click to view original photo

Hula Hoops to iPads: The Toys (and Trees) of Christmases Past

This Christmas, most of us will have research-enabling devices such as iPads or mobile scanners on our wish list. But the old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper has its own story to tell -- one of the gifts (and trees) which might have figured in our pasts.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 1091 (approx.)
Short URL:

Ask a genealogist what's on their Christmas wish list this year and you'll probably receive a list of sensible (if sometimes expensive) gadgets: an iPad or other tablet to access multiple genealogy software and apps at once, or a portable scanner like the FlipPal or Magic Wand to make gathering and storing all those paper records a snap. A smartphone, like an iPhone or a Blackberry makes genealogy apps even more mobile while toting around heavy history or genealogy books is much easier when done with an e-reader like the Kindle.

But if you asked these same people what they wanted 30, 40 or 50 years ago, you'd probably find yourself back in the heady times of Christmas fads - toys that were irresistible at the time, but which sit dusty and ignored in many attics now. Needless to say, the dinners we ate, traditions we observed and even the type of tree we decorated have changed over the last few decades as well.

Let's take a break from Christmas gift lists and their digital wonders for a moment and use the old-fashioned broadsheet newspaper to revisit the trends, tastes and fads of Christmases past.

The Toys of Christmas Past

Despite hula hoops, Davy Crockett coonskin caps and other popular toys of the mid-20th century, reports of knock-down brawls over must-have Christmas toys don't appear in the newspapers of that time. Space toys of any stripe were popular in the early to mid 1960s, while "bigger is better" was the rule for popular toys in 1959, reported Dubuque, Iowa's Telegraph-Herald on December 6 of that year. The account marvels at "[d]olls the size of a three year old, full-size bowling sets, stuffed animals bigger than a toddler and elaborate western and space-age layouts." The report also includes an observation from a toy manager on the fickleness of fads: "A couple of years ago I couldn't give away a large doll," he tells the reporter. "Now I can't keep them in stock!"

Many of those children were probably part of a more grown-up Christmas gift fad about 15 years later when the perfect pet was created. "Surely no pet was ever easier to smuggle under the tree, less apt to bark or meow or chirp in the night, less likely to soil the carpet," wrote Dick Bothwell in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 1, 1976. The Pet Rock, the 1975 "Christmas gift phenomenon", as Bothwell described it, was a tongue-in-cheek runaway success for creator Gary Dahl, who at one point found himself shipping 6,000 PRs a day to different stores across the nation, including Gimbel's and Neiman-Marcus.

As for children later that decade, space toys became popular again thanks not to NASA but to the release of blockbuster movie "Star Wars." In an issue of the MidCities Daily News from Dec. 13 1978, Wanda K. Adams reported that all local toy stores were clean out of Star Wars toys, even "Toys-R-Us, a new Arlington toy specialty shop."

Several years later, one of the most famous of the mass-media age toy fads inspired outright violence in the early to mid 1980s. These were the Cabbage Patch Dolls, and the brawls defied belief. A United Press International (UPI)I article details the chaos that broke out in one Maine store in late November, 1983:

"Hundreds of people, some waiting at the doors for four hours or longer, battled in the aisles of a department store for a limited supply of the hottest toy dolls on the market this Christmas. 'They weren't acting like adults, they were acting like crazed maniacs,' said Margaret Cote of Manchester, after fighting a losing battle Sunday for one of the 100 dolls. 'I've never seen anything like this.' As she spoke, her daughter Jessica leaned against a display case, with tears welling in her eyes."

A New York Times article from Dec. 1984 reported that in 1983 would-be doll owners from as far away as Germany were trying to phone "BabyLand General Hospital" in Cleveland, Georgia, to buy a doll. When the lines crashed, they simply phoned the Cleveland police department instead, who ran messages to BabyLand.

By the Christmas season of 1984, one Toys R' Us store had a waiting list for the dolls with 10,000 names on it, while JC Penney published an insert with its Christmas catalogues telling customers that demand was so high it could not fill any orders. A manager at a toy store in Georgia told the New York Times that the store sold out of 500 dolls in two days, with customers attempting to force their way into the stockroom to grab the dolls.

The Trees of Christmas Past

As much a fixture of Christmas as the toys are the Christmas trees which shelter all gifts until opening. Trends in how to decorate Christmas trees, whether with candles, strings of popcorn, glass balls or electric lights, as well as how much or how little to decorate them came and went with the years.

That the Christmas tree would be a real tree was a given, until the development of mass-produced artificial trees in the mid-20th century. Not surprisingly, Christmas tree dealerships at first felt confident that their spruces and firs could fend off the multi-colored aluminum, vinyl or plastic offerings. In 1965 an Associated Press report stated that artificial trees only comprised 8 - 10% of the Christmas tree market. In 1966, the Canadian Press reported that most owners of Christmas tree dealerships considered fake trees "only a fad."

If it was a fad, it's outlived Star Wars toys and Cabbage Patch Kids. In December of 2010, the New York Times reported that sales of artificial trees were expected to reach a record 13 million, while overall, the number of fake trees in homes would be 50 million, compared to 30 million real trees. Whether their popularity will continue depends on a trend of the late 20th/early 21st century - the drive to go "green." The New York Times article presents a study from an environmental firm in Montreal which claims that an artificial tree must be used for 20 years for it to be a greener choice than a real tree cut down at every Christmas.

Preserving the past but using the best of the future is every genealogist's balancing act. Whether you decide to put a Moleskine journal under an artificial tree or whether you place an iPad under a real balsam, remember that you are performing two special duties at once: helping to document your family's past and helping create its future. Best of luck to you in the new year as you do both!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles