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The Horrifying Backstories of Last Century's Most Popular Christmas Toys

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This article was originally intended to be a fun, warm and fuzzy retrospective about the most popular Christmas toys of the 20th century, decade-by-decade. The problem is, part way into the research process, it became abundantly clear that all but one of the most popular toys of the 1900s have backstories that are surprisingly dark. We wanted to give you festive fun but this is America, so here, have the horrifying history of last century’s holiday toys instead.

1910s: Teddy Bears

A century ago, the basis for the most popular children’s toy in the land was, to say the very least, alarming. According to Wikipedia, Teddy Bears were invented after a hunting trip involving President Theodore Roosevelt, during which a black bear was “cornered, clubbed, and tied to a willow tree after a long, exhausting chase with hounds. They called Roosevelt to the site and suggested that he should shoot it. He refused to shoot the bear himself, deeming this unsportsmanlike, but instructed that the bear be killed to put it out of its misery.”

Thus, Teddy Bears are the ultimate symbol of man’s cruel and destructive attitude toward nature, and one President’s very specific requirements for slaughtering unsuspecting wild animals for fun. Build-A-Bear Workshop will never look the same again.


1920s: Yo-Yos

In the 1920s, the yo-yo was the hottest thing since the spinning top. Yo-yo invention was — and still often is — attributed to Pedro Flores, who started manufacturing the toys in 1928. However, the truth of the matter is that evidence of yo-yo-use goes all the way back to 440 BC and, in the 18th century, yo-yos were known as “bandalores.” Pedro Flores simply did a re-brand and took all the credit. Naughty!

1930s: Shirley Temple Doll

A 1930s Shirley Temple doll, currently for sale on eBay, for $119.
A 1930s Shirley Temple doll, currently for sale on eBay, for $119. (eBay/nyclem)

Annabelle. Robert The Doll. Chucky. Pop culture history is awash with haunted dolls. Picture any of them doing their dark and evil deeds, then imagine how much scarier it would be if this 1930s Shirley Temple doll was doing them instead. Remarkably, this was the most popular toy of the 1930s, despite the fact that its resemblance to the actual Shirley Temple was, to put it politely, negligible. Claims have since emerged on both Reddit and eBay that some of these dolls are possessed.

“A friend of mine found this doll at an estate sale securely packed in a box,” one eBay post claims. “The box had lots of tape and said Beware! Do not open! Inside she found this Shirley Temple Doll with the bizarre eyes! She kept it for a few weeks and strange things started happening around her house. Cabinets opening and closing, missing items, and she got several bad colds in a row. She wanted it out of her house and asked me to sell the doll for her!”

1940s: Slinky

Literally a cylinder made of flexible wire, the Slinky is rendered utterly useless the second it’s removed from stairs. But in the 1940s, this thing was as close to magic as anyone could get into their homes, so it sold like proverbial hotcakes. The dark part is, in 1960, the guy who invented the Slinky, Richard James, abandoned his business, his wife and their six children to join a Bolivian religious sect. He remained in Bolivia until his death in 1974.

1950s: Hula Hoop

Before they became a staple of Burning Man, Sundays in Dolores Park, and adults who think they look sexy using them, hula hoops were far and away the most popular toy of the 1950s. California’s own Wham-O toy company started manufacturing them in 1957, and by 1958, they were so popular, 25 million sold in the space of just four months.

What almost nobody talks about is the fact that these hoops are yet another thing white people have stolen from Native Americans; many tribes traditionally used these kinds of hoops during a special form of dance-based storytelling. Now people just stick tassels on them and gyrate around listening to EDM. For shame.

1960s: G.I.Joe

In addition to the very obvious darkness inherent in glamorizing war to children as America’s involvement in Vietnam was escalating, rumors have persisted for years that the original 1964 G.I. Joe had a face that was modeled on the recently-assassinated John F. Kennedy. In a nod to this, decades later, Hasbro released a G.I. Joe John F. Kennedy PT Boat Commander figure. In G.I. Joe’s first year on the market, $16.9 million worth of dolls and accessories were sold. Popularity only waned in the late 1970s, when, thanks to the seemingly endless Vietnam War, many Americans realized war was not to be toyed with.

1970s: Star Wars Figures

Ironically, Star Wars figures are the only toys on this list with zero dark side! Kids loved them (by 1985, 300 million toys from the first trilogy had been sold) and everyone lived happily ever after. Sweet Skywalker-lovin’ relief! (Here’s a question though. Why is Luke Skywalker holding Obi-Wan Kenobi hostage in the toy commercial above? Makes no sense!)

1980s: Cabbage Patch Kids

In the 1970s, a sweet lady from Kentucky named Martha Nelson started designing and hand-making what she called “Doll Babies.” She lovingly dressed them, attached documents about each of the dolls’ likes and dislikes, came up with personalized adoption certificates for each of them and sold them at craft fairs. One customer by the name of Xavier Roberts began buying the dolls, marking up the prices and re-selling them. Because she was so personally attached to each and every doll, when Martha realized what was happening, she refused to sell Xavier any more. So he went on to copy Martha’s entire concept, from design to details, and mass produced the dolls as Cabbage Patch Kids. In the end, after years of legal wrangling, Martha received a small legal settlement (enough to put her kids through college). Xavier, on the other hand, made tens of millions.

1990s – Tickle Me Elmo

In 1996, Tickle Me Elmo was so in demand, one Walmart employee in Canada received broken ribs and a concussion after 300 customers rushed him in an attempt to get the Elmos he was holding. Two women in Chicago were arrested that December after fighting over the giggling muppet. And The New York Times reported that Toys “R” Us had taken to only stocking Elmo shelves after the store had closed, such was the danger posed to employees by customers. Some truck drivers making deliveries of the toys also reported being chased by motorists in hot pursuit.

Let’s thank online shopping for creating a future where these things don’t happen (as much) anymore.


Happy holidays, everyone!

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