Top 10 Hot Christmas Toys of All Time

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This list encompasses the top 10 hot Christmas toys of all time. When I say ‘hot,’ I mean the ones flying off the shelves, that every kid just HAS to have, the kind of toy that brings out the best in everyone. Kids (and some adults) spend their time feverishly begging and pleading for the item, while normally calm and level-headed people become hot-headed shopping maniacs.

I could have easily made a list of the top 50 hottest Christmas toys in history. It was hard to leave out the famous Spirograph, Star Wars, Slime and the Slinky, among others. I also came across some hot Christmas toys that I hadn’t heard of before, like the one million plastic bubble topped cars that sold in 1946 (made by Wannatoy).

In an effort to narrow the list down, I tried to focus on crazes that seem well, crazy, today or that have crazy stories related to their popularity. Toys got extra hot points if they were influential on the future of the toy industry (both developments and marketing).

Time to ride the crazy train through the last 60 years of Christmas toy history! Here is my top 10 list of hot Christmas toys of all time, placed in order of their release –

10. Mr. Potato Head

1952
1 million sold
Hasbro

The Christmas Story
Originally George Lerner’s idea for this famous toy spud seemed like it might be a dud. At first, no one seemed interested in his idea, but eventually a small family-run toy company called Hasbro began production. Mr. Potato Head became so popular that a Mrs. Potato Head was introduced the next year.

The Craziness
Mr. Potato Head was the very first toy advertisement on TV. Thank you Hasbro for starting the never-ending chorus of ‘Can I have that?! I want that!” that started in living rooms in 1952 and hasn’t died down to this day. I think Tylenol probably owes Mr. Potato Head a kickback for a jump in profits, particularly around Christmas.

In more recent news, a six foot tall 150 pound Mr. Potato Head statue went missing from the entrance of a private estate on Rhode Island in 2003. It showed up in a field a few days later. Sgt. James Quinn stated that Mr. Potato Head was “mashed a little bit” during the incident (boston.com). No one knows how what happened, but there is some speculation that Mr. Potato Head had relocated to the field in an effort to get back to his roots.

9. Pet Rock

1975
over 5 million sold in 6 months
Rock Bottom Productions

pet rock hot christmas toys

The Christmas Story
In his own words, Ad executive Larry Dahl “ hit on the idea while boozing with pals” (people.com). Next, he sent a press release out to “virtually every major media outlet” leading to articles in several local newspapers, Newsweek, and an appearance on The Tonight Show.

The fad peaked during the 1975 Christmas season and it is estimated that Dahl earned over 15 million dollars during the six months that Pet Rocks were popular.

The Craziness
Um, hellooooooooo – every day during the 1975 Christmas season 100,000 people were paying money for a pet rock. What is even more crazy? As I write this, Pet Rock USB buddies are sold out at thinkgeek.com and actual Pet Rocks are still selling on eBay for up to $15.00.

In other news, I’m sorry to report that you missed this year’s Pet Rock Festival. The festival is held in Worcester, Massachusetts and promotes kindness to all animals. Instead, you can sit down and listen to Teenage Fanclub’s song “Pet Rock” (Bandwagonesque, Spin’s Album of the Year, 1991) while you enjoy a glass of Pet Rock Wine.

8. PONG

1975
150,000 sold
Atari

The Christmas Story
“Pong was an adaptation of the company’s popular arcade game of the same name, and it became the most popular game of the 1975 holiday season, with sales of $40,000,000 for the year” (ideafinder.com).

The Craziness
When it comes to home video games, Pong really started the ball rolling. When you see it in action now, it’s hard to believe that a few lines on a TV screen could cause such a ruckus, but Pong was 1975’s version of a Wii. “People were waiting two hours in line to sign up on a list just to get an Atari home version of Pong” (atarimuseum.com).

Frank Black may have asked “Whatever Happened to Pong?” on his album Teenager of the Year, but Pong’s legacy lives on in science and the arts. There are over 119 works of fan fiction about Pong at fanction.com. Also crazy (as in so cool, it’s crazy) ScienceDaily.com reported that students “have adapted an open source game called ‘Pong’… enabl[ing]the player to move the bat using their eye.” This innovation “could allow people with severe physical disabilities to become ‘gamers’ for the first time.”

7. Atari

1979
1 million sold
Warner Communications

The Christmas Story
Atari again? Yes, Atari gets two spots on this list of hottest toys because their products were crazy popular during two Christmas seasons.

The Atari Video Computer System (VCS) originally came out in 1977, it came with one game (Combat) and about half a dozen other games were available. That year “was not a good time for video game systems as the market experienced a crash after it had been previously oversaturated with Pong clones” (consoledatabase.com). While the Atari VCS is considered the first successful console with interchangeable cartridges, its sales were disappointing during its first two years.

However, by 1979 there were 32 titles in their library, including the very first video game with an Easter Egg (Adventure) and the first game licensed from a movie franchise (Superman)… and the first generation of gamers had been born. That year the Atari CVS, renamed the Atari 2600, “was the bestselling Christmas present… and a million were sold that year”, while game cartridge sales were estimated at $100 million (wordiq.com).

The Craziness
Atari was the beginning of a new pastime (in some cases, passion). In fact, many of today’s gamers actually played games on the Atari 2600 since the average video game player in the U.S. today is 35 years old (itfacts.biz).

The cartridge format for games was used in many future systems until this was replaced with the CD format. The last system to use cartridges was Nintendo 64 (discontinued in 2001).

While I couldn’t find any evidence of Atari-related riots, there is a band called Atari Teenage Riot whose performances have allegedly incited violence, and even a riot with police in 1997. There is also a song called “Atari Baby” by Sigue Sigue Sputnick. Although I’m pretty sure it’s about the arcade version it’s such a good song, I’m mentioning it anyways.

6. Cabbage Patch Dolls

1983
almost 3 million sold
Coleco

The Christmas Story
According to cabbagepatchkids.com, the dolls “go on record as the most successful new doll introduction in the history of the toy industry”. In 2000, they were featured in a U.S. stamp series highlighting the 1980’s (as far as I can see, the only other modern toy to ever be featured on a stamp is the Slinky).

It all started when celebrities were spotted toting them around, even President Jimmy Carter’s daughter Amy had one. Then, “Coleco began aggressively pushing the Cabbage Patch dolls–it sent them directly to reporters, a relatively new technique” (time.com). Over 2 million dolls were “adopted” in the first six months. By December of 1983, Cabbage Patch Dolls were on the cover of Newsweek and they were in short supply and high demand.

The Craziness
The shopping frenzy surrounding the dolls is well documented (check out the video above). According to, awesome80s.com dolls were being delivered to stores by armored car and Coleco pulled the TV commercials in an attempt to tame the madness; one desperate and doting Kansas City dad even flew to London to get his daughter a doll. Check out awesome80s.com for more crazy stories from the Cabbage Patch, which also says the dolls are “the first instance of a fad toy causing the phenomena now known as Christmas Gift Buying Rage.”

I also had to include two of the Cabbage Patch urban myths listed at Snopes.com (there are several, so check out the site for more). First, did you know the dolls were designed to get the masses comfortable with the mutated appearance of survivors of a thermonuclear war? Also, there were reports that children wouldn’t get their dolls back from the factory if they sent them in for repairs- they would receive a death certificate instead.

The questionably cute dolls even spawned a dance called The Cabbage Patch, made famous when it became San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice’s end zone dance. There is also the Cabbage Patch biker bar of Daytona Beach, famous for it’s annual coleslaw wrestling event, but I’m pretty sure it is not named after the doll.

5. Game Boy

1991
over 1 million sold in the US during its first Christmas Season
Nintendo

The Christmas Story
A year after its release in Japan, the Game Boy came to the U.S.A. and conquered the Christmas shopping season. Contributing to its popularity: the Game Boy gave you 35 hours of play on one set of batteries, in contrast to its competitors at the time. Also, it came with Tetris- a game that appealed to all ages.

“Game Boy and Game Boy Color’s combined lifetime sales reached 118.7 million worldwide” (businessweek.com). Game Boy is “the longest running dynasty in the video game business” according to arstechnica.com.

The Craziness
The Game Boy console’s design is instantly recognizable and has become a pop culture icon. There are Game Boy condoms, wallets, handmade dresses, fully-functional Halloween costumes, and tattoos. Artists like NullSleep use the Game Boy to create music and Game Boys have been repurposed into external hard drives, while the game cartridges have been turned into USB drives.

4. Tickle Me Elmo

1996
10 million and counting
Tyco

The Christmas Story
It’s a case of Christmas in July, or at least that’s when this Christmas story begins. Rosie O’Donnell introduces Tickle Me Elmo to her viewers (mostly moms) and 200 Elmos are given out to her studio audience. By some accounts, Tyco had already sold 400,000 Tickle Me Elmos before he made his appearance on the Rosie O’Donnell show; by other accounts Tyco was not expecting the rather expensive doll to do well, and it was a slow seller. Similar to the Cabbage Patch craze, the low supply of dolls made it even more desirable, so that “in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Tickle Me Elmo dolls were in such scarce supply that ads cropped up in newspapers asking for as much as $2000 per doll” (media-awareness.ca).

The Craziness
One department store employee describes what happened to him on December 14, 1996:

“I was pulled under, trampled—the crotch was yanked out of my brand-new jeans…” says Waller, who suffered a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw and knee, a broken rib and a concussion. “I was kicked with a white Adidas before I became unconscious.” (Jan 13 1997, Just Tickled, people.com)

Other Tickle Me Elmo trauma can be found at customerssuck.com. You can buy the original dolls online for less than $20.00 U.S.

3. Furby

1998
1.8 million sold
Tiger Electronics

The Christmas Story
Like most of the other toys appearing later on this list, the Furby was introduced at the Toy Industry Association’s annual Toy Fair. This introduction of the Furby took place in February, months before it’s planned release in October. Premature media coverage caught the attention of toy stores and Tiger had sold all of them before the factory had even started production. Parents were just as intrigued, because the toys sold out at the stores immediately.

Over 14 million Furbies sold in 1999, but the Christmas of 1998 was the height of the Furby fervor because of it’s lack of availability. Furbies were re-selling for hundreds of dollars (their original ticket price was $35 U.S.). For the first time in toy history, parents turned to the Internet to satisfy their Christmas toy cravings. To put this into context, eBay was only 4 years old in 1998 and only 26.2 percent of U.S. households had internet access. One eBay seller made at least $2600 selling Furbies to 33 Buyers. Unfortunately, most of them were buying Furbies of the imaginary variety because the eBay Seller was a scammer cashing in on the Furby frenzy (‘Burned eBay Furby Buyers Get Payback’, Jan 22 2009, news.cnet.com).

The Craziness
“Sometimes the hot toy is not such a good toy,” said one toy expert during the Furby craze (time.com). Apparently, the Furby was not only annoying – it also creeped quite a few kids (and adults) out. Only a few weeks ago my nieces (now in their 20’s) were describing how scary their Furby was to have in their rooms because it would suddenly start talking. A visit to a forum at tamatalk.com is full of similar stories of Furby owners who make their Furbies face the wall at night so their scary face isn’t visible, of Furbies that call out in the middle of the night, and family dogs who won’t go near them.

The main character of Bret Easton Ellis’ 2005 book Lunar Park is tormented by his step-daughter’s Terby toy – not just similar in name, the doll has a beak, is furry, and ‘comes to life’ (although in Ellis’ case the Terby flits around and, from what I can recall, tries to kill him).

The Pet Rock was (hopefully) obviously just a rock, so was not likely to be disappointing; the Cabbage Patch Kid was actually a popular and enduring toy (personally, I don’t understand it, but perhaps that’s just the bitter, doll-less little girl in me speaking); but the Furby just… sucked?

Not every agrees, because adoptafurby.com seems to be completely sold out of Furbies. They believe in “giving every Furby a chance at a new life, regardless of their past” and 851 Furbies have already been adopted through their site.

Furbies also enjoy new lives at the hands of hackers and circuit benders. Well, perhaps enjoy isn’t the right word… Hacking involves “getting sliced open, their guts torn out, and their insides replaced with odds and ends you can find at the local hobby store” (hackfurby.com). Circuit bending, “an electronic art which implements creative audio short-circuiting,” sounds friendlier but involves a similar operation (anti-theory.com).

Possibly more disturbing than hacking a Furby apart, the Adult Lovers of Furbys group (ALOF) on Yahoo had 18 new messages and 18 new photos posted just this week…

2. Playstation 3

 

2006
Sales Unavailable
Sony

The Christmas Story
The PS3 had several features that set it apart. It’s ‘unified online gaming service’ encouraged online play, it had functionality for multimedia storage and play (photos, music and movies) and it primarily used Blu-Ray disks for storage.

The Play Station 3 was unveiled at the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo (May) and shown again at the Tokyo Game Show (September) but there wasn’t an operating version of the game system to demonstrate at either of these shows. The international release date was originally set for November, but the PAL version (Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and most of Western Europe) was delayed until Spring 2007). Over 81,000 PS3’s sold within the first 24 hours of the Japan release.

The Craziness
All of these factors contributed to a tense environment surrounding the U.S. release. PS3’s pre-sold for thousands of dollars online and, more than ever, people were camping outside stores. The long build up of anticipation resulted in numerous reports of gun violence in the news (armed robbery, shootings, drive-bys) and brawls (in one case, 60 shoppers were involved).

Don’t forget the story of the customer who “treated people ahead of him in line to coffee spiked with laxatives” when he found out there wasn’t enough PS 3’s to go around. Talk about playing dirty (Esquire).

1. Zhu Zhu Pets

2009
10 million
Cepia

The Christmas Story
Russell Hornsby, the man who came up with the idea for these robotic hamsters, was inspired by the popularity of hamster footage on YouTube. The toy was tested out at  a few stores in Arizona and sold out in a few weeks. “Following in the footsteps of must-haves of seasons past — the Furby, Tickle-me Elmo, Cabbage Patch dolls, Beanie Babies — supply seems to grow short just when demand is high, and Zhu Zhu Pets are flying off store shelves” (abcnews). Another reason for its success: you could buy a hamster for under $10. Also, “Unlike actual hamsters, they don’t bite, they don’t smell, and they don’t poop” (pennlive.com).

Yes, they’re cute – but are they really robots? Terese Polletti at Market Watch argues that they are not and quotes Jimmy Kimmel, who described Zhu Zhu’s as “Matchbox cars with hair on them.”

Yet, they seem to have appeared at the right place at the right time: created by a small St. Louis toy company (but manufactured in China) and selling for a reasonable ticket price. Finally, a genuinely cute and fun toy, whose popularity hasn’t been spurred on by an innovative or expensive marketing campaign or celebrity endorsements.

The Craziness
Yet, by the end of November Zhu Zhu pets were selling for $250 on eBay and several Target employees were fired for purchasing Zhu Zhu pets earlier than the company policy allowed (consumerist.com). ‘Tis the Season! Now stop reading, it’s time to rush down to the store and wrestle some other desperate shopper for this year’s toy!

Check out our TopTenz playlist: Hot Christmas Toys for more footage, videos of the songs mentioned, and other toys.

Additional Resources

toyassociation.org – “a list of classic toys that are still on the market, along with their first year of introduction and current manufacturer”

List of all inductees into the Toy Industry Association’s National Toy Hall of Fame

Langley Sommer, Robin, I Had One of Those: Toys of Our Generation, Random House.

Note: unless noted otherwise, the sales figures listed under the year of release indicate number of units sold during that one year.

Shop Related Products

International readers: this list is based on popular toys in North America and may not reflect your country (for example, Action Man was an extremely successful toy in the UK in 1966). What was the toy you just had to have?


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1 Comment

  1. Other items I’d include would be the Nintendo 64 and maybe nowadays Star Wars toys which are being bought out by collectors and resellers.

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