Toys are an integral part of society.
Mundane, as they may seem, throughout its long history, toys have evolved from sticks to the intricate and advanced gaming systems that we now know today. But the physical is far from being the only thing that has evolved in the millions of years it has existed; its function in society has dramatically changed.
From mere entertainment tools to sacred religious artifacts to evolving into building blocks for the next generation’s overall development, toys have played a significant role in helping mold the very face and essence of society throughout the years.
Taking a trip down memory lane, celebrate the game-changing innovations that brought joy and laughter to children and adults worldwide. Turn the pages back and relive the most prominent toys that simply flew off the shelves as they were introduced to the world from 1960 to 2022; a rediscovery of the toys that sent millions of hearts aflutter as excited children unwrapped them for the very first time.
The emergence of the Barbie doll and many of its accessories and friends — like the dollhouse and the Ken doll dominated the 1960s. However, that is not to say that toy innovation at the time was any less revolutionary compared to other decades. This time had indeed marked a golden age for dolls and action figures. Still, it also gave its fair appreciation of toys that empowered artistry and creativity.
1960: The Etch A Sketch
This journey starts in 1960, the turn of the century, just a year after the revolutionary Barbie was released and was all the rage at homes, playgrounds, and the world.
Despite the absolute dominance that the shadow of the Barbara Millicent Roberts dolls cast over the toy market, the innovative and unique Etch A Sketch took home the title of being the 1960s’ Most Requested Toy from Santa’ award.
With an original estimated retail price of $2.99, the Etch A Sketch, named initially and known as L’Ecran Magique, which also meant “magic screen,” the Etch A Sketch went on to land strategic television spots to become a global fad in 1960.
The Etch A Sketch was created by Andre Cassagnes, a French electrical technician who marketed his brainchild unsuccessfully for an entire year before selling the product licenses to the Ohio Art Company for $25,000. After renaming the “magic screen” into the Etch A Sketch and an ingenious marketing strategy, the Etch A Sketch became the art toy colossus that you now know today.
1961: The Ken Doll
After two years of changing the toy landscape, Barbie had finally met her match – her love match.
The Ken Doll, the male counterpart released by Mattel, flew off the shelves in 1961, giving Barbie her prince in ruling the toy industry. Mattel marketed the Ken Doll to have real hair in its first year on the shelves before they shifted to a plastic-based substance.
Mattel introduced the Ken Doll at the American International Toy Fair as Barbie’s boyfriend on March 11 that year. He stood 12 inches tall with molded plastic that came in two colors; blonde and brunette. He wore red bathing suit trunks, a yellow towel, and a pair of sandals.
Since then, Ken has become a significant part of the toy industry, appearing side-by-side with the best the market has to offer. The product made some notable strides in the process independently too. In 1973, Mattel officially gave Ken real rooted hair. In 2009, Ken and Barbie appeared dating at the New York Fashion Week to celebrate Barbie’s 50th anniversary. But perhaps most notably of all, in 2010, Ken played a significant role in Toy Story 3 and appeared at New York City’s Fashion’s Night Out the same year.
As a partner to Barbie that expanded the known line from Mattel, creators and the Barbie website described Ken as a confident, intuitive, considerate, loyal, supportive, compassionate, and a dreamy character.
1962: Barbie’s Dollhouse
In 1962, supremacy in the toy industry was the twin-headed dragon of the Christmas Day favorite, the Chatter Telephone, and the market behemoth, Barbie’s Dollhouse.
Market dominance in 1962 was a tight race between these two products, but ultimately, Barbie’s Dollhouse rode its titular toy’s game-changing prevalence in the 1960s to become that year’s most popular toy.
The meteoric success that the Barbie line by Mattel enjoyed spurred various innovations throughout this decade. From Barbie’s boyfriend Ken, the geniuses in Mattel also realized that the couple needed a place to live. This realization led to the construction of Barbie’s dollhouse, as the company furnished a cardboard ranch with mid-century modern furniture for the famous toy.
Now more than half a century after Barbie’s dollhouse’s first release, the novelty evolved into sophisticated bundles of fun that feature fun, fabulous, and out-of-this-world ideas that had massively appealed to its beloved customers.
1963: The Easy-Bake Oven
1963 will forever be the year when the Easy-Bake Oven took the world by storm. Selling at about $15 for every unit years ago, the Easy-Bake Oven was a functional oven whose size fit perfectly for the budding children of the 60s.
However, the groundbreaking success that was the Easy-Bake Oven wasn’t all cakes and rainbows. In its debut year, parents who purchased the product raised several safety concerns about the product. In response, the toy company Kenner implemented the installation of two 100-watt bulbs to act as a heating source to address concerns surrounding burns and ensure safety for kids who play.
The Easy-Bake Oven became a way for children to learn and enjoy a fun and amazingly educational craft at a young age. Not to mention that they were able to make sweet treats of their own – and as kids, the world couldn’t be better than that.
1964: G.I. Joe
Before you move forward, please be reminded that the 1960s was a time that was far less hospitable. During that decade, the Barbie line was successful beyond words as Mattel marketed the product to the young girls of that time. On the other hand, the GI Joe achieved success as Hasbro marketed the new toy to the young boys of the generation.
Hasbro conceptualized the GI Joe action figures in 1964 to market dolls to boys. However, due to sexist company policies during that time, it was heavily prohibited to use the word ‘dolls’ as a way to market the toys.
The company deliberately and actively avoided using the word dolls during the GI Joe lexicon and instead opted to use the term ‘action figures’ to avoid specific implications they didn’t like associated with the toy.
GI Joe was a brave and crafty war hero children, particularly young boys, absolutely idolized and loved. Selling at $1.95 per action figure, the overall design and aesthetic would evolve to mirror celebrities and heroes in real life. However, his outsized masculinity is something that persists to this very day.
Initially, Hasbro released four figures to the market, each representing the Army, the Navy, the Airforce, and the marines. From its release and two years then, the profits generated by the GI Joe toy line would eventually constitute half of the company’s total earnings. In modern pop culture, GI Joe has appeared in TV series, movies, and cartoons of its own.
1965: WHAM-O Toys
Suffice to say, the GI Joes and the Barbies of the world were getting their share of the glory. Still, as toy shelves emptied one by one, a couple of other products were also making strides alongside the legendary novelties.
WHAM-O toys made two significant releases that year: the Wham-O Frisbee and the Wham-O Super Ball. While not the generation-defining toys that reached the same popularity as Barbies and GI Joes, these two products were highly memorable for children born in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Superball was a product of science as extraordinarily elastic and flexible materials called polybutadiene, hydrated silica, zinc oxide, and stearic acid gave the product signature features. The combination of these chemicals resulted in a product that bounced off countless walls in millions of American homes and the world.
The WHAM-O Frisbee, on the other hand, had frequented picnics, parks, and university grounds around the world as the main focus of exciting fitness activities you can play with friends and even pets. Historians had traced the frisbee’s origin back to 19th century New England when university students played with pie plates outside the Frisbie Baking Company. In 1948, Walter Morrison and Warren Franscioni sold the plastic “Pluto Platters” or “Flying Saucers.”
It wasn’t until WHAM-O bought the rights and rebranded it to become the WHAM-O Frisbees, however, did the product flourish in the mid-1960s and landed on backyards and college campuses all over the globe.
It’s still worth mentioning that the year 1966 was highly competitive due to the popularity of the Suzy Homemaker, so it deserves mention on this list as an honorable runner-up for the year 1966.
Twister, however, was the titan of the year as it captured and piqued the interest of teens around the world. Milton Bradley, the board game manufacturer behind Twister, was initially anxious about releasing the game to the public. The anxiety lies in their worries about the game’s rather frisky undertones. They predicted that the product would blemish the organization’s high-principled standing.
After some deliberation, Milton Bradley released the Twister to the market. However, the reception of the new toy was underwhelming. It wasn’t until Johnny Carson decided to play with Eva Gabor on an episode of the Tonight’s Show in 1966 that every teen in America finally saw its potential. The rest, as they say, is history, making Twister an experiential fixture for youth culture to this very day.
Lite Brite gained infamy for testing children’s patience with its unique play mechanics. Lite-Brite’s release in 1967 was meteoric as the market gave it a positive reception, with experts describing it as “an amazing new toy that lets a child color with light.”
The toys came in a magic box with 16 printed images that kids could lay on top of the mechanism. With an original estimated retail price of $10 for each package, the toy included a lightbox, black paper, and colored pegs.
To play, kids had to put the black paper on top of the box and trace the image available using the brightly colored pegs as they followed the template. If they feel more creative than usual, they are encouraged to create original pictures and turn the light on to illuminate their final designs.
Later editions of the Lite-Brite included pre-printed patterns that feature prominent pop culture icons like Scooby-Doo and Darth Vader. The infamy that the Lite-Brite gained is rooted in the accidents that occurred as the kids worked. When the table is tipped premature to completion, the pegs may loosen, and the art might get ruined.
1968: Hot Wheels
Mattel was seemingly on top of the toy world with the success of the Barbie doll and its subsequent accessories, add-ons, and boyfriend, Ken. However, Mattel defied expectations and took their innovations and success further with the generation-defining Hot Wheels. Hot Wheels is a line of size-scaled cars that feature highly accurate physical features.
Matchbox, the original company that sold tiny cars, had been in the game for a decade before Mattel caught up to the scale model hype and rebranded the cars into Hot Wheels. Mattel’s release featured beloved and nostalgic models like Camero, Corvette, Firebird, Mustang, and countless others.
Hot Wheels were small model cars with plastic wheels that made hours and hours of fun for kids as they played around with the toys. Because of the many designs and colors that Mattel released, everyone from all walks, ages, and genders enjoyed the classic innovation that became a famous collectors’ item in the generation that followed.
The history of Legos dates back to 1932 when Ole Kirk Christiansen created the first blocks of Lego in Billund, Denmark. In that humble workshop, legos started off as wooden toys that encouraged creativity and imagination.
Over a decade and a half later, the Lego made its way up the higher echelons of the toy industry as the cultural phenom that empowered learning and fun at the same time. It cost 10 to 30 cents to buy a brick of Lego in 1969, and what was just the top toy of that year eventually blossomed to become the top-selling toy of the last century.
The company derived its name from the Danish words that meant ‘play well.’ After its market explosion, studies would discover that children would not only ‘play well’ with legos but also learn layers and layers of essential skills and STEM-related exercises through the product. This role in child development, cultural impact, and educational value are the reasons why, up to this very day, legos are still one of the greatest human innovations of all time.
Legos have made it to the silver screen with movies of their own in pop culture. Yes, movies – many movies. The company has even built a theme park on the simple premise of Lego: massive structures through tiny colorful blocks. The park features rides and exhibits of iconic structures, places, and models of people built through the same blocks that children use during playtime.