Christmas present ideas: These 19 toys never go out of fashion

From Lego to chess, Barbie and Monopoly, some games and toys never go out of fashion

Conor Pope joins Christmas shoppers in Dublin city centre and asks them about their best and worst Christmas presents. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Toys come and toys go but some are more enduring than others and some have been with us since back when the Greeks were ancient. Some of the most ubiquitous toys which will find themselves under Christmas trees are there by design but as many again found their way into our world by complete chance. And at least one started out as a purely adults-only notion.

Monopoly: It might seem like a simple board game which sees people attempt to crush the hopes and dreams of people they love, but it started out with quite a different purpose. In 1903 Elizabeth Magie invented what she called Landlord’s Game in an attempt to show how an economy focused on broad wealth creation was better than an economy which rewarded monopolists. Fast-forward 30 years and her little-known game was rediscovered by a not entirely lovely sounding man called Charles Darrow. He tweaked it and then sold it to Parker Brothers. Darrow made millions, Magie made nothing. 

Slime: Anyone as old as Pricewatch will recall that this vile substance first became a thing in the mid-1970s and back then it came in a lurid green trash can. It was made by Mattel and consisted of a non-toxic squishy green material what would almost always attract hairs and fluff within seconds of being decanted from its can. Slime bubbled under for many years until exploded on the scene again in recent years. The range includes DIY kits, factories and unicorns that poop slime. Yay.

Rubik’s Cube: This infuriatingly complicated “toy” was conceived by a 29-year-old Hungarian sculptor and architecture lecturer called Erno Rubik in 1974 but did not become an overnight sensation for six years when it started popping up at international toy fairs. It won the German toy of the year award in 1980 and suddenly the cube was everywhere. It has never gone away and over the last 40 years close to half a billion of the things have been sold. There are world championships now and everything and some people can solve the puzzle in less than a minute. Pricewatch, on the other hand, has been trying and failing to solve it since 1981.

Subbuteo: This table football game which sat little plastic men on heavy rounded plastic bases was invented by a former RAF pilot called Peter Adolph just after the second World War. It took 25 years for it to become a real hit and it had 15 years in the sun before its popularity waned – despite featuring prominently in Half Man Half Biscuit and Undertones songs in the 1980s. It returned to our world in 2012 and continues to sell well.

Chess: The game was born in India more than 1,500 year ago and evolved into a form we would sort of recognise in Spain in the 15th century. Its rules were standardised in the 19th century and it hasn’t changed a whole lot since then. It remains wildly popular as a gift and a good way for computers and small children to show off their intelligence.

The yo-yo: This might be one of the oldest game in the world and Grecian urns dating back to more than 400 years BC depict people playing with the thing on the string. The first yo-yo maker of modern times was a man called Pedro Flores, a Filipino who moved to the United States and set about making his fortune in 1928. It has had plenty of ups and downs (ha!) from then until the 1970s when the little device became wildly popular with tournaments and tricks and yo-yo celebrities and all manner of other madness surrounding it. It is still a staple of Christmas stockings everywhere.

Barbie: Mattel brought this little doll into our world in 1959 and she hasn’t looked back since. She was conceived by a woman called Ruth Handler who had, as her inspiration, a German doll with the considerably less catchy name of Bild Lilli. More than a billion Barbies have now been sold in more than 150 countries and while other dolls have come and gone and then come again, Barbie and all her spin-offs keep on trucking.

Putty: Any parent who has spent hours picking putty from rugs, hair and dog fur will sigh at the mere mention of the word. All the heartache could have been avoided had James Wright, who was working as an engineer with the US war production board, not dropped boric acid into silicone oil. What resulted was a stretchy and bouncy substance that had no practical use in war. Several years later, a businessman called Peter Hodgson happened upon it and saw its potential as a child’s toy. It has gone on to become one of the biggest-selling products aimed at children over the last 50 years. And it has gone all high-tech and high-priced in recent years and some fancy metallic putties can cost as much as €20.

Trivial Pursuit: While Trivial Pursuit has no doubt been behind countless post-Christmas fights since the world fell in love with the trivia game in 1984, its popularity shows no sign of waning and there have been countless spin-offs covering everything from Game of Thrones to Harry Potter. The game was invented by Canadians Chris Haney and Scott Abbott, who made mountains of money from it for nearly a quarter of a century – sales have now topped €1 billion – before selling the rights to Hasbro a decade ago for $80 million.

Top Trumps: On so many levels this is a ridiculous game. You get cards which list the vital statistics of sports stars, or cars or Harry Potter characters or Disney princesses and then you pit your cards against the cards your friends have to see ends up with all the cards. It celebrates its 50th birthday this Christmas. The cards were first published by Dubreq which is also credited with releasing the Stylophone into the wild. Dubreq was taken over by Waddingtons and then, in the late 1990s, the rights to the game were bought by Winning Moves, which is also the company behind the recently-released Dublin version of Monopoly.

GI Joe/Action Man: The dolls for boys – as this product was never marketed – went by the name GI Joe in the US and Action Man in this part of the world. Hasbro marketed the doll as an “action figure” rather than a doll. When such products were first made available in this part of the world the range was pretty limited – there were soldiers and sailors but as the 1960s became the 1970s the range grew and grew and included everything from soldiers to scientists to Arctic explorers.

Hula hoop: Invented in 1957, by Arthur K “Spud” Melin and Richard Knerr, this weird marriage of Hawaiian hula dancing and plastic became one of the biggest fads of all time. More than 100 million were sold in the 10 years from the late 1960s and while its popularity waned in the 1980s, the hula hoop has never gone away and the plastic rings still sell by the truckload.

Etch-a-Sketch: As with many of the best and most enduring games in our world, the Etch-a-Sketch was invented by accident. In the mid-1950s a French electrician called André Cassagnes was installing a factory light switch plate and sketched some of the details he needed to make it work on its translucent decal. When he peeled the decal off the switch plate, he saw the drawings he had done had been copied onto the opposite side to the one he had actually drawn on. And that was his light-bulb moment. He called his invention the L’Écran Magique – or the magic screen. He brought it to a German toy fair where it was seen by a US company who took a punt on it. Since the 1960s, about 200 million of the things have been sold.

Lego: The name comes from the Danish words for “play well” and rarely has a game deserved its name as much as this. It was invented by a great Dane called Ole Christiansen in 1949 and the Lego company patented the idea nine years later. In the early days, the bricks were red and white and there was no such thing as instructions or designs. Today, Lego comes with complex instructions which make Ikea flat-pack furniture seem as simple as a Peter and Jane book and everything from playhouses for princesses to replicas of wonders of the world to ships from the star fleet can be assembled.

Slinky: Yet another toy that was created by accident. Credit this time goes to mechanical engineer Richard James, who was trying fine tune a set of sensitive springs to keep fragile equipment steady on ships during the second World War. He stumbled and knocked one of his springs off a shelf and was amazed as it effectively walked down from its spot instead of just falling to the ground as you might expect. The product was christened by his wife and he started selling it in 1945. Since then more than 300 million of his toys have been sold – not to mention all the cheap knock-offs.

Pop-up books: Perhaps one of the most enduring Christmas presents of all time is the humble book. Something which has stood tall in the face of threats of the electronic world although some of its lunch has been eaten by the likes of the Kindle in recent years. The pop-up book is among the most popular presents for small children. You might be surprised to know that the history of the pop-up goes back to the 14th century and – if the internet is to be believed (and who are we to doubt it) – credit for their creation must go to a Catalan mystic who used revolving disks to illustrate his theories. Fast-forward more than 400 years to the early part of the 19th century when pop-up books started being made for children. First there was the flap technique; then, just under 100 years ago, pop-ups as we know them started appearing. The Daily Express Children’s Annual No 1 is said to be the first mainstream pop-up book to feature complex illustrations which literally leapt off the page.

Nintendo: In the late 1970s, Pong was the height of high tech and children everywhere were – frankly – amazed as white paddles moved up on down a black screen sort of replicating tennis. Fast forward five years when the Commodore 64 came along and improved gaming – slowly, very, very slowly. Then, in the late 1980s, Nintendo developed a games console that changed the gaming world forever. In the United States in 1988 one out of every six dollars spent on toys went on consoles and Nintendo’s revenue came to to $1.7 billion. A year later it released its Game Boy and changed the game again. This year one of the big Christmas sellers is likely to be a retro Nintendo games console, which shows that old-school games still have a place in the world of online gaming and incredibly lifelike alternatives.

My Little Pony: The ponies became a runaway hit from the early 1980s but their popularity waned in the early 1990s and in the normal course of events that would have been that. An attempt was made to revive the notion in the late 1990s but the kids were not having it. That should definitely have been that. A further attempt to make My Little Pony great again failed in 2003 and that should most definitely have been that. It wasn’t though. Makers Hasbro came back to the trough in 2010 and this time it worked. In 2013, $650 million worth of Little Ponies were flogged worldwide, with sales jumping to more than $1 billion in subsequent years.

The bicycle: You might think that bikes and children are natural bedfellows. Well, they’re not. In fact, the bike was an exclusively adult notion for the first 50 or 60 years of its life. A company called Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were the first large makers to settle on the idea of making bicycles for children. Production started in earnest after the second World War but it wasn’t until the 1950s that children’s bicycles were more common than adult ones.

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