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The Most Popular Holiday Gifts Through the Years — and Their Modern Equivalents

Some problems are eternal — like finding the best gifts for all the people on your holiday shopping list. You have to make a list, set a budget… and potentially fight for the last item at any given department store (or rush to beat the bots and millions of other buyers to those online sales). While shoppers of yore weren’t brawling in the aisles over Beanie Babies during the holiday season, the act of picking out the right item has always been stressful. Let these popular gifts from the last seven decades (and their modern upgrades) give your holiday shopping a bit of inspiration.

1950s: Cigarettes

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The early years following World War II created a Christmas craze more aligned with the holiday celebrations we know today (as compared to the reserved celebrations of decades prior). Aluminum Christmas trees, holiday paper crafts, and outdoor lights sprung to life during Christmases of the 1950s, and with them came the idea of spreading cheer to everyone you know through an extensive holiday shopping list. While toy producers were rolling blockbusters off their assembly lines for kids — think Mr. Potato Head, Frisbees, Hula Hoops, Barbies, and other toys that defined the decade — one adult-oriented gift became so popular that Santa Claus himself endorsed it: cigarettes. Cartons of smokes were cheaply priced and came in festive boxes (with a convenient gift tag attached), making it easy to swing by a drug store for a prewrapped holiday gift. So long as shoppers knew what brand their secretary, father-in-law, or friend smoked, they had what was then considered a stress-free, solid gift. Cigarette companies went all in, marketing rosy-cheeked Santas with sleighs full of cigarettes while celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Ronald Reagan attested to their affinity for the last-minute gift idea.

Modern Update: Dishing out cigarettes is decidedly outdated (and likely unwanted), but needing to pick up an affordable gift for your coworker or brother’s new girlfriend is a Christmas conundrum that will likely never be resolved. Virtually anything you can toss in your cart for $5 that doesn’t cause cancer is probably a winner, though a solid, popular choice is themed holiday socks. One YouGov poll reports 56% of Americans appreciate gifted socks, with the holidays being the main source of new socks for one in eight people. Sockmaker Bombas offers higher-end gift boxes, while sites like The Sock Drawer feature inexpensive holiday motifs that will warm the recipient’s heart (and feet).

1960s: Wham-O SuperBall

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The space race didn’t only occur at the most classified levels — some of the scientific breakthroughs that propelled man to the moon were transformed into toys, too. Take Wham-O’s SuperBall, which debuted in 1964. Creator Norman Stingley, a chemical engineer who created a form of artificial rubber, transformed the material into an ever-bouncing ball that became an instant hit. At top production, Wham-O rolled 170,000 SuperBalls off assembly lines per day, with more than 20 million sold before the end of the decade. SuperBalls reached peak fad when they influenced the name of an even bigger cultural icon: the Super Bowl. Lamar Hunt, founder of the American Football League, admitted that when it came to naming the first championship football game, his inspiration came from the top-selling toy, which just so happened to be his children’s favorite.

Modern Update: While bouncing balls are unlikely to ever go out of style (what child can resist pleas from parents to not throw or kick things in the house?), Super Balls were inexpensive gifts that could round out a kid’s holiday haul. Today’s top science-adjacent stocking stuffer? Slime. The main appeal of this trendy goop is its sticky sensation and neon coloring, though physical therapists and psychologists say it has hidden benefits such as encouraging mindfulness and fine motor skills. Slime has moved from the DIY project of its early days to a commercially available goo — you can order a multipack from Play-Doh or gift a creative kid their own slime-making kit. (For parents who don’t want to spend the holidays picking pet hair and crumbs from a slime ball, a squishable bead-foam ball is a mess-free alternative.)

1970s: Star Wars Action Figures

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Star Wars is one of the most successful sci-fi universes out there, but initially there wasn’t much confidence in its potential. Even creator George Lucas was expecting a box-office flop for his 1977 space opera. After the film’s surprising hyperjump to blockbuster status, Lucasfilm shopped for toy producers to move hit characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia from the big screen to under the Christmas tree. They settled on Kenner, a smaller manufacturer who crafted odds-and-ends merchandise such as the Escape from Death Star board game, puzzles, and posters.  Alas, sure-sellers like action figures couldn’t be made and shipped in the seven months between the film’s release and the winter holidays, thanks to the extensive process of designing, molding, and producing the moveable toys.

In an attempt to still make holiday sales and keep up interest, Kenner debuted a risky idea: the “Early Bird Certificate Package,” a cardboard envelope that included some stickers, a Star Wars Space Club membership card, a cardboard display stand, and a certificate redeemable for four figurines that would be shipped out in early 1978. While some stores refused to stock the packages on the basis that they weren’t actually toys, the certificates sold out in many areas and Kenner’s gamble paid off.

Modern Update: The Star Wars franchise practically sells itself, and thanks to its most recent series spinoff, The Mandalorian, 2020 may be the year of Baby Yoda toys. (Disclaimer: While fans have nicknamed the tiny space creature “Baby Yoda” thanks to its uncanny resemblance to Jedi Master Yoda, the character is not that Yoda, and actually goes by “The Child.”) Plush dolls and plastic action figures are almost guaranteed to be top sellers this holiday season, along with an animatronic Baby Yoda that moves and talks. LEGO also has a build-your-own model, and even Williams-Sonoma has gotten in on the action with an Instant Pot emblazoned with Star Wars’ newest standout character.

1980s: Cabbage Patch Dolls

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We’ve become accustomed to massive Black Friday crowds and fighting in aisles over limited-stock items, but 30-some years ago, seeing parents tear into each other over a toy wasn’t only unheard of, it was truly shocking. That’s why the Cabbage Patch Doll craze lives on in infamy, and hot-selling toys are often compared to the frenzy for the stuffed, one-of-a-kind dolls. While they had been available at some stores across the country earlier, peak demand hit in the winter of 1983. Despite the limited stock, eager-to-please parents scooped up more than 3 million of the dolls by the end of the holiday shopping season, with many shoppers waiting in line for hours to snag one, or nearly rioting when stores ran out. But what made Cabbage Patch Dolls the perfect gift? Probably a mix of exclusiveness and marketing. The Cabbage Patch concept centered around not purchasing, but adopting one of its unique dolls, complete with an included adoption certificate. And it worked well — by the end of the 1980s, Cabbage Patch Kids had made around $2 billion thanks to its dolls and add-on accessories.

Modern Update: Dolls remain a tried-and-true holiday gift, but the modernized take on gifting a lifelike best friend is less about changing wet diapers (we’re looking at you, Baby Alive) and more about matching the doll to its prospective owner. Our Generation dolls are upsized, measuring 18 inches, and come in male and female dolls with a variety of hair types and skin tones. The dolls also have hobbies, jobs, and interests instead of needing round-the-clock parenting. While similar in size and appearance to the more pricey American Girl dolls that were a 1990s staple, Our Generation dolls have become popular in part because of their cost — around $25 compared to American Girl’s $100-plus price tag. And with endless accessories, such as a hot dog cart, plush pet puppies, and even a tiny, ergonomic neck pillow, it’s one doll that can grow with your little one.

1990s: Furby

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The 1990s were all about pets — primarily ones that you didn’t have to actually feed, walk, or clean up after. Digital creatures like Giga Pets and Tamagotchi ruled the decade, but one robotic toy took its place as the most loved (and hated) animatronic critter on every kid’s wishlist: Furby. The fur-covered robot could chirp, speak “Furbish,” and dance, and supposedly even learn language and tricks with regular interaction over time. Furby fever had parents stampeding displays only to find limited stock, in part because the gadgets were first released in October 1998, far too close to the holiday shopping season for retailers to build a sizable supply. Within two months, parents had snapped up 1.8 million Furbies, with another 14 million sold the next year. Furby’s run, like that of most fad toys, was short-lived — it ended by the early 2000s, amid a storm of concerns about the robot’s supposed artificial intelligence and potential ability to retain information. (At one point, the National Security Agency banned Furbies over concerns they could act as spying devices.)

Modern Update: Hatchimals are the newest iteration of an animatronic companion. Part of the appeal is waiting for their jumbo-sized eggs to actually hatch (hence the catchy name) and reveal the stuffed robotic plush inside. Despite a limited number first rolling into stores in 2016, Hatchimals unexpectedly became a top holiday contender. Ambitious resellers purchased large quantities that they hocked online at steep markups, creating a Hatchimal black market that the company spoke out against. In the years since, Hatchimals have expanded to include miniature figurines and characters that arrive in plastic eggs but don’t hatch on their own (which is great for parents who are still creeped out by a battery-operated furball).

2000s: iPod Mini

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The year was 2004: Steve Jobs was rocking a black turtleneck, the original iPod had already been out for three years, and Apple’s brightly colored dancing silhouette commercials were getting regular airtime. And that’s when Apple dropped its iPod Mini — the downsized, candy-colored music player that came with 4 (or an upgraded 6) GB of space for all your favorite songs. That holiday season, Apple sold more than 4.5 million iPods between their regular and Mini editions — more than half its total iPod sales for the entire year. Like any hot gift, iPod Minis could be difficult to come by; even with so many in production, many models were put on backorder while desperate gift-givers scoured eBay’s marked-up options. While the Mini (and its whopping $249 price tag) was quickly left behind for improved models, some people still swear by the simple interface and classic click-wheel design (which brings on some good ’00s nostalgia).

Modern Update: The iPod Mini (and nearly every other version of the iPod) faded into the background as faster smartphones began to provide an all-in-one experience. And along with the ability to listen on demand came the ability to pick and choose new music without paying for every individual song piecemeal. Music streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music have made it easier to listen to all the newest beats and old favorites on loop without shelling out for entire albums. So while you can’t give the gift of an aluminum-backed mp3 player any longer, a music subscription gift card for ad-free listening will be just as prized. Because what says “Happy Holidays” better than a gift you didn’t have to fight for?

Featured image credit: Giftpundits.com/ Pexels

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