We all know Christmas is about much more than getting presents, but, well, when you’re a kid, Christmas is all about getting presents. Though we tend to think of our culture as becoming increasingly commercialized, even back in the 1950s, children had their hopes and dreams set on scoring certain prizes in the wrapped packages beneath the Christmas tree.
Here are just seven of the most iconic toys of the ’50s (many of them invented during the decade) that so many children were eagerly awaiting come Christmas time:
- Army Men, also known as plastic toy soldiers, were invented in the late 1930s, but they really started to catch on in the post-WWII years. Made primarily in the green of US Army uniforms from the WWII era (as well as other colors like beige and gray to create opposing forces), the peaking military pride following the war drove sales, as did the boom in low-cost plastic manufacturing that coincided. Army men were sold in bulk in plastic bags, as well as in collectible themed boxed sets. These were a classic source of hours of entertainment for young boys in the mid-century years.
- Barbie Dolls just managed to sneak into the decade’s list of most beloved toys and Christmas gifts after being brought to market by Mattel in early 1959. An instant classic, every girl had to have one. There were two available at first: a blond and a brunette version. Of course, the line has greatly expanded over the past 60 years, becoming much more diverse, though it’s long been plagued by accusations of promoting stereotypes and body image issues—particularly in more recent years. Still, over a billion Barbie Dolls have sold since their introduction.
- Cap guns date back to the Civil War era, but they enjoyed a “golden age” that kicked off right after WWII and lasted about 20 years. Along with the war, the late forties and early fifties saw growing interest in Western films and cowboy heroes in pop culture. These toy guns contain caps that produce a loud bang and small amount of smoke when fired. A highly coveted holiday gift, boys loved to play with these items and do battle with other kids in the neighborhood. Davy Crockett-inspired coonskin caps were an essential accessory during the decade.
- Colorforms were invented in the early ’50s by two art students experimenting with a new flexible vinyl material. They and their friends played with prototypes around their home, and soon the craft was sold through FAO Schwarz. Though originally marketed to artists and grownups, kids immediately seized onto this new creative item and in became one of the most in-demand toys of the era. In 1957, Popeye became the first licensed character to be featured in a Colorforms set.
- Legos have given rise to their own unique subculture that permeates many areas of the entertainment industry, from toys to films to theme parks to video games and more. Early versions—wooden at first—were around in Denmark from the early 1930s, but in 1949, the interlocking plastic building blocks we know now were introduced to Americans. Children took to the infinite possibilities right away, begging Santa to leave sets under the Christmas tree. Parents were all for it, too, appreciating the quiet, constructive fun that Legos inspire, and their ability to stimulate the mind and imagination.
- Magic 8 Balls were introduced in a toy version by Mattel in 1950. They instantly held a great allure for young folk, eager to harness their potent fortune-telling and advice-giving powers. Friends gather around the Magic 8 Ball and ask all sorts of questions—often with a slightly mischievous or taunting purpose—shaking the item and watching in wonder as it reveals its answer. In a time long before the internet, this was a treasured and enormously popular form of entertainment for kids, so often requested as a Christmas present.
- Potato Head first became available from Hasbro in 1952, and it was the first toy ever advertised on television. Though we know him today as a plastic potato-shaped figure with removable body parts and accessories for customizing fun, the original “Funny Face Kit” only contained plastic features with pushpins for inserting into a real potato. Parental complaints about rotting tubers in their kids’ bedrooms—along with some new sensible consumer safety regulations that came along through the ’50s—eventually led to the introduction of the included plastic potato body we know and love today.