30 toys that defined the '70s
In a 1973 letter to a colleague, then-ambassador to India Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote “That’s it. Nothing will happen. But then nothing much is going to happen in the 1970s anyway.” And for a time that prediction seemed to ring true. Smashed between the white-hot 1960s and the “greed is good” attitude of the materialistic 1980s, the 1970s seem, at best, a troubled decade, primarily defined by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
While it remains true that the ‘70s are often overlooked and undervalued, the decade did have several long-lasting, decidedly negative effects on American culture. First, before the decade every class, culture, and industry was an upwardly mobile one. Since the close of the ‘70s, this no longer is true. Second, American culture, as a whole, is much more individualistic and far less communitarian than it was before the decade. According to American Heritage, this makes notions our culture used to take for granted, like deferred gratification, sacrifice, and sustained national effort a “hard sell.”
But not everything that came out of the ‘70s was bad. The decade had its fair share of positive moments. For example, Apple Computers was founded in 1976, “Star Wars” premiered in 1977, and Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. Also, toy companies seriously stepped up their game, producing some truly iconic playthings throughout the decade, and revolutionizing the industry. In this article, Stacker used historical and retail websites to compile a list of 30 toys popular in the United States in the 1970s, many of which remain popular today. From Stretch Armstrong to Pet Rocks to an updated Easy-Bake Oven, click through the list and take a trip down memory lane to recall some highlights of the often-overlooked ‘70s.
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Parker Brothers debuted the first Nerf ball in 1969, a four-inch polyurethane foam ball marketed as “the world’s first indoor ball.” An instant hit, it didn’t take long for the company to work on a whole range of Nerf products, including the Nerf football, which debuted in 1972. Soft and squishy, these balls cause little damage when tossed around indoors, making them popular toys with generations of children.
[Pictured: Nerf Ball.]
“Weebles wobble, they don’t fall down!” was the tagline for one of the 1970s most popular plastic toys, Weebles. Released by Romper Room in 1969, the egg-shaped figurines with an impressive ability to balance, were originally a brightly colored nuclear family: Dad Weeble, Mom Weeble, brother, sister, and baby Weeble, and even a family dog Weeble. Playsets, like the Weeble house, circus, and haunted house followed, expanding the Weebles into a bona fide empire by the end of the decade.
This history of skateboarding can be traced back to the 1950s, but it wasn’t until Frank Nasworthy invented urethane wheels in 1972 that the toy really took off. Nasworthy’s wheels, which he produced through his company, Cadillac Wheels, made for a smoother, faster, and more comfortable ride. Soon after the wheels debuted, the first skate park was opened (in 1976), spawning a host of copycat parks around the country, and confirming skateboarding as a legitimate hobby and sport.
Evel Knievel stunt car
Some of Evel Knievel’s most famous stunts took place in the 1970s. From his successful jumps at Madison Square Garden and the Los Angeles Coliseum to his failed attempts at Snake River Canyon and Wembley Stadium, he hardly went a year without being a major headline. As a result, Ideal created an Evel Knievel toy line, including this Evel Knievel stunt car, which had grossed over $350 million by 1977.
[Pictured: Evel Knievel car.]
Etch A Sketch
In 1960, the Ohio Art Co. paid French electrician Andre Cassagnes $25,000 for the rights to his new invention: the Etch A Sketch. Released in U.S. markets just in time for Christmas, the aluminum powder drawing toy was an instant success. Still, when commercials for the Etch A Sketch began airing in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the toy’s popularity reached new heights. The version of the Etch A Sketch that fills toy store shelves today is still essentially identical to the Etch A Sketch that ruled the ‘70s.
[Pictured: Etch a Sketch.]
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In August 1975, Gary Dahl introduced his Pet Rock in San Francisco, Calif. In the months that followed, millions of people bought into the fad, spending $3.95 on a smooth stone and its clever packaging. It was the packaging that really sold Pet Rocks: every new pet came in a cardboard box that featured breathing holes and an instructional “care and feeding” pamphlet. Although the toy inspired songs (“I’m in Love With My Pet Rock” by Al Bolt), garnered “Tonight Show” appearances, and was referenced in films like “Office Space,” its 15 minutes of fame were essentially over by 1976.
[Pictured: Pet Rock.]
The first commercially successful video game, Atari Pong was released in the summer of 1972. The game is tennis-esq, in which a player uses the simple controller to move an in-game paddle, volleying a small “ball” back and forth with another player or a computer-controlled user. Points are won when a volley isn’t returned. The two-dimensional game was simple but wildly popular: By 1974, Atari had sold over 8,000 units.
In 1976, the Kenner Co. release an $11 toy that ended up making it over $50 million. Stretch Armstrong was a 10-inch latex action figure filled with corn syrup that could stretch up to four feet long before snapping back into place. The figure remained popular until 1979, inspiring half a dozen spin-offs, including Stretch Octopus and Stretch X-Ray, before fading into relative obscurity (although today collectors will pay over $1,000 for Stretch Armstrongs in pristine condition).
[Pictured: Stretch Armstrong.]
Micronauts (Acroyear action figure)
In 1977, Mego’s Interchangeable World of Micronauts hit store shelves. The set of 3.5-inch figurines had interchangeable parts that could be swapped to create new versions of the line’s characters. Soon after the toys became a hit, Marvel released a comic book series based on the battles between the “good guys” (the Time Traveler, Pharoid, Galactic Warrior, Galactic Defender, and Space Glider) and the “bad guys” (Acroyear and Acroyear II), as well as their leaders (Baron Karza and Force Commander).
[Pictured: Micronauts (Acroyear action figure).]
Mattel Electronic Football
In 1977, Mattel unknowingly set the stage for portable gaming devices like the Gameboy when it released a handheld electronic football game. The object of the game was simple—navigate the running back around the red defenders to score. In 2000, an updated version of the game was released, but it didn’t prove nearly as popular as the original.
[Pictured: Mattel Electronic Football.]
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