The 20th century produced an array of iconic toys that captured the public’s imagination and, in some cases, continue to delight young people worldwide. The Slinky, originating in the 1940s, and the Rubik’s Cube, first sold in the United States in the early 1980s, have remained more or less the same since their invention, invoking a nostalgic simplicity. Other toys, such as LEGO and Barbie, have offered up countless iterations, weathering changing trends to endure in popularity and appeal. The legacy of these toys is in more than just their entertainment value — it’s in the way they reflected or even set cultural trends, interests, and technological advancements. Here are some of the most popular toys throughout the 20th century, many of which are still around today.
In the early 1940s, United States industry was largely focused on producing goods for the war effort, and it was during this time that the Slinky was accidentally invented. Richard James, a mechanical engineer, stumbled on the idea in 1943 while working with tension springs for naval equipment at a Philadelphia shipyard. After accidentally knocking some of his prototypes off a shelf, James couldn’t help but notice the way one of them “walked” down a stack of books on his desk. He worked on this strange spring — which his wife named “Slinky” after seeing the word in the dictionary — over the next two years. By the end of 1945, James got an initial run of 400 Slinkys into a local department store. It wasn’t until he staged a live demonstration, however, that the product’s popularity picked up, and the toy sold out. Within the first 10 years, he sold 100 million. The Slinky has endured for decades, not only as a popular toy on its own, but also through licensing and its iconic jingle — the longest-running jingle in television advertising history.