 per figure ($57 in 2020).
The near-naked superhero was only 15 inches tall, but he could be twisted, pulled, and manipulated to nearly 5 feet. Few of the original 1970s Stretch Armstrong dolls still exist, since he could be ruined by a very determined child or by being stored at the wrong temperature.
Texas Instruments sold millions of these colorful little calculators and famously couldn’t keep up with Christmas demand at the tail-end of 1977. They didn’t make that same mistake the next year. It was a fully-functioning calculator, of course, but it also had a brightly-colored case and played games with its owners.
Parents liked the Little Professor, kids liked it…teachers, not so much. Suddenly all their students had these little cheating machines in class for the low cost of $13 ($53 in 2020).
Farrah Fawcett was an entertainment juggernaut in the late-1970s after her single season on Charlie’s Angels (1976-1977). The Farrah Fawcett Glamour Center was hands-down the most popular licensed toy featuring her iconic feathered bangs, costing $15 when released ($61 in 2020). It was also the year after THE POSTER made its way to the wall of nearly every teenager in America. The likeness of the center’s model—to which owners could style the hair or apply makeup—to the actual Farrah is so uncanny it’s, uh, kind of creepy.
1980: Rubik’s Cube
For only $2 ($6.50 in 2020), you could look and feel like a moron…or like the smartest person in the world. Somehow the Rubik’s Cube fell into the toy world in a perfect time for the 1980s. Its combinations were almost endless and the cutthroat competitiveness of the colorful plastic box went national and international.
Ideal found the perfect marketing for the puzzle toy (it’s tagline: ”Over 3 Billion Combinations…But Only One Solution!”) and sold to adults and kids alike. Since Ideal brought it to the American markets in late 1979, over 350 million cubes have sold.
1981: Star Wars AT-AT Walker
The story of Star Wars is both of short-sighted production companies and far-sighted creatives. Lucas retained all merchandising rights to his Star Wars saga and made billions doing so.
In 1977 he stocked stores with figures and a few toys, but by the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back, he had perfected the strategy. Figures had multiple costumes, and consumers could place them in play sets and vehicles. The most desired, of course, was the AT-AT Walker, which had decimated the ice planet of Hoth…at a cost of $25 (about $83 in 2020).
I had one and my daughter has one. If you had one as well, I guarantee you can’t look at the picture without remembering those pops as you flipped a switch or turned a knob. Poppin’ Pals came in versions for both Sesame Street and Disney, and were advertised as an educational toy. The handle increased its popularity, since kids could toddle the toy around anywhere. It cost $8 in 1982, or about $24 today.
The second go-around for G.I Joe was supposed to be a group of commandoes headed by Nick Fury (of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Avengers fame) to fight against HYDRA. Instead, Hasbro went with the G.I. Joe brand and made the enemy COBRA (very close to HYDRA, yes?).
Hundreds of figures, vehicles, and bases made up the G.I. Joe line, and the television show introduced the characters (toys first, show second). Each figure cost about $3 ($8 in 2020), so it was easy for kids to amass a quick collection of them.
1984: Cabbage Patch Kids
“Every Cabbage Patch Doll was different”…Technically this was true. Using computers, the millions of combinations of the outfits and nine faces made each toy slightly different. Kids were told they weren’t buying the Cabbage Patch dolls, but adopting them (marketing genius on the part of Coleco). Demand was so great that stores across the United States reported acts of violence and looting as thousands of people assaulted the stores to snatch one of the few hundred on supply. They cost was $30 in 1984, or about $73 in 2020.
1985: Optimus Prime (from Transformers)
Transformers made toy history for two reasons. It was a completely original idea (in Japan anyway) that used books and movies to sell the toys AND came to market with a similar toy already dominating the market (GoBots). GoBots fall from grace was so large that Hasbro eventually bought and then absorbed the GoBot story, reintroducing it as an alternative universe to the Transformers.
The toys were and are very collectible. They have remained popular for being durable, colorful, and numerous. Among the most valuable is the G1 (first generation) Optimus Prime with trailer. If you had one today, in its box and complete, you could easily sell it for nearly $1000.