7 Famous Toys that Defined the 20th Century

Throughout the decades of the 20th century, the toy market exploded with famous toys that shaped society.

Apr 24, 2023By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
famous toys that defined the 20th century


Throughout the 20th century and beyond, toys have shaped the lives of children in many societies. Our memories of our childhood are often coupled with the toys we played with when we were children.


Toys were influenced by the society in which they were created, and in turn, shaped the evolution of the toys that succeeded them. Toys opened our imaginations and influenced our desires for how we wanted to spend our childhood. In some ways, it’s possible to assume that the famous toys many played with influenced and helped shape the adults they became later in life. Here are 7 famous toys that defined the 20th century.


1. Marbles: Famous Toys for Over a Century

famous toys marbles
A collection of marbles, via ourpastimes.com


The simple concept of small, solid balls as toys goes back thousands of years, but in the modern era, the marbles we recognize today began being mass-produced in 1903 by M.F. Christensen & Son Co. until the company ceased operation in 1917. The marble market was picked up by Akro Agate, which continued the mass production of the glass balls.


Throughout the entire 20th century all the way to the present, various games played with marbles have been a permanent fixture on playgrounds and in schools. But the hobby went far beyond mere children’s games. Adults too, who had grown up with marbles in their childhood, amalgamated many county marble competitions in 1932 and started the British Marble Championships, later renamed The British and World Marbles Championship in 1938. Over the last two decades, the tournament has been dominated by German and English teams.


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Nevertheless, “marbles” is not just a game. Many thousands of collectors around the world collect these famous toys, as each marble is an individual, and many designs are rare and beautiful.


2. Teddy Bears

famous toys teddy bear
A Teddy Bear, via Amazon


During a trip to Mississippi in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt was invited to a bear-hunting competition. Several other hunters were competing; most of them had already killed a bear during the competition, while Theodore had not shot anything. Roosevelt’s attendants, however, caught a bear and tied it to a tree. They suggested that Roosevelt shoot the bear, but he was disgusted and deemed the action unsportsmanlike. This incident spawned a cartoon that depicted the event, but the bear was drawn as small and cute. “Teddy’s Bear” was born, and the depiction of the bear would be realized further as a stuffed toy.


famous toys teddy cartoon
The cartoon that started it all, via History


While early Teddy Bears were meant to look more like real bears, with extended snouts and covered in fur, today’s Teddy Bears are made to look cuter with more baby-like features. They are also covered in various fabrics, including fake fur, velour, cotton, satin, canvas, denim, and corduroy.


These famous toys have hugely impacted the social fabric of human culture, spawning many television characters such as Rupert the Bear, Winnie the Pooh, and Paddington.


Teddy Bear Museums have been constructed, and Teddy Bears are handed to traumatized children by emergency services. Teddy Bears are still very much adored and can be found in the arms of children the world over.


3. Lego

famous toys lego office
The Office Lego set, via Lego


Making its debut in the 1940s, Lego went on to become a worldwide phenomenon. Although the Lego company was founded in 1934 by Ole Kirk Christiansen in Billund, Denmark, it wasn’t until the forties that the bricks started being made of plastic. By the fifties, the bricks had an international audience.


The original design for interlocking building bricks as toys was created by the British company Kiddicraft. The Lego company acknowledges on its website that its bricks started out as a copy of the Kiddicraft bricks, but there are various versions of how the story played out. Nevertheless, Lego went on to become one of the world’s most popular and famous toys.


Throughout the decades, the construction sets have become more intricate, and new themes have been created. Medieval, space, and city themes were popular in the eighties and nineties, but in recent years, Lego acquired the rights to produce toys for major franchises. There are Lego versions of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Minecraft, Lego Disney, Super Mario, Spiderman, and even Stranger Things.


Along with the standard brick sizes, Lego also introduced Duplo, which are larger bricks intended for a younger audience, and Lego Technik, which features gears, axles, and functional machinery.


In recent years, this famous toy has also spawned a successful franchise, crossing over into film and television, as well as immensely popular video games.


4. Barbie

famous toys barbie dolls
A collection of Barbie dolls, via apartmenttherapy.com


Another famous toy that owes its success to copying another toy, Barbie was launched by Ruth Handler for Mattel in 1959 and was almost a direct copy of the German Bild Lilli Doll.


For over six decades, Barbie has been the world’s biggest-selling fashion doll, with millions of dolls sold. Its popularity has led it to become Mattel’s figurehead product, and the franchise has spawned many incarnations of the famous toy, with a huge variety of playsets and fashion accessories. The doll itself has undergone many changes in body shape and appearance to suit the times and the social mores that determine the ideal shape for women. This has led to harsh criticism, especially in later decades, for promoting unrealistic body images for girls.


This famous toy has also spawned an entire franchise that includes cosmetics, books, stationery, television series, and video games. Barbie began appearing as a vlogger on Youtube in 2015, and a live-action film is scheduled for release in 2023, starring Margot Robbie as the titular character.


5. Hot Wheels

famous toys hot wheels
Hot Wheels toys, via Ad Week


Another famous toy owned by Mattel is the toy cars known as Hot Wheels. Inspired by the British Matchbox brand, Hot Wheels was introduced in 1968 and was Matchbox’s direct competition until 1997, when Mattel Acquired Tyco Toys, which owned Matchbox. While Matchbox focused on exact mini replicas of cars, Hot Wheels focused more on the imagination, turning cars into hot rods. The cars were an instant, and massive success, completely redefining the industry.


Today, cars are not just toys for children but are highly collectible. There are many collectors all over the world who recognize the value of the rarest models, some of which are worth many thousands of dollars.


Since 2018, Hot Wheels has organized an annual event called the Hot Wheels Legends Tour. Eighteen events are held across the United States through which people can enter their own (real) cars to be copied as Hot Wheels toys. These entries try to embody the fun and creativity, which are the main Hot Wheels selling points.


6. Monopoly

famous toys monopoly
A British version of Monopoly, via The Sun


In 1903, Lizzie Magie created The Landlord’s Game as a way to show that an economic system that rewards individuals is better than one where monopolies exist. Parker Brothers acquired the game in the 1930s and produced their version in 1935. In 1991, Parker Brothers was absorbed into Hasbro. To date, over 315 million units of this famous game have been sold.


The game is all about dominating the market, accumulating all the wealth, and forcing your opponents into bankruptcy through ownership of properties and service utilities. Many versions of the game have been created, tailored for the country in which the game is sold. The street names are often changed for local versions.


The game is supposed to end when all but one of the players goes bankrupt (another version has the game end where the second person goes bankrupt). Many games don’t get this far. The board often ends up being flipped over in a fit of rage. Perhaps Monopoly mimics the reality and consequences of free-market capitalism too well!


7. The Most Famous Toy of Them All: The Rubik’s Cube

famous toys rubiks cube
A Rubik’s Cube, via ipassio.com


Invented in 1974 by Ernõ Rubik, the Rubik’s Cube is a complex puzzle block that has had us intrigued and frustrated for almost half a century.


In 1980, the cube was released internationally, and it immediately became an icon of popular culture, selling millions of units and appealing to all demographics. As of 2009, this famous toy had sold over 350 million units, making it the best-selling toy in history.


Since 2003, the World Cube Association has organized and overseen competitions and events revolving around the Rubik’s Cube. “Speedcubing” has become a popular pastime, and tournaments are held to find out who can solve a Rubik’s Cube in the fastest time. Du Yusheng of China currently holds the record at 3.47 seconds.


Many famous toys can be considered to have influenced the 20th century – Hula hoops, Slinkies, Twister, G.I. Joe action figures, My Little Pony, Care Bears, and Masters of the Universe, to name a few. The list is long, and the influence is great. For children (and many adults) around the world, playing with and collecting toys is a pastime that will never go out of fashion. Some toys are easily forgotten, but many end up as famous toys that will always be remembered, even when their production run is long dead.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.