Hot toys on cold winters' nights: A look at some of the hardest-to-find toys of past holiday seasons

Hot toys on cold winters' nights: A look at some of the hardest-to-find toys of past holiday seasons
Cabbage Patch Kids (FILE / ORLANDO SENTINEL)

Nearly every Christmas season a toy is chosen, seemingly at random, by the advertising gods as the hot choice of the season. Some years, the No. 1 toy is the latest video game system while in others, children go crazy for the newest television fad. Oftentimes the choice is an otherwise unexpected and often generally unremarkable single object that nevertheless captures the imaginations of children and sends their parents on a mad dash for these hard-to-find gifts that can’t be made at Santa’s workshop.

This year, as parents search the aisles for 2017’s rare gifts like the L.O.L. Surprise Balls and Fingerlings Monkey Assortment, they may be reminded of the journeys and travels their own parents went through to ensure they had a happy holiday.


One of the first of the major Christmas rushes on a particular toy came early in 1983 with the release of the Cabbage Patch Kids. The dolls came out early in the year and were a hot ticket item, but by the time the Christmas season rolled around, desire for the adoptable toys was at a fever pitch.

The dolls were known for their at-the-time state-of-the-art computer-aided unique designs and backstories including adoption papers for each doll. Nationwide, stores sold out of their stock long before the holiday, producing angry parents, and the occasional small riot.

Carroll County was not immune to Cabbage Patch fever. In the Nov. 29, 1983 edition of the Carroll County Times, the paper reported that the hot toy of the season was already sold out throughout the entire county.

Interviews with managers as Leggett Department Store, F.W. Woolworth Co., K Mart, Ames Department Store and R S Toystop all revealed that the Cabbage Patch Kids had been sold out for at least a month in many cases.

In the article, Lacye Shank, owner of Toystop, said the store received on average 30 to 40 calls a day looking for the doll, coming from surrounding counties. While still in stock, stores kept waiting lists and would call families to let them know about the good news. Shank said one woman who was sick in bed immediately sprung up to make the trip to pick up her doll when it came in.

Regionally, the Black Friday weekend rush of 1983 was a mad dash for the dolls. Toyland in Frederick handed out numbered tickets before the store opened and in Hagerstown police dispatched six officers with bullhorns to keep the peace among the 200 shoppers who had gathered there.

This barely compared to the scene in Charlestown, West Virginia, where an estimated 5,000 customers began fighting and knocking over tables at a Hills in an attempt to snag one of the remaining dolls.

In an attempt to console the likely hundreds of disappointed children on Christmas morning, then-Carroll County General Hospital joined in the craze by offering up free birth certificates for non-Cabbage Patch dolls. Between Dec. 21 and January 16 parents or children could stop by the hospital to pick up specially printed birth certificates mimicking the adoption papers and stories that came with each Cabbage Patch Kid.

The drive for the dolls lasted beyond the holiday season, though, as the second wave of Cabbage Patch Kids made their way back into Westminster stores in February, 1984. Ames Department Store got a shipment of 60 dolls available for purchase, and on Day one, 60 people had lined up outside of the stores by 3 a.m. for a 9 a.m. opening. By 9:10, they were all gone.

Unlike most fads which lasted only a single holiday season, Cabbage Patch Kids remained popular throughout the ‘80s. The holiday season after they were released, though, some parents looking for a cheaper shortcut to happiness were met with something that just didn’t smell right: the dolls themselves.

Knock-off Cabbage Patch dolls were discovered across the country that smelled strongly of kerosene. Reports of concerned parents came in across the country, but no injuries or deaths were ever reported.

Despite the stench-dolls, the official merchandise continued to be so popular that in 1985, a Westminster couple decided to open a very strange and unique business: a day camp exclusively for Cabbage Patch Dolls.

For $25, parents of Cabbage Patch Kids could drop their dolls off at the Rainbow Kids Camp in Westminster, where employees would take them on field trips and allow the — again, completely inanimate — dolls to participate in Tae Kwon Do classes, first-aid and CPR lessons, nature hikes, candlelight dinners, tennis, golf, fishing and arts and crafts. At the end of the week, the dolls were returned to the families complete with a T-shirt, a bracelet made in the arts and crafts classes and a photo album featuring a dozen pictures showing the “campers” participating in all of the activities.

According to a Times story, the camp was geared towards adult collector of the dolls and was marketed in Carroll, the Columbia area and in a Sunday edition of The New York Times.


As the ‘80s wore on, the Cabbage Patch Kids fell out of the No. 1 spot on children’s wish lists but remained popular as they continued innovating and adding gimmicks to the dolls — although they were initially praised for being straightforward dolls in a world where dolls increasingly began to replicate various bodily functions.

The rest of the ‘80s was largely dominated by brands like Barbie and the Transformers and the re-introduction of video gaming with the Nintendo Entertainment System bringing home gaming back from the video game crash of the mid-’80s. By the mid-’90s, though, hot, trendy items made a return in a big way, with something new hitting the holiday season nearly every year.

Just in time for Christmas, Pogs started making their way into Carroll stores in late December 1994. The game, a throwback to collectibles and tradeables like marbles, consisted of half-dollar sized cardboard discs decorated with designs that ranged from the abstract to the hottest properties of the day including the “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” and “The Simpsons.” Players then used heavier pieces called slammers to knock over towers of Pogs, with those that flipped upside down going to the thrower. Within a month, hobby shops in Carroll were reporting that Pogs were outselling baseball cards.

By March, Pogs were banned explicitly in about a third of Carroll elementary schools, and by May 1995, interest had dried up almost entirely, just in time for an even larger craze to make the scene: Tickle Me Elmo.

Unlike the Cabbage Patch Dolls which were an instant success, Tickle Me Elmo, a laughing toy based on the “Sesame Street” character, got off to a relatively slow start when it was released in July, 1996. On Black Friday, the doll unexpectedly sold out of a number of high-profile locations, spawning media reports on the difficulty of finding it and causing an even larger run on Big Bird’s fuzzy friend.

In Carroll, enterprising individuals, or classless Scrooges depending on your perspective, began buying up and reselling the Tickle Me Elmo dolls at huge markups. In one December 1996 classified section a sound system set sold for $225 immediately next to an ad for “Tickle Me Elmo $300 or best offer.”


The editorial page of the Times became a battleground for people’s opinions on these resellers with some supporting the entrepreneurial spirit of the scalpers and others decrying the lack of Christmas spirit.

“Do you think the wise men would gouge people they bought the gold, frankincense and myrrh from as they gave the gifts to baby Jesus? … Christmas is a time for giving not greed.”

Just below this impassioned plea was someone defending the practice.

“To you Grinches who are complaining about making a little margin on the Tickle Me Elmo doll: You should be ashamed of yourselves. It is simple economics. When the supply is not as great as the demand, you can make a profit,” they wrote. “You can't blame a person for being an opportunist. Maybe they are going to take the excess money and contribute it to charity. Get your facts straight before you complain,” one person wrote.

The resale market for toys continued to explode in the years after Tickle Me Elmo’s release with a toy trend that expanded far beyond the holiday season with the craze for Beanie Babies.

For reasons known only to God and whoever’s attached to the invisible hands of the free market, these small otherwise unremarkable plushies developed into a micro-economy of their own, complete with their own trading sites, magazines, news reports and more. In 1998, the Times interviewed several Carroll residents who owned more than 100 Beanie Babies, with some collections estimated to be valued at above $5,000.

One of the biggest influences on the Babies’ popularity was the expansion of internet services into Carroll homes. The first-ever mention of the now famous online auction site eBay in the Carroll County Times came in 1998 in an article about the trading of Beanie Babies.

At the time, the most valuable toys were Peanut the elephant, who was valued at $5,200, Brownie, who sold for $4,750, and Teddy and Derby who both were priced at $4,500.

Hearkening back to the “Rainbow Kids Camp” for Cabbage Patch Kids, families could go on an original Beanie Baby Caribbean Cruise starting in fall of 1998. Unlike the camp, the cruise was designed for fans of Beanie Babies rather than the Beanie Babies themselves.

So as you shop for last year’s Hatchimals or try to grab the final Fingerling in stock, just remember that this year’s hot ticket item becomes last year’s lame fad and last year’s lame fad turns into the next decade’s kitsch.