Antique and vintage toys have a special meaning for most of us. These items remind us of a simpler time of childish innocence, one that can be recaptured just by the sight, sound or smell of a toy that inspired play when we were young.
“Toys are often talismans of key stages in our lives and our period of growing up,” says Christopher Bensch, chief curator at the The Strong National Museum of Play. “Kids develop favorite toys because the toy makes such a perfect fit with their personality and style of play. As adults, tapping into memories of favorite toys can be especially vivid, transporting us into our earlier years and what was—or seemed to be—a simpler, more innocent time in our lives.”
Bensch says there are a lot of characteristics that make a great toy.
“A great toy offers plentiful play value—things like the opportunity for social play, the chance to apply your imagination, or the potential for open-ended play without the constraints of rules or a back story.”
Toys not only generate important development opportunities for humans, but they also act as mascots for each era. As “the tools of play,” says Bensch, toys “are key artifacts of every age.”
The famous sock monkey is a product of the Great Depression.
“Toys always reflect the era in which they’re created and used,” says Bensch, “so they are essential, cultural artifacts that reveal who we are as a people and as individuals in particular.”
The sock monkey provides insight into this lean economic era: when purchasing toys was a luxury few could imagine, families took to creating their own out of a popular style of work sock called Rockfords.
The Nelson Knitting Company was the first to create a sock with a seamless heeled sock. Because of their location in Rockford, IL, these sock came to be known as “Rockfords.” This style was quickly copied by other sock producers. To stand out from the crowd, Nelson started using a bright red yarn in the heel of the sock. The signature smile of the sock monkey was originally made from the red heel of the Rockford sock.
By the 1950s, the Nelson Knitting Company was including instructions for how to make the beloved toy monkey out of their authentic socks. While many imitation “sock” monkey toys can be found in stores today, the original, handmade vintage toys using the Rockford sock material are a little harder to come by.
Radio Flyer Wagon
Though not mass produced until 1930, the Radio Flyer Wagon was created by a teenage Italian who arrived in the US in 1914. Antonio Pasin built and sold small, red wagons in Chicago as a secondary income to his manual labor job. This led him to found the Liberty Coaster Company in 1923. Liberty Coaster produced scooters and tricycles in addition to the wagon, but the $3 wagon was by far their best seller. Demand started to outweigh supply and Pasin switched production from wood to metal in order to keep up with orders. Liberty Coaster Company began producing large volumes of the red metal “Radio Flyers” in 1930. (The name results from Pasin’s love for two of this era’s great inventions: the radio and the airplane.) The toy’s popularity remained steady throughout the Great Depression.
Bensch says the wagon makes a great toy because it can grow with the child. “Small kids can get towed around in a Radio Flyer Wagon but, as they grow older, a wagon can become a platform for all sorts of imaginative play,” he says. “Older kids can also bring the handle of a Radio Flyer Wagon back toward where they’re kneeling in the wagon and essentially turn it into a scooter.” Wagons can even be important play tools for adults.
“Grownups also adopt Radio Flyer Wagons as items that assist in their forms of play—like gardeners who use wagons to haul plants or mulch,” says Bensch.
The Radio Flyer has undergone a variety of changes, including the addition of taller sides in the 50s and improved tires in the muscle-car era. The Liberty Coaster Company continues to produce the wagons, with plastic sport-utility versions now available for the off-roading kiddo. The Radio Flyer Wagon was inducted into The Strong National Museum of Play’s National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999.
Magic 8 Ball
Few childhoods passed by without a fortune predicted by the Magic 8 Ball. The toy is a large black billiard ball with a small window. Inside, there is a multi-faceted dice with a variety of responses—20, to be exact. Ask your question, shake the ball, get an answer anywhere from “Get Help” to “Without a Doubt.”
Albert Carter, the son of a professional fortune teller, is credited with the creation of the original Magic 8 Ball. Carter created a device called a Syco-Seer in 1944. The Syco Seer was a tube filled with viscous liquid and worded dice. A window on each end allowed fortune seekers to view the answer to their question. Carter hooked up with a businessmen named Abe Bookman, started a company, and produced and marketed the Syco-Seer.
Patent for the toy was granted in 1948 and Bookman pursued several redesigns of the Syco-Seer after Carter’s death. The 8 ball design came about as a promotional partnership between Bookman and Brunswick Billiards, but Bookman maintained the look after the promotion ended. Not long after, he remarketed the item as a children’s toy. Matel now owns the Magic 8 Ball and they sell a cool million of the toys every year.
There was always somethings satisfying about popping up the head of a PEZ dispenser and having the character deposit a tiny, bright candy in your hand.
Inventor Eduard Haas III first marketed PEZ as adult breath mints in 1927 Austria. The name was generated from the German word for peppermint: pfeffermintz. Many years later, Oscar Uxa developed the famous dispenser for the PEZ company as a sanitation measure—by dispensing the candies one at a time, germs were less likely to spread when someone reached for a mint.
In 1952, PEZ traveled to the US, but the strong peppermint flavor was a little much for Americans. When marketing the original PEZ was unsuccessful, the company traded their mints for the small, fruit-flavored candies that Americans now know and love. By topping the plastic dispenser with cartoon characters, Haas appealed to all fronts of childish imagination. The first dispensers in the US were a Santa Claus, a “space gun” and a robot.
The American Pez factory was opened in 1973 and continues to operate 24 hours a day. The company keeps up with popular culture, with today’s PEZ dispensers featuring modern movie characters like Gru from Despicable Me and Elsa from Frozen.
The popularity of the automobile in the fifties was not only an adult pleasure. Children also had the opportunity to own a shiny collection of tiny designer rides.
The original Matchbox cars were created by an industrial parts firm called Lesney, owned by Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith. Because industrial parts was a seasonal production gig, the company took to producing small die-cast toys at the end of the year. Jack O’Dell, a Lesney engineer, eventually became a partner at Lesney and, in 1952, O’Dell had the idea to shrink one of their popular toys. He sent his daughter to school with one of the tiny die-cast cars tucked in a matchbox.
Matchbox launched officially in 1953 with three vehicles: a road roller, a cement roller, and a dump truck. In the 70s, the company moved to producing the cooler, “superfast” cars to keep up with Hot Wheels line by Mattel. Mattel now owns the Matchbox line and continues to produce the tiny toys for children and adult collectors across the globe.
The first tall-haired troll doll was created in Denmark in the late 50s. Thomas Dam, a fisherman, carved the first troll doll out of wood and gave it glass eyes and hair made of wool. Friends of Dam’s daughter requested their own troll dolls, and Dam’s company began producing the dolls and called them “Dam Things.” They switched from wood to rubber and by the end of the decade, the company was selling as many as 10,000 Dam Things annually.
In addition to the true Dam Things (eventually called Dam Dolls), there were plenty of knock-off imitations made in different parts of the world. The New York Times actually estimated that the Dam family only took home a small portion of the proceeds from the $4.5 million troll market—the rest went to cheap imitation companies. The Dam family regained control of the toy’s image after a change in copyright law in 1994.
Etch A Sketch
“An Etch A Sketch is wonderfully self-contained,” says Bensch. “There are no parts to lose. It doesn’t require any batteries. Shaking it is essentially a “do over” switch that allows you to start a drawing again.”
Like the Radio Flyer Wagon, the Etch A Sketch provides engaging play opportunities for children and adults alike.
“Drawing on an Etch A Sketch is surprisingly challenging for people of every age, says Bensch. “so playing with one requires a user to extend their skills and apply significant hand-eye coordination to a fun objective.”
Many a child of the 60s spent hours designing colored, light-up pictures on the black peg board of the Lite Brite toy. Chicago toymaker Marvin Glass and Associates of Chicago created the famous Lite Brite, as well as a number of other famous toys like the Mouse Trap board game and Rock’em Sock’em Robots.
Unlike some of the toys on this list, the 1970s Rubik’s Cube has stood the test of time and can still be found in the hands of puzzle-solvers of every age. The original cube was designed by Erno Rubrik, a Hungarian academic, in 1974. The first Rubik’s Cube took its creator, Erno, a full month to solve after it had been scrambled.
The early cubes distributed in Hungary were called “Magic Cubes.” The Ideal Toy Company eventually decided to distribute the toy in the US but changed the name to Rubik’s Cube to avoid pagan overtones. An estimated 350 million units have been sold since the cube landed in American markets.
There have been a number of manifestations of the cube since it’s original appearance, including a smaller, easier cube for children to solve. Speedcubing—the practice of solving the Rubik’s Cube as fast as possible, sometimes called speedsolving—remains a popular toy sport to this day.
Star Wars Action Figures
The original Star Wars movie was release in 1977 and with that release came a stream of collectible toys. It was a bit of a rush, as toymakers didn’t expect the movie to be so popular, but the Kenner company managed to put together a line of small action figures—Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and R2-D2—that were a huge hit and remain collectible items to this day.
The line of ancillary Star Wars products grew to include more than 90 action figures and 60 other items, representing about $2 billion in additional revenue.
Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls
The original Cabbage Patch Kids were sculpted by hand from fabric by a college student named Xavier Roberts. Roberts sold a few of the dolls in gift shops and included adoption papers, birth certificates, and distinctive names for each doll. Good Housekeeping and Vice both report that a woman named Martha Nelson Thomas first created the dolls and Roberts stole her design after she refused to sell it to him.
If this is true, Thomas was cheated out of quite a salary. Toy company Caleco Industries stumbled across Roberts’ dolls and immediately snapped them up for mass production. They changed the heads to vinyl instead of cloth. Throughout the 80s, the Cabbage Patch Kids empire garnered a reported $2 billion in revenue. Following their introduction in February of 1983, the dolls were so popular that they caused riots in toy stores after Black Friday. Cabbage Patch Kids are still a popular toy and collector’s item and can be found at many an estate sale.
Garbage Pail Kids Cards
Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., created the Garbage Pail Kids (GPK) cards as a parody of another 80s toy craze: Cabbage Patch Kids. Topps had been selling novelty cards with their gum packets for decades and the company tried to get a license to depict the true Cabbage Patch characters on cards in their gum packages. The Cabbage Patch company declined, and many employees of Topps assumed this was because they felt sticks of gum were too “low profile” for their fancy dolls. So, the team decided to parody them.
The cards bordered on obscene, with a “Mick Dagger” character swording himself through the head, an “Adam Bomb” character with a mushroom cloud coming out of his head, and “Potty Scotty” crawling out of the toilet. The first 88 cards were released in the summer of 1985. Five cards came in a 25-cent package with a stick of gum.
While the Cabbage Patch dolls were expensive and therefore had to come with parent approval, but the GPK stickers were as cheap as a stick of gum, making them an almost mischievous toy that kids could play with on their own. They bought more than 800 million of the stickers in the late eighties. The controversial cards were banned in schools and Topps was ripped apart in the media. The craze peaked in 1986 and a new series is still released every few years.
The Furby was a very intentional “big hit” toy released in 1998. This was made possible by a six-week-long marketing campaign that happened before the fluffy, beaked creatures were even available for purchase. In the year after release, more than 27 million Furbies were sold.
Furbies were some of the first successful robotic toys: the battery-powered animal speaks it’s own language, but can also “learn” English phrases, wiggle its ears, and blink it’s large, plastic eyes. The toys held a resale value of around $100 in 1998, but by 2007, they had all but disappeared from toy store shelves. A new line of Furbies was released by Hasbro in 2012.
Beanie Babies were not only one of the most definitive toys of this decade, but also of the 20th century as a whole. The strategies used to increase Beanie Baby value—namely, limited production, personification of the toys with poems and names, and keeping them out of large chains stores to increase a sense of exclusivity—were a culmination of the combined toy sales expertise of the past several decades.
These incredibly popular 90s toys are essentially valueless today, but some of the more rare ones have value. The rise and fall of Beanie Babies is discussed in this post on The Goods.
You’re likely to come across nearly any of these vintage toys at an estate sale. If you’re seeking a specific one, search it on our homepage first to see what estate sales are most likely to fill you with childhood nostalgia.
What toy reminds you most of your childhood? Have you found any awesome vintage toys at estate sales? Tell us in the comments below!