The toys of Christmas past

The toys of Christmas past

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. If this makes you nostalgic for a time when Christmas prep meant nothing more than turning down pages in the Argos catalogue, sneaking your favourite chocolates out of the massive tin of Quality Street (the purple ones!) and squeezing the growing pile of presents under the tree, you're not alone. To help recapture your childhood, we thought we’d look back at the most memorable toys of Christmas past.


No matter how time marches on, some things always stay the same: every Christmas, there’s a must-have toy which kids long for, and parents spend way too much time and money trying to locate it before it sells out. For those growing up in the 70s, it was Barbie and the Chopper bike. In the 80s, Care Bears and the Rubik's Cube, while 90s kids had Furbys and Tamagotchis. 


Can you remember what you wanted to find under the Christmas tree as a kid? Take a look and see if it's on our list.


The 1970s

Etch A Sketch 


Calling all those would-be artists, can you remember Etch A Sketch? Created in the 1950s, Etch A Sketch has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame as one of the 100 most memorable toys of the 20th century. Since its launch, it has sold over 100 million units – many of which were in the 1970s. Despite its popularity, hardly anyone could draw an actual picture on it, but that didn’t seem to impact its appeal! 




Sometimes, the best toys come from the simplest of ideas. The plastic circles of Spirograph were a geometric drawing device that produced mathematical roulette curves. It could make unique designs in seconds and gave parents hours of fun trying to assemble them on Christmas morning. Fun times!


The Raleigh Chopper


The Raleigh Chopper was the ultimate Christmas gift of the 1970s, with 1.5 million sold across the 1970s. Proving its iconic status as one of the best Christmas presents ever, when a new version of the Chopper was released this year, all available Choppers sold out within three hours.




Since 1959, over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold, with over a hundred dolls sold every minute. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Barbie cost less than £5. Today, Barbie starts at £8.50, with special editions rising to thousands of pounds. The most expensive ever was the Stefani Canturi Barbie, released in 2010 and created to raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation with a necklace of emerald-cut Australian pink diamonds. It sold at auction for £250,000.




The Hot Wheels of the 1970s, Scalextric, was an incredibly popular Christmas gift. These collectable slot cars raced around a track and cost a hefty £18 (£115 in today's money). That said, they were so popular that, at one point, the company was producing up to 7,000 cars a week. 

The 1980s

Cabbage Patch Dolls 


Who can forget the mania for these odd-looking dolls, which were in such high demand in 1983 that they caused riots as parents scrambled to grab their child one amid stock issues? Despite that, nearly three million dolls were sold, and they became the most successful new doll launch in the toy industry's history.



Care Bears


The Care Bears were released in 1982, and over forty million were made with various colours, names and jobs from 1983-1987. Vintage Care Bears are now considered a classic (let’s hope that your mum kept yours in the loft!), with toy collectors now paying serious money for cult 80s teddies – some have sold for more than £7,000.


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Cowabunga! Thanks to the first feature film grossing more than £175 million at the box office, these four kung-fu-kicking turtles caused a storm in the shops at Christmas. Around £1 billion of Turtles toys were sold between 1988 and 1992, making them the third-best-selling toy figures of the 90s.



Sylvanian Families 


These tiny animal families have a cult following online – and kids still love them today. Sylvanian Families originated in Japan and arrived in the UK in 1987, complete with their own shops, cars and camper vans. They became an iconic toy of the 80s and received the UK Toy of the Year award for three years in a row.


Rubik’s Cube


The Rubik's Cube was invented in 1974 as a learning exercise to teach students about 3-dimensional spaces. By the 1980s, it had become a worldwide craze, selling millions each year. Over 450 million have been sold to date - making it the best-selling toy in history.


The 1990s



Hands up if you stayed up late playing Super Mario on your Gameboy. Despite its tiny screen and dull green background, the Nintendo GameBoy was an absolute revelation when it launched in 1990. As of September 2023, it had sold 118.69 million units worldwide.


Tracy Island


Cast your mind back to Christmas 1992, when demand was so high for The Thunderbirds Tracy Island that BBC's Blue Peter famously ran a make-your-own segment. The BBC's relaunch of Thunderbirds in 2000 prompted a resurgence in popularity. Once again, supply didn’t keep pace with demand, and only 60,000 were shipped to the UK, despite half a million kids putting them on their Christmas lists. The relaunched Tracy Island ultimately became one of the best-selling toys of 2000, with demand estimated to be up to 10 times greater than supply.


Tickle-Me Elmo 


One of the most sought-after toys of 1996, the demand for Tickle Me Elmo during the 1996 Christmas shopping season was so epic it led to a shopping frenzy, news stories, and a resale value of hundreds of pounds (original cost £28.99). Worldwide sales exceeded one million.



Buzz Lightyear 


Another 1996 shopping must-have was Buzz Lightyear. Limited stocks meant some parents were willing to pay hundreds to get their hands on one. The doll sold out before Christmas, so emergency stock was shipped to the UK, arriving at selected UK stores in time for December 24, 1996. BBC reports said that stores sold out of the Buzz Lightyear doll within 20 minutes of opening on Christmas Eve 1996.




If you were a teen in the 90s, you were likely obsessed with the virtual Tamagotchi pets from Japan. They became one of the biggest fads of the 1990s and a much-wanted Christmas gift as kids became so obsessed with carrying them around that many schools decided to ban them. As of March 2021, over 83 million units had been sold worldwide. 


The 2000s 


Bratz Dolls


Global sales of the first edition Bratz Dolls grossed £90 million for Christmas 2005. By the following year, the brand owned 40% of the fashion-doll market, impacting Barbie sales to become the top lifestyle brand for girls aged 7 to 14. By the decade's end, Bratz had sold over 150 million dolls. A collection of the original 2005 dolls can now go for hundreds of pounds.


Nintendo Wii


Released in November 2006, the Nintendo Wii was less expensive and more family-orientated than many of its counterparts. It became the year's most sought-after Christmas gift thanks to its Wii-Fit games. Over time, more than 100 million Wiis were sold, making it Nintendo's best-selling home console.


Baby Born with Magic Potty


Baby Born was a baby doll that ate food and drank water, before being taken to the potty to pee and poop. Strangely fascinating to preschoolers, it became the top toy of 2008 even though it cost £39.99 (£57 in today’s money). Overall more than 9 million of these dolls have been sold, and they are still on sale today – with the doll now peeing glitter and pooping secret charms. 


The 2010s


The Furby 


Despite being launched 14 years earlier, the Furby didn't take hold of the public imagination until 2012. This strange bug-eyed interactive toy could loudly sing, burp, talk, be angry, and sleep – sometimes, unfortunately, in the middle of the night. This talking, shouting, sighing and signing Christmas toy became such a phenomenon that people were fighting in the aisles to get one in time for Christmas. According to Hasbro, some 58 million Furbys have been sold since its release.


Snow Glow Elsa Doll


In 2014, the film Frozen took over the world. The original movie was released to a record-breaking £1.1 billion, and its success led to a Christmas Frozen frenzy with enormous demands for the Snow Glow Elsa Doll. The hunt for these dolls reached such epic proportions that toy shops saw fights break out and had to restrict how many customers could buy.




Hysteria over these interactive furry toys that hatched out of an egg was equal to the Tickle Me Elmo scramble in the 90s. Each Hatchimal comes ensconced inside an egg-shaped capsule that has to be rubbed and patted for anywhere between 10 and 40 minutes before the toy gradually begins to 'hatch' its way out, activated by the shell's touch-sensitive technology. It's no surprise that in 2016, it became the top-selling toy, selling out to the point that waitlists appeared in toy shops. Online sellers took advantage and offered Hatchimals at over three times their suggested retail price. 


The 2020s


Hot Wheels


Since their introduction in 1968, over 4 billion Hot Wheels cars have been produced – and today 16 are sold every second across the world. Over 130 new variations of Hot Wheels designs are manufactured each year, making Christmas a bumper time for sales. In 2022, Mattel's Hot Wheels generated sales of more than 1 billion pounds globally, and 2023 is already set to exceed that figure.




LEGO has been a firm Christmas favourite since its creation in 1958. In 2022, revenue increased by 17% from 2021 to nearly 8.7 billion pounds, with more than 220 million sets sold. Top Christmas sellers in 2022 included Optimus Prime from Transformers and a high demand for Star Wars and Harry Potter sets. Pushing the sales even higher are the LEGO for Adults sets like the LEGO Titanic £549 and the LEGO Friend’s Apartment £159.99, all targeting adults and teens.


Barbie (again)


Proving that what goes around comes around,  2023 has already seen a massive boom in sales of Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the newly revamped Furby. Yet Barbie reigns supreme AGAIN in 2023!  Thanks to the film, sales of the doll are up 25%, with a huge demand for the Western Margot Robbie Barbie Doll, which is already sold out in many places and reselling for over £100. Will there be one under your Christmas tree this year?



Images: Viet Hammer, Olav Ahrens Rotne at Unsplash

Written by Anita Naik Published Nov 27, 2023 ● 3 mins