Fads are a lot like dating– there are some good times, some which last, some you remember fondly, others with a paralyzing wave of regretful nausea. Both tend to reach a manic pitch during the holidays. Christmas toys are no different. The Christmas season is a great time for genuine innovation, as well as carnival-barking lunacy. Some items that are still with us today originated during the Christmas season and begat a frenzy of buying and a furious tear of wrapping paper across the nation. Others did the same, but have faded into obscure dustbins.
This is especially true with electric and electronic Christmas toys. Technology moves so fast that what is incredibly cool and pathbreaking today can be slightly embarassing tomorrow. Of course, you never know, which is why it is important to keep your devices in good condition. So, skipping all things that aren’t electronic – sorry Pet Rocks, Rubik’s Cubes, and Cabbage Patch Kids – let’s take a look at some of the hottest items over the past 100 years.
On a Downtown Train
If this were a Buzzfeed article, it would be tempting to ask, “Are toy trains the original internet?” After all, everything old-timey has to be compared to something new-timey. But there’s no need for that. Toy trains are just awesome on their own. One of the first electric toys, these model trains wowed crowds around the turn of the last century, and the fad exploded. People loved, and still love, building miniature worlds and setting a train through them. Though it isn’t a hobby of mine, it is easy to recognize why: you get dreamily lost, especially around the holidays, watching this train run through a perfect little world, around and around, past memorable sites, where people seem happy all the time. It is intoxicating, and attracts people you might not expect: Rod Stewart is a model train enthusiast. No word if Tom Waits was one originally and does it better.
Whatever Happened to Pong?
We’re going to skip ahead a little bit, past Davy Crockett hats and WWII rations and whatever people used to play with. In 1975, Atari took the world by storm by releasing a home version of the already-popular arcade game Pong. Pong was one of the first video games, a huge step up from cathode-ray amusement games like Tennis for Two. But of course, you had to go into smoky and expensive arcades to play it. A home-based version, which Atari came out with, would sell some $40,000,000 worth of games that year, making it the first real hit. It seems so simple now, but it was revolutionary at the time, and unlocked a secret which toymakers have used ever since: things that blink and beep are always going to be kid magnets, and therefore a parent’s best friend.
The Terrifying: Talking Dolls
At some point, perhaps after a night out with Hunter S. Thompson, a group of toymakers said, “You know those dolls that can blink and scare the existential pants of anyone who believes the universal is essentially a moral and understandable place? Let’s make them talk.” And so we got Teddy Ruxpin. Of course, dolls could talk before Teddy, if you pulled a string, but he was among the first that would move his mouth and his eyes in synch with a tape, so it seemed like he was making conversation. He wasn’t, of course. He was just pretending to listen to you. To lull you into trust. To wait for you to fall asleep…
Video game systems
After we got tired of pet rocks and finally saw reruns of The Twilight Zone, we began to want video game systems. Atari was the first major one, followed by Colecovision, which is barely remembered because it couldn’t quite keep up, but briefly dominated the market. I remember loving it, but don’t really remember the games that well. My jam was Pitfall on the Atari 2600. It was probably the last game I was good at. The 2600 also has the most 80s commercial possible. It couldn’t encapsulate that decade more if it had Oliver North arm-wrestling Mr. T.
Of course, those were just filling time for Nintendo, Sega, and PlayStation, which still dominate the market in ever more complex forms. This holiday season, as with the most recent ones and all of the ones in the foreseeable future, video games will compete with smartphones, tablets, and wearables for the hearts of kids and adults alike. And that’s great – toys should get more useable and even practical. It’s easy for cheap nostalgists to decry anything after their era to be worthless and unworthy of memory. But everything opened this holiday season is going to be a memory to someone, who in the far-flung future will look back at the simple and innocent days of Grand Theft Auto V.