Crazy toys, crazy times
Exponents of the Rubik’s Cube are about to celebrate the 25th birthday of an invention which swept the world. Jerome Taylor delves into history’s toy box to find the distractions which defined their decades
Loved by those who can order its coloured squares in an instant – and despised by those who are permanently baffled by its inherent mathematical complexity – Erno Rubik’s ubiquitous invention won global recognition in 1982. In that year the inaugural speed-cubing world championships were held in Rubik’s home country of Hungary. The event was the culmination of two years of hysteria during which one hundred million cubes – made by the American company Ideal Toys – were bought around the world. Although the craze largely died down as the Eighties wore on, the professor of architecture’s invention is still widely considered to be the world’s best-selling toy. Up to 300 million Rubik’s Cubes and imitations have been sold to customers in search of the ultimate brain-teaser.
When Aki Maita, a 31-year-old advertising executive, pitched the idea of a virtual pet to her bosses at the Bandai toy company she had little confidence that her idea would get past the drawing board. Instead, Tamagotchi, a hand-held virtual pet that requires its owners to feed and amuse it – and even clean up its digital droppings – was a phenomenal global success.
Originally designed for Japanese children who longed to own a pet but had little space to do so in the country’s overpopulated cities, the toy had a universal appeal that won over adults as well as school children around the world. At the height of its popularity between 1996-1997, 15 Tamagotchi’s were sold every minute in the US and Canada.
There have been 36 versions since, and although the craze peaked in the West during the late 1990s, they still remain highly popular in Japan.
When the Japanese toy company Nintendo hired Gunpei Yokoi in 1965 to maintain the company’s playing card assembly line little did they know that he would go on to create a console that would change the face of video gaming for ever. Nintendo took the world by storm in 1989 following the launch of its Game Boy and went on to sell 70million of the original units as children clambered to get their hands on the first truly affordable handheld console. Unlike previous portable computers that were only able play a single game from software impregnated inside the device, the Game Boy allowed children to play games that were bought separately and slotted into the back of the console. Sales fell in the late 1990s when its technology was surpassed.
If outdoor toys in the 1950s were dominated by the hula hoop it was the Space Hopper that ruled supreme during the 1970s. Invented in 1968 by Aquilino Cosani, an Italian rubber ball maker, the Space Hopper invasion took Britain by storm in the summer of 1971 and became the must-have toy for the next five years. Manufacturers tried to keep interest in the craze going by
updating the orange rubber faces with popular cartoon characters but by the late Seventies Space Hoppers had been consigned to the back of the toy cupboard. Nostalgia for space-hopping has recently resulted in several manufacturers creating adult-size models and in April this year, 600 Londoners broke the record for the largest simultaneous hop.
The yo-yo’s origins can be traced back to 18th century France where a device called a jou-jou was popular in aristocratic courts.
First patented in 1866, it was not until the 20th century that anyone seriously considered investing in the toy. In the 1920s an American entrepreneur, Donald Duncan, shocked his colleagues by sinking $250,000 of his personal wealth into manufacturing yo-yos on a larger scale and, in 1928, the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company was born. Initial interest in yo-yos soon tailed off during the war years and only after Duncan invested in a high profile TV advertising campaign in 1962 did his investment finally begin to pay off, his company selling a record-breaking 42 million yo-yos in one year. Yo-yo crazes continue to return periodically: during the 1980s manufacturers put flashing lights inside the plastic disks.
There was a time in the early 1990s when it was virtually impossible to walk through toy shops without encountering the bizarre world of Micro Machines, a place were cars were no bigger than a thumbnail. For the 16 years that US toy manufacturers Galoob (and later Hasbro) made Micro Machines almost every vehicle of significance, be they cars, trucks, boats or army vehicles, had received the Micro Machine treatment and been shrunk to no more than 1 and a half inches. Despite their tiny size most of the miniature vehicles still had working doors and wheels and the toy’s makers invented numerous ways to keep interest in their product going, including using colour changing paint for many of the models. British children stuck with the craze longer than most, continuing to buy the toys in huge numbers long after their popularity had died out across the Atlantic. Rare Micro Machines are now valuable often selling for up $100 on Ebay.
When Furbies arrived in US shops in 1998 they flew off the shelves, creating a worldwide shortage which added to their appeal. Originally sold for $35, parents were paying up to 10 times that on auction sites to satisfy their children’s desire for the latest global craze. Like Tamagotchi the robotic pets, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the fluffy hero of the 1980s film Gremlins, they relied on interaction with their owners. The manufacturers programmed the dolls to speak a nonsense language known as Furbish which evolved into a real language the more owners talked to the robots. Memorable Furbish phrases include: wee-tah-kah-loo-loo (Tell me a joke) and u-nye-way-loh-nee-way (Go to sleep). Available in 24 languages, 1.8 million Furbies were sold in the first year and a further 14 million in 1999.
Based loosely on the bolas, an indigenous Latin American hunting weapon, clackers were one of the loudest and shortest-lived fads of the 1970s. Made up of two hard plastic balls linked by string, the idea was as simple as it was addictive – hit the balls together as loudly as possible. The toy first appeared on Spanish beaches in the late 1960s and as clacking took over Britain’s schools, newspaper pages began to fill with stories of children receiving injuries from the shatter-prone balls. Schools soon began banning the toys and within two years the craze had largely died out. To the horror of many, they were tipped in 2001 for a comeback, but it never happened.
Skateboarding was born in 1950s California, when surfers began to take their sport from the surf onto the streets with roller skate wheels attached to home-made wooden boards. Surf fans unable to live near real waves found that skateboarding was the next best thing. The first manufactured model went on sale in 1959, peaking in popularity around 1963 when companies like Jack’s, Hobie and Makaha started official competitions. It’s been a mixed story since then, with the sport hitting a low after a host of safety experts pronounced it dangerous in 1965, advising stores not to sell them. Banished to the margins throughout much of the 1980s, the sport made a comeback in the 1990s and is now the most popular extreme sport. Pro-skaters earn similar wages to other professional athletes and compete for prizes worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. The industry is worth an estimated $2.5bn (£1.25bn), with $1.6bn in shoe sales alone. Shoe companies like Vans and DC Shoes are now fashionable even outside the skating community.
The art of hula-hooping has been with us for more than 3,000 years. Evidence suggests the ancient Egyptians used to swivel hoops made of grapevine round their waists as a form of exercise. But as a craze, hula hoops took over the world in the late 1950s after two toy inventors, Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Medlin, released an affordable plastic version priced at $1.98. In the first six months, more than 20 million hula hoops were sold as children and adults alike tuned in to the global craze that went on to define Fifties innocence. Denounced at the time by Soviet Russia as a soulless capitalist invention and banned briefly by the Japanese government, which was afraid swivelling hips might inspire improper behaviour, more than 100 million hula hoops had been sold by the end of the decade.