5 Most Profitable Toys Of Past Christmases

By Geoffrey Michael | November 21, 2011 AAA
5 Most Profitable Toys Of Past Christmases

Thousands of toys have come and gone over the years, some of them scoring amazing success in the marketplace, while others disappeared almost overnight. People with great foresight or luck bought some of these toys and stashed them away in the original box. Rare original toys now command up to thousands of dollars at collector shows and auctions. (With the holiday season fast approaching, we want to give kids as much as we can but here are 7 Things Kids Can Definitely Do Without.)

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A combination of adaptability and slick marketing have kept some toys, like the Barbie doll, at the top of many Christmas lists, more than 50 years after their debut. Here's a look at some of the most popular toys of Christmases past.

1960 - Barbie
Founded as "Mattel Creations" in 1945 by Ruth and Elliot Handler, Mattel initially made jewelry, candleholders, picture frames and other decorative objects. Its first breakthrough toy was the Ukedoodle plastic ukulele, produced in the early 1950s. After Disneyland opened in 1955, youth-oriented advertising began to appear on television. Mattel sponsored "The Mickey Mouse Club" and aired a commercial for its Burp Gun, causing it to sell out by Christmas. The age of using television advertising to market new toys had begun.

The first Barbie doll was unveiled at the American International Toy Fair in Feb. 1959, trumpeted as a "shapely teenage fashion model." Most dolls of that era resembled babies or small children, so an adult fashion doll was a radical departure and was considered somewhat risky. The release was accompanied by an aggressive marketing campaign that pushed sales to 350,000 units in the first year. A half-century later, it's still Mattel's signature product, with over 1 billion sold.

1961 - Etch-A-Sketch
Arthur Granjean patented the "L'Ecran Magique" in the late 1950s, when the actual inventor couldn't afford to pay the patent fees. When the Ohio Art Company first saw the "magic screen" at the International Toy Fair in 1959, they weren't interested in producing it. They changed their minds on second inspection, paid $25,000 for the licensing rights and changed the name to Etch-A-Sketch. Following Mattel's lead, the new product was advertised heavily on television and quickly became the biggest selling toy of 1961.

Over the past 50 years, 150 million units have been sold worldwide. Ten million were sold by Sears Roebuck, during the first 10 years alone. It still accounts for 25% of Ohio Art's annual toy revenues.

While other colored frames were later added, the bright red has always been the most popular. The Etch-A-Sketch is now an inductee of the National Toy Hall of Fame. (For ideas on gift for woman in your life, read 5 Holiday Gift Ideas For Women.)

1970 - Nerf Ball
The concept for the Nerf ball originated when foam rocks were made for a caveman-themed game. The team members who created the game, started bouncing the rock over a net as a form of indoor volleyball. The designers quickly realized the potential of a ball that wouldn't harm indoor furnishings, and they began to devise an array of games that could use various forms of "the world's first indoor ball." By the end of the first year, 4 million had been sold. The original ball was followed by the Nerf football, which became the most popular product in the Nerf line.

One legend says that "NERF" is an acronym for "Non-Expanding Recreational Foam," but inventor Reyn Guyer claims that it was the same type of foam used on automobile roll bars. The original prototype ball makes an annual appearance as an ornament on his Christmas tree.

The Nerf brand is currently owned by Hasbro, and the entire line of Nerf products currently accounts for about $150 million in annual revenues.

1975 - Pong
The invention of Pong in 1972 was the catalyst for the entire electronic arcade industry. Two years later, a home version of Nolan Bushnell's simple table tennis game was introduced by his company Atari. It was achieved by linking television monitors to minicomputers and racked up sales of $40 million, in 1975.

The video game market crashed in 1983, and home game consoles did not return to popularity until Sega and Nintendo entered the market, in the late 1980s. The games from that era are primitive, in comparison to what's available today. (For some other video game ideas, check out The Best-Selling Video Games Of All Time.)

1996 - Tickle Me Elmo
One day Ron Dubren was watching children play in a park, and he came up with the idea of a stuffed animal that would laugh just like them. He got together with Greg Hyman and they put an electronic chip inside a stuffed monkey, that would cause a giggle sound when tickled. That toy never succeeded, but the idea was picked up by Tyco for its new Sesame Street toys in 1996. Dubren used the same technology in the Elmo doll and Tickle Me Elmo was born.

The toy's instant popularity overwhelmed the supply chain and shortages led to long lines at stores and escalating prices. The expected sales projections for the year of 250,000 units and revenue of $7 million, were quadrupled due to a strong holiday season. The final tally was 1 million units sold and $30 million in revenue, in 1996.

The Bottom Line
There are a lot of other toys that could have made this list: Action Man (1966), Weebles (1971), Uno (1972), Dungeons & Dragons (1974), Connect Four (1976), Rubik's Cube (1980), BMX bike (1982), Pictionary (1987), Super Soaker (1990), Pogs (1995), Beanie Baby (1997), Furby (1998) and Nintendo DS (2007) are the most notable.

While electronic games have captured more market share over the past several years, the popularity of Zhu Zhu Pets in 2009 is ample proof that simple toys can still create a stampede to the shopping malls. Only time will tell which toys will fly off the shelves this holiday season. (To help you find gifts for the budding Warren Buffett in your life, see Gifts For Young Investors.)

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