Gifts of Holidays Past: Where Are They Now?


Ahh, holiday shopping. If there’s one thing that truly puts me in the frenzy of gift giving and receiving, it’s rewatching 1996 coverage of middle-aged mothers push and trample over each other to get their hands on the coveted Tickle Me Elmo just shy of the holidays.

“Why are parents suddenly acting like children in an attempt to get their children a doll that will make them act like parents?” narrated one archived CNN report on the Cabbage Patch craze of ’83.

Perhaps the better question is: Is it really worth the time, money and energy for a toy your children will quickly grow out of and move on to the next fad?

Maybe that’s too much of a Scrooge mentality, but in reality, where are all those popular toys of the past — and how much are people willing to pay for them now?

Star Wars franchise action figures, 1977

Classic Star Wars figures. Photo by Richard Lewis via Flickr Creative Commons

THEN: If you’re unfamiliar with the Star Wars franchise, you must be living in a galaxy far, far away with no Wi-Fi.

After the surprise success of the first film, George Lucas moved as quickly as possible on the now-collectible action figures, making millions on “Early Bird Certificate Packages,” which were vouchers many kids received for the holidays saying they would receive the almost 4-inch-tall toys in a few months by Kenner toy company, NBC News reported.

Starting at just $2.79, it was easy to rack up hundreds of the mini classic figurines. More than 300 million were sold between 1978 and 1985, ranging in more than 100 characters.

NOW: It’s the Catch-22 of children’s toys: Don’t take them out of the package. One eBay seller has 80 figures from the Early Bird Certificate Package sealed in the original packaging for $12,950. Ironically, the most valuable figures since their inception are the cause of a manufacturing flaw: a brown-haired Luke Skywalker and a Han Solo whose head is too small.

Cabbage Patch Kids, 1983

25th Anniversary Cabbage Patch Kid.

THEN: Step aside, Care Bears: Before kids were tickled pink by Elmo, they learned that babies grew from cabbage. (Seriously, what repressed person thought of this?) Probably the biggest appeal of these creepy-eyed dolls was that fact that, for a time, they were unattainable. Toy stores were never fully stocked that year, making it even more difficult to find individual cabbage kids specifically with freckles, dimples and red plaits. The dolls were in such rapid demand that a Wisconsin radio announcer joked that a B-29 bomber would drop 2,000 dolls into Milwaukee County Stadium, Timeline reported. At least a dozen people showed up.

NOW: The Cabbage Patch brand lives on, though most dolls are collectibles or holiday-themed toys that are moderately priced. But an original 1983 one will cost you: One Amazon item is listed as “Exclusive Cabbage Patch Kids 25th Anniversary PREEMIE – Caucasian Girl – Hair and Eye Color Varies” for $170. I’d love to be a fly on the wall of the UPS guy who delivers an “exclusive caucasian preemie” to someone’s door.

Original Nintendo Game Boy. Wikimedia Commons

Game Boy, 1989

THEN: What’s more exciting than unwrapping a handheld, PORTABLE video game console with the choice of five different games? Think about it, where would the tech world be now without this chunky pocket-sized game that you always forgot in Mom’s minivan? As exciting as Tetris and Super Mario Land were, the influx of Game Boys must be credited in part with the Pokémon craze, which has expanded from the simple video games, TV shows and playing cards to countless movies, costumes, spinoffs, augmented reality interactive apps and other merchandise.

NOW: Generations of the Game Boy were released — the Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS — but the original will cost you today. Some eBay sellers price it as high as $979.99, but just the console itself goes for $1.17 — games not included. Play at your own risk.

Beanie Babies, 1995

Beanie Babies. Photo by Dominique Godbout via Flickr Creative Commons

THEN: Why own one Beanie Baby when you could own 1,000? The fad started with the original nine beanies in 1993 (Legs the Frog, Squealer the Pig, Spot the Dog, Flash the Dolphin, Splash the Whale, Chocolate the Moose, Patti the Platypus, Brownie the Bear and Pinchers the Lobster), each with a birthday and short note on the Ty tag. Ty Warner of Chicago made a fortune from the beaned-stuffed animals. When Ty, Inc. retired the product in December 1999, consumers decided that wasn’t an option and new generations were released.

NOW: The collectables still go for a steep price, though they don’t actually do anything other than look cute on a shelf. At its peak, the $5 beanies were flipped for 1,000 percent mark-ups on eBay, according to The Fiscal Times, making up 10 percent of eBay’s sales. The fad that went for thousands of dollars has faded, though some sellers still have hope that buyers will bid on a set of three first edition glass-encased Princess Diana beanies — for $652,200.

Elmo toy. Photo by tiffany terry via Flickr Creative Commons

Tickle Me Elmo, 1996

THEN: Tickle Me Elmo topped many young children’s lists, though it was evident at glance that Elmo’s laugh is quite possibly the most annoying and haunting sound of the holiday season (next to Furbies). After Thanksgiving, the 400,000 supply quickly ran out, which instigated violence over the furry red plushie. Some were scalped for thousands of dollars, People reported, as opposed to its $29.99 retail price.

Tickle Me Elmo made a second crazed appearance in 2006 for its 10th anniversary, which helped jump Mattel’s profits that year by 6 percent, as reported by the Associated Press.

NOW: Searching through Amazon and eBay, a couple original Elmos, still harnessed in their boxes, go for just about the same amount, if not less. However, the hype of the doll still holds strong — or at least for a collector. One “vintage” Elmo on Amazon goes for $109, but only one left in stock, so order soon.

Furby. Wikimedia Commons

Furby, 1998

THEN: Does anyone else still wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you’re being watched by a furry hamster-owl robot hybrid? Just me? Supposedly that was the appeal of the original Furby, with its “artificial intelligence”-like murmuring that developed more English than “Furbish” the more it “grew.”

Originally sold for $35, the holiday craze rushed prices up to $100 or more for some, reaching 1.8 million sold in 1998 and 14 million in ’99, TIME wrote.

For those who may not remember, Furbies often “woke up” in the middle of the night squealing a high-pitched “I love you.” They even stirred enough controversy to be banned by the National Security Agency in 1999 for fear that they “contained an internal recording device” that “would spill secrets,” Gizmodo wrote.

NOW: The interactive toy made a comeback in 2005 and again in 2012 with more complex facial movements, voice recognition and LCD eyes. The newest Furby Connect — paired with an app — goes for $99.99, but first-generation creepy critters sit around a solid grand on eBay.

Frozen merchandise, 2013

Frozen dolls at Toys“R”Us. Photo by Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia on YouTube via Flickr Creative Commons

THEN: Oh, you haven’t heard “Let it Go” before? Allow every child ever to serenade you with all 276 words, including shrieking — and sometimes cute — high notes. Forbes reported the film hit $1.3 billion at the box office, but the licensing of the movie and its characters grossed $107.2 billion in retail sales. This 2013 Disney hit starring MOTs Idina Menzel and Josh Gad has marketed every product under the sun with Anna and Elsa’s faces on it, and with the second movie to be released in 2019, we’ll be building a lot of snowmen for years to come.

NOW: It’s hard to narrow down specific trends in Frozen merchandise, but in 2014 Fortune reported Walmart had more than 700 different Frozen items, Toys“R”Us had more than 300, and eBay claimed upward of 40,000 listings. Probably the biggest hit was the Snow Glow Elsa doll, which retailed for around $30 and often sold online for double the price.

Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut:

Easy-Bake Oven: A personal-sized cake made out of powder and water, cooked by lightbulb? Sold.

Etch A Sketch: A gift for experts in the art of stick-figure drawings.

Legos: Obviously Legos are amazing and the brand continues to expand in merchandise, theme parks and movies, so detailing its entire rise and fail is near impossible.

Rubik’s Cube: When you think back on the ’80s, it’s a combination of Molly Ringwald’s red locks, neon aerobic jumpsuits and this cube.

Hot Wheels: These little cars were as close as kids could get to the real deal.

Super Soakers: Nerf’s water guns dominated summers in the early ’90s.

Tamagotchi: The handheld keychain-sized digital pets were somehow more captivating than real pets.

Hatchimals: This Furby-like toy dominated 2016. The premise: Kids had to rub a plastic “egg” to “hatch” a furry robot creature from it, and then it chirps for eternity. Starting price: $50. Demanding price: $498 and up.


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