We have just one question: Why?
The fad gift phenomenon may seem like little more than a horrifying distillation of American consumer culture. There are the high prices, the long lines and those family members who went to bed early on Thanksgiving night only to wake up early and strangle the other toy-grabbing moms the next morning in a show of how much they love their kids. But the fad trend is bigger than that.
Like it or not, over the years it has shown how much Americans have in common—or at least how hard we tried. It wasn’t always pretty, but Americans spent much of the 1990s picking new fads each year for the sake of their kids—the ones they forgot to play catch with all year with because they were working late and saving up for the holidays.
Still, perhaps with the exception of Apple gadgets, it appears there was a sharp decline in national must-have crazes after 2000 as American markets diversified and catered to smaller and smaller niches. Maybe the economic structure that once brought us closer together is driving us apart. But I digress. Here are some standouts from America’s top toy list over the years.
Pet Rocks 1975
Our first (and maybe shortest-lived) fad started nearby—just off Highway 17 at a bar in downtown Los Gatos. With the country in the grip of stagflation, ad man Gary Dahl told his friends there should be a cheap pet that doesn’t poop, eat or die. It could even come with its own carrying case and a guide on how to get it do tricks like “roll over.” Yes, it was a horrible idea (or a very clever one, depending on your outlook). And yes, Dahl became a millionaire anyway.
Rubik’s Cube 1980
Here was a great way to emotionally destroy any teen that acted too smart for his or her own good. There are 43 quintillion permutations of this three-dimensional mind-boggler. That’s 4.3 x 10 to the 19th power. Still each cube can be solved in 23 turns or less. Yeah, good luck. Novices have been fretting their way to inferiority complexes every since thanks to jerks like the Australian Feliks Zemdegs, who solved one in a record-breaking 5.66 seconds in a competition earlier this year. A word to the wise (and the young): take stickers off and replace them on the correct sides. “Look, Mom, I really am smart!”
Cabbage Patch Kids 1983
The only thing stranger than these lumpy babies’ faces is their story. According to company legend, founder Xavier Roberts followed a bumblebee with bunny ears behind a waterfall where he watched round babies get birthed out of cabbage bunches under the direction of Col. Casey, the stork who oversees Babyland General Hospital. Logically, Roberts adopted the babies, saving them from Lavender McDade, who planned to force them into slavery in her gold mine. Sure, millions of people were dumb enough to buy into this fad, but at least our real babies aren’t actually this ugly.
Pogs might have been the greatest Hawaiian craze ever to take the mainland by storm. We’ll put them right up there with surfing. Named after the Aloha State’s POG drink (passion-orange-guava), the game pre-dates mass commercialization and was played for decades with milk and juice caps before the real North America realized what it was missing. Part of the game’s thrill was in the art of carefully approaching the Pog stacks with a metal slammer and using the perfect angle and velocity at the Pogs’ very edge to send them flying. Oops, missed it by that much…
Beanie Babies 1994
The tag on a Beanie Baby means everything. Rare versions of Princess Diana memorial Beanie Babies were recently listed on eBay for $100,000-$500,000 with the tags intact. A different seller recently listed the same bear with no tag for 99 cents. No joke. Still, with the exception of a few misprints and rare editions, America’s favorite fluffy collector’s animal–turned–doggie–chewtoy is no longer the penultimate gift for 5-year-olds and grown-up geeks alike.
Tickle Me Elmo 1996
Elmo might have been one of the cuter creations to come out of Grouchland, but the toy really was a monster. It was always giggling at parents in a mocking sort of way for spending $28.99 on a vibrating midget (“Who’s laughing now?” Elmo seemed to be asking). People magazine reported in 1997 that some Elmos were selling for $1,500 on the black market in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Finally, a pet that would cling to someone’s keychain and never, ever leave them alone. These egg-shaped creatures were antithetical to Dahl’s simple pet rock formula—and a load of responsibility for kids who were still learning to stop wetting the bed. When the creature hatched on its tiny screen, the owner found out if it was a male or female. Thus starry-eyed youngsters embarked on their Tamagotchi’s life journey: from toddler to teenager, adult, senior and ultimately its cemetery at the bottom of a trash compactor.
This international phenomenon came in 24 languages and was sold around the world. Here’s the hoax: people thought they flourished and learned more when given a healthy environment filled with family dialogue... and perhaps learned a little too much. CNN reported that the National Security Agency in 1999 banned employees from buying them. Well, it turns out the toys dropped their native Furbish no matter and still learned to speak more grown-up languages—provided someone kept changing the batteries. “Me hungry!” It’s a wonder these things ever took off after the 1984 film Gremlins warned against the perils of three-inch monster gifts and their secret ambitions to take over the world from the dark corners of ordinary homes. Hmmm… now might be a good time to check the attic.
Pokemon cards started out looking like the new Pogs for people with less upper body strength. The cards came in packs of 60. If a kid got the right combination in the Christmas stocking, he and his friends could transform the sidewalk outside the cafeteria into a Pikachu-torching showdown. Schools from New York City to San Diego banned the cards because students who hadn’t even learned what puberty was yet were gambling away their lunch money.
Razor Scooter 2000
There was a time when these shiny devices weren’t just for those certain college students trying to get to class early and begging to get teased. The folding kick scooter, which most of us outgrew, was lightweight, incredibly efficient and let sixth graders feel like they were going to be the next extreme sport break out star.
Big Mouth Billy Bass 2000
Possibly the frontrunner in the “most annoying” subcategory, Big Mouth Billy Bass was an animatronic fish figure mounted on a plaque. It sang “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” while its tail slapped back and forth in time. What we’d like to know is how many windows were shattered when Big Mouth Billy was hurled through them. Now that was some economic stimulus.
No reminder needed here. Especially since you’re probably reading this on your iPhone 4s anyway. The iPod, iPhone and iPad each turned out to be not so much a new fad as the harbinger of a new era. And with $76 billion cash on hand in July, CBS News reported that Apple had more cash on hand than the United States government. (Of course the government’s own money situation improved when it raised the debt ceiling a few days later.) Regardless, Apple has been immune to the apocalyptic monopoly worries that plagued Microsoft for years. At this rate maybe some day we’ll forget what the “A” in United States of America used to stand for—that is, of course, until we find the next cool thing.