The Gifts that Keep on Giving

This time of year, I look forward to my annual viewing of “A Christmas Story”. Apart from being a completely endearing movie–well-written, narrated and performed–I always appreciated Ralphie’s quest to acquire his coveted Red Rider BB gun, and the lengths he was prepared to go to in order to receive it on Christmas morning.

In December of 1983, there was nothing that I—and many of my fellow nine-year-olds–wanted to be under the tree Christmas morning more than a Cabbage Patch doll. Demand for the popular toy, originally created in 1979 but licensed and mass-produced by Coleco in 1983, reached fever pitch before the holidays and sparked a buying frenzy that caused such chaos and violence in stores across the U.S. that the incidents are now known as the Cabbage Patch Riots.

Just over a decade later in 1996, demand for Tickle Me Elmo elicited a similar situation, this time coupled with customers buying as many as they could get their hands on at once and gouging the price, creating a Tickle Me Elmo black market that had the toy selling for as much as $1000 for the $30 doll.

The rise of online shopping may have altered the mechanics of acquisition, but it is still as cutthroat as ever. But it’s also not new. The concept of the “must-have” gift has been around for generations:

Baby Boomers:

  • Hula Hoop: “Invented” in 1958 (in quotes because seriously, it’s a hoop), venerable toy company Wham-O sold 25 million hoops within the first few months and sparked a craze that will be forever associated with the 1950s.
  • Slinky: You’re singing the song, just admit it. Props to inventor Richard James for taking a spring and tricking kids into thinking it’s a toy for over six decades now.
  • Barbie: Created by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler in 1959 and named after her daughter, the iconic doll lives on to this day, though with more realistic body proportions and career aspirations.
  • Legos: Once upon a time, Legos didn’t cost a fortune and they were basically bricks that could be assembled to make larger bricks. Today, Lego sets can cost hundreds of dollars and you can build the Taj Mahal. But some things never change; it still hurts when you step on them.

Generation X:

  • Easy Bake Oven: Even though it was invented in the early ‘60s, I feel like Generation X really felt the impact of light bulb cooking more than other generations. And those teeny tiny spatulas? Useless.
  • Pet Rock: Probably more of a toy fake-out than the Slinky, but people caught on pretty quick that it was just a rock. That they paid money for.
  • Atari Game Console/2600: We’re so used to home gaming systems that it’s hard to remember a time when people lost their minds over Pong. But they did. Then came Space Invaders, Pitfall, Pac-Man and Asteroids, and “joystick thumb” became a thing.
  • Rubik’s Cube: Nothing says ‘80s quite like the Rubik’s Cube. People went bananas for the 3D puzzle—there were tournaments, speed contests, and of course sweet Rubik’s Cube merch and swag. Raise your hand if you gave up and tried to just peel off the stickers.

Millennials:

  • Beanie Babies: These small stuffed animals helped put eBay on the map. The collectible market grew at such a rapid pace that people cleaned out their bank accounts and retirement savings to “invest” in them. Your financial adviser would caution you against this.
  • Pokemon Cards: Whether bought for playing, trading or collecting, Pokemon cards were in huge demand in the mid-90s, and the brand is still going strong in almost every current form of media.
  • Tamagotchis: Technology really came into its own with these hand-held electronic “pets”. Tamagotchi owners would watch as their egg hatched, then care for their virtual pet—giving it food, training it, and cleaning up after it. Or they wouldn’t, and the pet would die. Circle of life, Millennials.
  • Game Boy: Nintendo’s hand-held console was a literal gamechanger. When it was released in the U.S., the original shipment of one million units sold out in a matter of weeks. Later in the ‘90s, Nintendo would come out with Game Boy Color, which had—wait for it—a color screen.

Generation Z:

  • Wii: In 2006, Nintendo did it again with their launch of the Wii—their seventh generation game console—and creating an interactive gaming experience that appealed to players of all ages (my parents had a Wii!). Admit it, you loved your personalized Wii avatar, the Mii.
  • Ride-On Electric Toy Cars: Who authorized these? Not only were they expensive, but they put the power of driving into the hands of children ages three to seven. As a bonus, they went faster than a parent could run to save their children from near-certain injury.
  • Bratz Dolls: For someone who played with Barbie dolls well past age-appropriateness, you’d think I’d give Bratz dolls a pass. I don’t. They took unrealistic body and beauty expectations to a new level. But they were a powerhouse brand that included the dolls, music and movies.
  • RipStik: A new riff on the skateboard, the original RipStik was actually two boards connected by a rod and only had two wheels. By mimicking the back-and-forth motion of surfing and snowboarding, you could propel yourself without using a foot to push off, like a traditional skateboard. Behold the power of physics!

Watching “A Christmas Story” as an adult, I realize the real charm of the movie is the reverence for how a toy can represent a period of our childhood, and the power of those memories. I didn’t get a Cabbage Patch doll for Christmas in 1983, though I am sure that it wasn’t for my parents’ lack of trying. However, my sister who was five and in kindergarten at the time, won a Cabbage Patch doll in a raffle held by our small Catholic elementary school. I learned this because they announced it on the PA so I knew she was getting it and I wasn’t. But I’m over it. Mostly.

Readers–what toy or gift was most meaningful to your childhood? Leave a comment below.

Author’s Note: The GenX Manager is closing out the year, but will be back in 2019 with all new adventures. See you next year! GXM

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