30 toys that defined the '70s
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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Simon, an electronic party game, was unveiled at the Toy Fair show in 1978. With four colored sections—red, yellow, green, and blue—the game tests players’ memories by having them repeat progressively longer light patterns without pressing the wrong color or missing a step. Simon was a holiday season hit, and despite a flood of imitators, the game has retained its popularity, even spawning spin-offs.
Speak & Spell
Developed by Texas Instruments, Speak & Spell was an educational toy that taught children to spell. The original Speak & Spell, released in 1978, had a library of several hundred commonly misspelled words, which it would say aloud before asking children to spell them back using the toy’s raised buttons. The news release for the toy claimed, “A number of different games are offered to intrigue children of all ages.” In the 1980s, Texas Instruments released Speak & Read and Speak & Math, toys that had similar functions.
[Pictured: Speak & Spell]
Star Wars action figures
Unprepared for the overnight success of “Star Wars,” Kenner Products, which owned the licensing rights for the film’s action figures, also was unprepared for the holiday season demand for the toys. As a result, children who were given the set for Christmas in 1977 opened a mail-in certificate that entitled them to Luke Skywalker, Princess Lea, R2-D2, and Chewbacca figurines upon their February release. When the action figures hit store shelves in 1978, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo, C-3PO, Stormtrooper, Star Destroyer Commander, Jawa, and Tusken Raider figurines were added to the set. By Christmas 1978, demand for the toys was through the roof, and Kenner made $100 million on Star Wars action figures during the first year alone.
[Pictured: Star Wars toys.]
The Lite Brite was officially released by Hasbro in 1967, but the art toy didn’t become a bona fide classic until the 1970s. The Lite Brite is simple by design—a backlit grid that can be covered by a black sheet of paper, creating a canvas for young artists to poke their colored peg creations into. The result was a glowing original or pre-patterned design that could be dismantled and reassembled in as many ways as the imagination could conceive.
[Pictured: Lite Brite.]
Released in 1977, the Atari 2600 was Atari’s follow up to Pong. Just as the video game company had invented home gaming with the release of its tennis game, the company sought to reinvent it with the release of the Atari 2600. Rather than being a system that could only handle a single game, the Atari 2600 was a console that could run a huge library of game cartridges. The original lineup of games included Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Indy 500, Star Ship, Street Racer, Surround, and Video Olympics.
[Pictured: Atari 2600.]
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When it was invented by Erno Rubik in 1974, the Rubik’s Cube wasn’t intended to be a toy but a model to explain 3D geometry. However, when it was released at the Nuremberg Toy Show in 1979, it became a near-instant hit, even though many children had to resort to peeling the colored stickers off of the sides to solve it. The cubic puzzle which can be rearranged in 43 quintillion different ways, became the biggest-selling toy of all time when in 2009 it surpassed 350 million units sold worldwide.
[Pictured: Rubik's Cube.]
The Six Million Dollar Man action figure
The toy industry’s first successful line of television-inspired merchandise came from the 1973 hit, “The Six Million Dollar Man.” In particular, it was the 13-inch Steve Austin doll dressed in a red tracksuit. Released in 1975, the original make of the toy had cool features like a telescopic bionic eye and a right arm that could lift two pounds.
[Pictured: The Six Million Dollar Man action figure.]
Invented by Allan Turnoff in 1972, Boggle was originally sold as part of a three-game pack by Parker Brothers. A party fixture, Boggle is a timed word game in which players have three minutes to find as many words as possible by connecting the letter dice within a 16-cube grid. Any words found by more than one player don’t count toward an individual’s final tally, but a single point is awarded for any unique words found.
Because it has its roots in Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect 4 is an easy game to play for all ages and skill levels, a key to its enduring popularity. The Connect 4 game board is a 7-inch-by-six-inch vertical grid in which competitors race to see who can be the first to get four of their chips in a row. Invented by Howard Wexler in 1973, the Milton Bradley game didn’t really take off until 1978 when the company began airing commercials for it, but in the last few years of the decade, it was a major success.
[Pictured: Connect 4.]
Hungry Hungry Hippos
Fred Kroll bought the rights for Hungry Hungry Hippos from Japan, where the game originated, and brought the game to the United States in the mid-1970s. Milton Bradley bought the rights from Kroll and began selling the tabletop game in 1978. Although the game boards have changed slightly over the years, the point of the game has remained the same: Use your hippo to gobble as many plastic marbles from the center as possible. Whoever has the most marbles in the end, wins.
[Pictured: Hungry Hungry Hippos.]
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Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots
Inspired by a popular Chicago arcade game, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots was released by (now defunct) toy company Marx in 1965. The object of the two-person game was to knock the spring-loaded head of your competitor’s robot off by repeatedly hitting a lever that allowed them to “box” before they could knock your head off. The gameplay was incredibly simple but undeniably popular—today Mattel makes a smaller version of the original for modern kids.
[Pictured: Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.]
Advertised as “the doll that eats, drinks, and wets,” Baby Alive was a massive hit when Hasbro released it in 1973. Children could feed the doll packets of food mixed with water, which Baby Alive would “chew” and spew out the other end.
[Pictured: Baby Alive.]
Although paper and pen versions of Battleship date back to at least 1900, Milton Bradley didn’t release its plastic version until 1967. A game of discovery, players hide their ships on grids then take turns guessing where those ships are located by calling out coordinates. The first person to sink their competitor’s entire fleet by guessing all the coordinates correctly wins.
Starsky & Hutch Cars
“Starsky & Hutch,” a buddy-cop TV show starring Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, hit the airwaves in 1975. The cop action series quickly became a fan favorite, drawing a huge number of viewers each week. It didn’t take long for “Starsky & Hutch”-themed toys to hit the market, including 1976 Hot Wheels’ brand miniatures of the duo’s tomato-red Ford Gran Torino.
[Pictured: Starsky & Hutch Cars.]
Easy-Bake Ovens have taught generations of children how to bake, allowing them to produce millions of pre-mixed, “just-add-water” mini desserts by the heat of a 100-watt lightbulb. The toy first hit the market in 1963, but the 1970s saw a wood-paneled, avocado green oven replace the original teal version. In 1973, a Betty Crocker-branded oven landed on store shelves, as a nod to the company that created the dessert mixes.
[Pictured: Easy-Bake Oven.]
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Shrinky Dinks were first sold at a Brookfield, Wis., shopping mall in 1973. Invented by Betty Morris and Kathryn Bloomberg as a Boy Scouts project for their sons’ troop, a Shrinky Dink set comes with sheets of thin polystyrene plastic that can be decorated however you desire. Once the creative process is complete, the sheets are popped into the oven and baked, shrinking to one-third their original size. These small, hard plastic creations can be played with on their own, turned into charms, or simply collected.
[Pictured: Shrinky Dinks from the current day.]
A geometric drawing tool, the spirograph was first patented by a French mathematician around 1881. A century-and-a-half later, the Kenner Toy Co. acquired the U.S. distribution rights and began selling the multi-piece plastic sets in 1966. By the 1970s, the toy, which allowed one to draw “a million marvelous patterns,” was a favorite with artistically inclined children and adults all over the country.
Ants in the Pants
Essentially a version of Tiddlywinks, Ants in the Pants was released by Schaper Games in 1967 but didn't gain popularity until the early 1970s. The goal of the game was to “jump” all the ants of a certain color into a freestanding pair of plastic pants before your opponents could do the same with their colors. Milton Bradley manufactures the family game night staple today.
[Pictured: Ants in the Pants from current day.]
Sonny & Cher dolls
Capitalizing on the runaway success of “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” Mego released several Cher dolls, playsets, and a Sonny doll in 1976. Dressed in the distinctive ‘70s fashions, the 12-inch jointed dolls allowed pint-sized fans to imagine their own comedy hours using the stars’ likenesses.
[Pictured: Sonny and Cher dolls.]
In 1976, Mattel’s gross-out toy simply called Slime hit store shelves. Packaged in a neon green trash can, Slime was advertised as “toxic waste you can play with!” The toy was a much-safer version of goo, essentially made with food extenders, than the one that had been on store shelves in the 1960s, which caused folliculitis.