Ah, childhood: those sweet early days where the only things on your to-do list were acquiring object permanence and putting it to use during playtime. A time when acquiring the sweetest toys on the market was your way of escaping the drudgery of elementary school. While each decade had its own best toys – toys from the '70s and '80s were different than '90s toys – the real créme de la créme toys had a little thing called staying power. After all, Crayola Crayons hit the market in 1903, and they still beat RoseArt every day of the week.
Just which toy you best identify with, be it the hovering flight of a Frisbee, the Boardwalk frustrations of Monopoly, or the creaky electrified blinking of a Furby, says something about you. That’s because particular toys, much like particular fashion trends, had cultural moments that are inextricably bound up with the era in which they stormed childhood. And, sorry 1940s, but you really thought it was fun for kids to recreate WWII battlefields? Honestly, that's kind of a creepy toy idea.
One of the earliest “smart” toys, the plush, doe-eyed Furby burst onto the 1990s toy scene with a gimmick that thrilled slumber parties the world over – it could speak. Furbies came loaded with a smattering of “Furbish” phrases and were programed to pick up more language through extended interaction with their users. While the dolls, which were huge sellers, never quite achieved full enough English proficiency to say much more than variations on “I love you,” their animatronic jittering and thousand-yard stares more than cemented them in the lives of children growing up in the last decade of the 20th century.
For the angst-filled '90s kid – or the one whose parents wouldn't let them have a real pet – virtual pets, AKA "gigapets," offered a little taste of responsibility and consequences. Feed your virtual kitten – or else it would die. The good news? In the case of your virtual pet expiring, the tiny reset button was always an option.
If you wanted to be a cool, with-it kid in the '90s, you didn't have to stick exclusively to animatronic pets, however. Beanie Babies offered good, clean, plush fun with the added benefit of maybe one day being worth lots of money. Ty Warner, the stuffed animals' creator, generated enormous public fascination with his toys throughout the 1990s by pushing narratives of their scarcity in the press and "retiring" older models, generating a furor among collectors in the process. While the Beanie Baby craze predictably crashed, at the height of their popularity, some dolls were being sold for thousands of dollars.
Wanna be a cool nerd in the '80s? Easy. Buy a Rubik's cube, throw on some sneaks and a trench, and get really good at solving it. Everyone will be impressed, guaranteed. Even though the Rubik's cube is technically a product of the '70s, the '80s saw it get rebranded with its inventor’s now-synonymous last name. If you just couldn't figure out how to solve the complex, simple: peel the colored stickers off and move them around.
Around the same time the Rubik's Cube was making its splash, at the other end of the toy spectrum, a few turtles bearing ninja moves and Renaissance monikers were making themselves known. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who emerged from the comic book world in 1983, became a fixture of the 1980s. The quartet spawned movies, TV shows, and merchandise that never really went out of style.
For the more colorfully minded kid, dazzling, rainbow-colored ponies with brushable manes cantered onto the toy scene. My Little Pony was the superman ice cream of toys – visually staggering with very little flavor.
NERF, or “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam,” stormed the living rooms of rowdy kids the world over when Parker Brothers introduced their legendary foam ball in 1970. The company touted its – debatable – safety for indoor use and sold millions in the process. Before long, the sheer variety of forms NERF material could take led to a veritable foam arms race, with NERF footballs, guns, bow and arrows, and more debuting in rapid succession.
The Speak and Spell was basically the antithesis of NERF. Designed for single-user play and decidedly less active, the toy debuted in 1978 from Texas Instruments. The company, which is also behind the popular line of scientific and graphing calculators, brought their signature innovative streak to the world of educational toys, which could synthesize speech and was available in seven languages into the 1990s.
The success of the Easy Bake Oven isn't hard to understand – making your own sweets at an age when next to nothing is in your control has an obvious appeal. While those sweets, which were “cooked” by the Easy-Bake’s red-hot internal light bulb, did not always emerge in quite the solid state a child baker might hope, the culinary toy still did gangbusters following its debut in 1963. Designed by Kenner Products (which has since been absorbed by Hasbro), over half a million of the original units sold in the oven’s first year on the market alone.
Hot Wheels, the die-cast mini vehicles that debuted in 1968, made a big splash in the crowded toy car market by introducing functioning axles and wheels. Their signature looks – flame-emblazoned muscle cars, exposed exhaust hotrods, and bizarre one-offs quickly caught the eye of collectors and young car aficionados alike. After all, they were the fastest toy car a kid could buy.