Friday Fives: The Top Five Selling Toys by Decade in Our Lives

(Friday Fives is a weekly listing of interesting, noteworthy or odd items for possible use by a lay leader, pastor, Sunday School teacher or small group leader.)

By “our” lives I mean the typical reader, who, based on entry and departure site data is between 30 and 55 years old. So I’m not talking about very recently introduced toys, sorry kids. I also acknowledge that these are the top sellers in America. Although I know about 1 in 4 of you live outside of the United States,  I kept things at home this time.

So, for this week’s Friday Fives, I’m talking about the toys that were dominant in America from the fifties through the nineties. Some of them may surprise you, others won’t.

Since part of being an effective church, small group, or Sunday School class leader or teacher is understanding the world in which those you teach live, I’ve always thought toys made an interesting study of culture and help provide such understanding. They say something about life in the times in which they are hot sellers. Plus they’re fun to think about and remember because they’re, well, they’re toys.

So, here’s the countdown. From the top selling toy from the 1990’s to the top selling toy from the 1950’s.

#5 – The Decade of the Nineties

Top Seller: LEGOs


Talk about a toy that has staying power, the construction toy was invented by a Dutch carpenter, Ole Christiansen, in 1949. (Lego is from the Danish words for “play well.”) The LEGO company patented the concept in 1958. The original LEGOs were just red-and-white bricks that interlocked in a way that allowed children to build things without limits. According to Time magazine, just six blocks can be combined in 102,981,500 ways. The company has produced more than 320 billion blocks. Now there are college LEGO classes, LEGO conferences, and, of course, a 2014 feature film. What I’ve learned about LEGOs is that they hurt when you step on them with bare feet.

Honorable Mention: Super Soaker, Nintendo’s Game Boy

#4 – The Decade of the Eighties

Top Seller: Transformers

G1 Optimus Prime render_GameStop

You knew this had to be on the list somewhere didn’t you? Just the variety of television cartoons and full-length feature films must have sold multiple millions of dollars of these shapeshifting action figures. The toy has earned Hasbro more than $2 billion in profits since they were introduced in the early 80’s.

Honorable Mention: Star Wars Action Figures, Rubik’s Cube, Cabbage Patch Dolls

#3 – The Decade of the Seventies

Top Seller: Hot Wheels


The small die cast vehicles from Mattel were introduced in 1968 and exploded as a variety of accessories were introduced in the seventies. Four billion hot wheels cars have been produced with 800 models and over 11,000 variations. Mattel estimates that 41 million kids have grown up with their miniature cars. One source said that the average child between five and 15 owns about 41 cars. (Personally, I was a Matchbox kid but I bear no grudges against my Hot Wheels brethren.)

Honorable Mention: Mr. Potato Head (the first toy advertised on television), Pet Rock, Nerf Balls

#2 – The Decade of the Sixties

Top Seller: Barbie


The truth of the matter is, depending on your measurement methodology, Barbie could be the number 1 selling toy in every decade since her inception in 1959. She’s certainly the number one selling American toy in history. Estimates are that one billion Barbies have been sold. She’s still a $3 billion a year seller for Mattel. They sell 1.5 million across the world each week. Inventor Ruth Handler saw her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls and noticed that she was playing with infant dolls as if they were adults. So she conceptualized the idea of an adult children’s doll.  You know the rest.

Of course,  from many pulpits Barbie has been blasted as an artificial and harmful ideal for women. One Ukrainian model has made herself into “The Human Barbie.” Creepy.

Yet the toy continues to fly off the shelves more than 50 years after its inception.

Honorable Mentions: Easy-Bake Oven, G.I. Joe, Etch-A-Sketch, Twister, Slinky

#1 – The Decade of the Fifties

Top Seller: Silly Putty


Remember using it to create images from the Sunday color comics? Or rolling it into a ball in your palms and bouncing it? I wonder if James Wright, the General Electric Engineer who invented it, could have foreseen how wildly popular Silly Putty would become with kids.  In 1943, he mixed boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube. He sent the resulting compound around to engineers, trying to figure out a use for it. A man named Peter Hodgson saw the potential and it became the best selling toy of fifties. 2009 figures indicate that more than 300 million eggs of Silly Putty have been sold.

Honorable Mention: The Hula Hoop, View-Master




Lead Manager Sales Research

Forbes: Most Popular Toys of the Last Hundred Years

Live Science: The Top 11 Toys of All Time

Toy Industry Association Sales Data