Toys come and go, and each year there is a new crop of popular toys that are marketed at children as the next big thing. However, most toys are quickly forgotten and relegated to the household attic or a garage sale. But there have been a few toys that have defied the odds and managed to appeal to generations of children and endure despite the latest trends and fashions. And what is interesting is how simple many of the most popular toys of all time are. In fact, many of the most memorable toys are known as novelties—toys that were meant as a gimmick but managed to grab hold of the popular imagination and make an indelible impression. Here are 10 of the best such novelty toys of all time.
10. Army Men
Introduced in 1938 by the Bergen Toy and Novelty Co., Army Men have always been inexpensive and immovable plastic soldiers in set poses. The two inch figures have always been produced in U.S. Army green and have continued to capture children’s imaginations over the decades. Sold in large plastic bags, demand for the little green men has always been high and surged in 1995 after Army men were featured prominently in the movie Toy Story. Over the years, enemy Army men have also been produced, including German troops molded in grey and Japanese soldiers made in yellow plastic. Collectors remain especially fond of the World War II era Army men that have pod feet attached to keep them standing during battle.
Who didn’t have a View-Master growing up? This toy has also been around since 1938 and was invented by photographer William Gruber, who got the idea for the View-Master while taking photographs of the Oregon Caves National Monument through two cameras strapped together. This prompted him to develop three dimensional color slides for stereoscopes common in most 19th century drawing rooms. A chance encounter at the caves with Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Photographic Services, led the two to strike a deal to commercialize the product. The View-Master initially became a new way of looking at tourist attractions in the U.S. The now-legendary red colored toy made its debut at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and originally sold through specialty photography stores until Graves and Gruber inked a licensing agreement with Disney to offer three dimensional images of Disney films, TV shows and theme parks. Once in the hands of Disney, the View-Master became a beloved classic toy.
8. Silly Putty
Silly Putty is an unlikely hit toy that has endured through the years. During World War II, chemists concerned about America’s dwindling rubber supply began researching synthetic substitutes for commercial grade rubber and came across one of the greatest materials in toy history. Essentially a solid liquid, the stretchable material was a marvel of science—and of absolutely no use to America’s war effort at the time. Initially called “Nutty Putty,” the new substance was marketed as a novelty toy by entrepreneur Peter Hodgson, who sold it packaged inside colorful plastic eggs at Easter. When a write-up appeared in the New Yorker magazine, Hodgson received more than 250,000 orders for his product. Scientists and toymakers have been refining everyone’s favorite rubber-like substance ever since, and the name was changed to “Silly Putty.” In 1991, a new brand of glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty was marketed. And Silly Putty hasn’t proved to be totally useless. NASA uses Silly Putty to hold down tools in the zero gravity of outer space.
Believe it or not, the Frisbee began at Yale University, where students would play catch using pie plates from the local “Frisbie Baking Company.” Legend has it that students would yell, “Frisbie!” to warn people walking by to look out for airborne plates. Inspired by the UFO obsession that swept through America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, two Yale graduates, Warren Franscioni and Walter Morrison, created a plastic version of the soaring disk, at first calling it a “Flying Saucer.” It was sold under that name until the infamous toy company Wham-O purchased the rights to the product in 1955 and renamed it the “Frisbee,” in recognition of the bakery that inspired the product. Since the early 1960s, hundreds of millions of Frisbees have been sold, with Ultimate leagues and tournaments dedicated to the sport now found throughout the world.
6. Etch A Sketch
Invented by a French mechanic, Arthur Granjean, the Etch A Sketch made its debut in 1959 at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany. At first, the toy was a failure. But Granjean eventually found a company to buy the product nevertheless. The Ohio Art Company invested $25,000 to buy the toy and changed the name to “Etch A Sketch.” The rest, as they say, is history. The magical drawing toy has become one of the most wanted toys ever. It works using static charges to hold a mixture of aluminum powder and tiny plastic beads to the inside of a clear plastic screen. Knobs control the horizontal and vertical rods that move a stylus where the two meet. The point scores a line across the screen’s reverse side. Experts can draw curved and diagonal lines, and there are now serious art competitions featuring the Etch A Sketch.
5. Mr. Potato Head
A true classic, Mr. Potato Head was invented by George Learner as an attempt to get his kids to eat their vegetables. Learner initially created a set of 28 plug-in facial features to be distributed in cereal boxes and placed in real potatoes. The Hassenfeld Brothers Company, which would later become toy giant Hasbro, loved the idea and decided to market it. The original Mr. Potato Head—then just a set of pointy features that kids stuck into a real potato—appeared in 1952. It became the first toy with a dedicated television commercial and helped Hasbro earn more than $4 million in a few months. The plastic version of Mr. Potato Head appeared in 1964, turning the popular spud into the version people are familiar with today—a toy that can even claim movie-star status thanks to the Toy Story movie franchise which features a Mr. Potato Head character voiced by comedian Don Rickles.
Ah, the Yo-Yo. Strangely, versions of the Yo-Yo can be traced to nearly 500 B.C.—there are cave drawings featuring the device. However, the modern day Yo-Yo appeared in the late 1920s, when a U.S. immigrant named Pedro Flores ignited an international craze. Born in the Philippines, Flores saw the toy’s potential in the U.S. after remembering its Filipino popularity. The toy had been called Yo-Yo for hundreds of years in Asia. While working as a bellboy, Flores founded the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in 1928. After selling handmade Yo-Yos to children around Los Angeles, he was able to secure financing to open a factory for the toy. Within a year, the company was producing 300,000 Yo-Yos a day and shipping them around the world. Dubbed a “Wonder Toy,” the Yo-Yo became the first full blown toy craze in the U.S., with Yo-Yo contests popping up all over the country. Walk the dog, anyone?
3. Hula Hoop
As with the Yo-Yo, people have been using Hula Hoops for hundreds of years. During the first half of the 20th century, the best way to see someone use a Hula Hoop was to watch Chinese acrobats twirl multiple hoops on their arms, legs and torsos. Then, in 1958, Wham-O founders Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin saw the potential in the hoop and began to market a 40 inch version to kids. Thanks to a savvy marketing campaign, 25 million Hula Hoops were sold within a few months of the product’s official launch, and a new toy craze was created. Suddenly, kids all over America were spinning hoops around their hips and waists—and not just in their driveways. Hula Hoop competitions became super popular in the 1950s, and Hula Hooping teenagers remain one of the iconic images of the 1950s. The invention of the Hula Hoop was featured in the 1994 Coen Brothers movie The Hudsucker Proxy. “You know, for kids!”
2. Rubik’s Cube
The Rubik’s Cube has consistently been a bestselling toy around the world since Hungarian inventor Ernö Rubik created his first three dimensional color coded puzzle cube in the mid-1970s. A household name ever since, toy manufacturer Ideal brought the Rubik’s Cube to the U.S. in 1980, where it became an instant hit and spawned yet another toy craze. Millions of kids and their parents became obsessed with solving the Rubik’s Cube and its colored squares. Because sides could be rotated on any axis, restoring the cube to its original color pattern was, and remains, very difficult. Different versions of the device have been marketed over the years, including the Rubik’s Snake, Rubik’s Triangle and even a Rubik’s Circle. And competitions are held around the world to see who is fastest at solving the original, and still best, Rubik’s Cube.
Has there ever been a better novelty toy than the slinky? Who does not remember the classic song “A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows its Slinky.”? And, believe it or not, the Slinky was an accident. Created by mechanical engineer Richard James in 1943, the first Slinky was the mistaken by-product of a new line of springs designed to keep fragile equipment steady on ships. After knocking one of his springs from a shelf, James observed that it walked down from its spot instead of falling to the ground. Using a machine designed to coil wire into a two inch spiral, and with a name picked by his wife, James began producing his novelty Slinky and marketing it as a toy for kids. Although it was slow to catch, the Slinky got its big break during Christmas 1945 when Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia let James demonstrate his new creation. Within minutes, he sold 400 Slinky toys. Today, more than 250 million Slinkys have been sold and counting, making it one of the biggest selling toys in history. Not bad for a piece of coiled wire.