If you have kids today, you’re probably exposed to a world of toys vastly cooler and more complex than when you were a kid, from talking baby Yoda dolls to STEM kits that allow kids to combine science with play.
However, just because kids have fancier toys and a lot more technology, they can still be engaged by some of the most classic toys of all time. These toys hold up today with their incredible staying power, as evidenced by how frequently they turn up on top toy lists. Here we list nine of the biggest hits in toys, with a snippet of their history and where you can buy them.
Last updated: March 2, 2021
The plastic doll with the too-perfect figure has come a long way since her inception in 1959. Created by Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Barbie gave girls a more active toy to play with than paper dolls. And while she may have started out as an unattainable version of femininity, the company has reinvented this classic doll many times over. She now comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors to reflect the variety of girls who play with her, including a line of dolls reflecting people with disabilities such as vitiligo and alopecia. Barbies retail for a range of prices, starting as low as $7.94 (and up depending on the model) at Walmart.com.
Sometimes the simplest games have the most staying power. The game Connect 4, in which the objective is to get four checkers-like pieces in a row in a vertical grid, was introduced by Milton Bradley in 1974. Much like tic-tac-toe, players alternate turns and attempt to block each other’s progress while strategizing their own win. The game can be purchased for less than $10 at Target, Walmart and other online retailers.
Etch A Sketch
The Etch A Sketch may be one of the most enduring toys of the 20th century. Its unique “technology” uses an electrostatic charge (an interaction of aluminum powder and tiny plastic beads) to allow kids to make unique drawings on its screen-like surface. It was invented by a French electrical technician, André Cassagnes, who introduced his “L’Ecran Magique” (the magic screen) at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1959. It wasn’t until he sold the license to Ohio Art in 1960, where they changed the name to Etch A Sketch, that the toy took off. It was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 1998. It costs less than $20 at numerous retailers such as Target and Amazon and independent toy stores but is cheapest at Walmart, where it retails for $12.88.
The interlocking, colorful plastic bricks known as Legos get their name from an abbreviation of two Danish words “leg godt,” which translates to “play well.” Lego was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen. Eighty-nine years later, it has transformed from simple, primary-color-style bricks that kids could build into anything they wanted to branded kits representing everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter (which helped pull the brand out of flagging sales) and even spawned its own theme park in California, Legoland. Lego sets vary widely in price, from small sets under $10 to big ones well over $100. Most toy stores and department stores sell them, as well as Lego’s own online store.
This simple toy, which uses a system of interlocking “logs” to build structures, has a famous forebear. It was created by John Lloyd Wright, the son of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. John got the idea from working on the design of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel with his father. The interlocking structure was designed to help buildings withstand earthquakes (and indeed, the Imperial Hotel was one of a few buildings that survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake in Tokyo). Though John and his father suffered a significant falling out, John’s toy persisted. Lincoln Logs have sold more than 100 million sets and was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999. If you’re ready to play architect, Lincoln Log sets are available at Target from about $29.
The Ouija Board is the oldest toy on this list and a product of the 19th Century obsession with spiritualism, or “the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living,” according to Smithsonian. Kids have been using the game to scare the heck out of each other for quite some time, dragging the “planchette,” a triangular piece with a little window in it over a flat board imprinted with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0-9 and the words “yes,” “no” and “goodbye.” Allegedly, asking the board a question will reveal “answers” sent through players’ fingers by a listening spirit. This spooky “game” is now made by a variety of toy companies and ranges in price from about $21 at Walmart to a fancy dark wood one for $60 by Pandora Witch Shop.
Before Play-Doh was the colorful, slightly yeasty, easy-to-mold clay that many kids have played with for years, it was actually a form of wallpaper cleaner in the 1920s, made by Kutol Products soap company, owned by Cleo McVicker. After a decline in sales, McVicker’s wife convinced him to reformulate the product for children. In 1956, McVicker established Rainbow Crafts Company Inc., renamed and repackaged the product as Play-Doh and sold it primarily to elementary schools in three colors: red, yellow and blue. Today’s Play-Doh comes in numerous colors and price packages. A 20-pack (60 oz.) is just $11.88 at Walmart, $14.99 at Target and a 24-pack is $20.99 at Amazon.
The cute plastic Tonka trucks most of us are used to today began as much clunkier toys made of metal. That’s because they were made originally by the Mound Metalcraft company in 1946 in Mound, Minnesota, which made gardening equipment. Tonka (a word adapted from the Sioux language) makes numerous kinds of trucks, from the ever-popular dump trucks to garbage trucks, excavators, bulldozers and more. Prices vary, but a CAT Construction Tough Rig runs $19.99 on Amazon, an Excavator and Dump Truck set for less than $40 at Walmart and the Classic Bulldozer for $29.95 at Fat Brain Toys.
The beloved family card game Uno was the result of barber Merle Robbins and his family modifying the often frustrating version of “crazy eights” that they played as a family. Realizing they’d invented a whole new game, Merle and his wife financed 5,000 decks with their own money and traveled the East Coast to sell them. It was an Uno fan and marketer named Bob Tezak who redesigned the game and promoted it, making himself and Robbins wealthy. The card game is probably the most affordable item on this list, available at most retailers for less than $10.
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