Do you remember Christmas in the 1980s?
If you were growing up during the decade you probably have a fond remembrance for the toys, the ones which shaped our childhood and changed forever the way the holiday was marketed.
People stood in lines for hours for the Nintendo Entertainment System and a Cabbage Patch Kid.
Those were the biggies, but there were so many more:
Strawberry Shortcake, Teddy Ruxpin, Rainbow Brite, Laser Tag, Star Wars, Barbie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Rubik’s Cube, Pee Wee Herman, and ALF!
We went through the archives of The Post-Standard and found what the kids of Central New York were wishing Santa would bring them throughout the 1980s.
How many of these were under your tree way back then? What were your favorites?
1980: ‘Going all out’
“It seems like parents are going all out this year,” Kim Carnebale, clerk of the Ames store in Oneida, told The Post-Standard in 1980. “They’re buying bigger, and more expensive, toys. If they’re going to be spending money, they are going to buy the best, I guess.”
Electronic toys were popular around Central New York.
Games for the Atari 2600, “Head-to-Head Electronic Baseball,” “Merlyn” and “Super Simon” were popular.
“Many people are opting for Texas Instruments’ Speak and Spell,” said Kiddie City’s David Draper. “It’s unique. It’s $59, but people are not afraid to spend the money for both a toy and learning aid.”
An old favorite, board games, were again a favorite for young and old.
Hang-Man by Bradley, Monopoly, Candy Land and Battleship were still found under a lot of CNY Christmas trees. Adults played a game based on the TV show “Dallas” with J.R. Ewing on the box cover.
“Star Wars” was huge in 1980 with “The Empire Strike Back” being one of the year’s biggest movies.
“Any items from ‘Star Wars,’ especially the new ones, are good,” said manager of Eastwood Toy and Gift Shop.
For girls, it was all about “Strawberry Shortcake.”
“We put two dozen on the shelf at 1 o’clock; by 2, they were all gone,” said Jean York, manager at Kids’ Town.
Maybe the most popular 1980′s Christmas gift was Shrinky Dinks, the pictures that you colored, baked so they shrank and hardened and then played with.
1981: Harmless looking but ‘harder to put back together than Humpty Dumpty’
“Strawberry Shortcake” and “Star Wars” were just as popular in 1981 as they had been in 1980.
“We were sold out of them last November,” said Michael Sills, of Ithaca’s Kay-Bee Toys, of Miss Shortcake. “We never even saw them again before March and April — they were that hard to get.”
“Shoppers call every day for them,” said Maria Voodre of Kid’s Town in Syracuse. “You can hardly get a hold of them.”
The “Star Wars” universe had grown so large that it was possible, according to Wayne Rochester of Oneida’s Alfred’s Bargain City, for parents to easily “spend a couple of hundred of dollars on it.”
The hardest toy from a “galaxy far, far away” to find was the Imperial AT-AT.
But all took a back seat in 1981 to the Rubik’s Cube.
The Herald-Journal’s Hart Seely described the infuriating puzzle this way:
“A harmless-looking group of colored blocks that, once scrambled, are harder to put back together than Humpty Dumpty. A perfect gift for physicists, engineers and people serving life sentences, the cube has so maddened some of its owners that stores now sell a 48-page booklet telling its secret.”
Stores could not meet the demand.
“You can’t keep them,” said Rochester. “They sell that fast.”
For boys looking for something a little simpler there was the “Dukes of Hazzard” Barnbuster toy.
Its packaging announced that children can enjoy the thrills of Hazzard County with a scale-model of those “darn Duke boys’” bright orange Dodge Chargers that can “crash through the barn, pop incredible wheelies, run down an alley, dive off a daredevil ramp, smash through crates and barrels.”
1982: ‘I want Pac-Man!’
Just before Christmas 1982, Post-Standard photographer Mike Okoniewski went to Mexico Elementary School and asked some students there what they wanted from Santa that year.
A “Dukes” car, a new bike, a record player and an “E.T.” coloring book were some of the things mentioned.
Kindergartner Patrick Bartlett, though, spoke for a majority of Central New York.
“I want Pac-Man. I want this because I’m American!”
Everyone wanted the yellow mouth which gobbled ghosts and power pellets.
“Miniature Pac-Man machines may become the Rubik’s Cube of Christmas 1982,” The Post-Standard reported shortly after Thanksgiving.
The portable Pac-Man, which looked similar to the proper arcade machine, sold for $50 and was the top-seller at toy stores from Oswego to Oneida. Mini versions of “Frogger” and “Donkey Kong” were also popular.
The disappointing home version of “Pac-Man” was available for the Atari was also a hit.
Toys from “The Smurfs” and Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” were also big.
1983: Into the Cabbage Patch…
Ask anyone to name the quintessential holiday toy of the decade and the answer will probably be the Cabbage Patch Doll. You have probably heard about how hard they were to find and the extraordinary lengths some parents went to get one.
It was all true.
“A lady from Virginia came in a few days ago and asked for them,” said a clerk at a Fays Drugstore in Oswego. “She said she had been looking all over for them.”
The dolls were described as “so ugly, they are cute,” although one local shopper was less charitable.
“They look like a dried-up apple,” a woman told the Herald-Journal.
No two of the dolls were said to be alike and each came with their own birth certificate and adoption papers.
They went for about $25 but sold for $200 in newspaper classified ads.
The doll’s maker, Coleco, promised they were trying to meet the high demand, but few people believed it.
“They just aren’t producing enough,” said Karen Schulman at the J.C. Penney at Shoppingtown. “Our orders are all backed up.”
“Last week, 50 ladies lined up at the door waiting at the door to get them,” said Greg Tarver of the Service Merchandise at North Syracuse.
An estimated 800 to 900 shoppers gathered in front of each of the area’s three Hills’ department stores before the stores opened at noon on Sunday, Nov. 27, hoping to get their hands on one of the store’s promised 125 dolls.
“This is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said Hills’ Vice President Wes McDonough. “Nothing has created frenzy like this. It just defies reason.”
Hills at Penn Can Mall had what one letter writer described as a “Cabbage Patch Massacre” which she described in a letter to the editor on Dec. 9:
“As the key appeared to unlock the door, between us and the unclaimed treasure, I felt myself being suffocated by the pressure of the aggressive hands of ‘people.’ Running only to escape the rushing tidal wave behind me, caring not for the dolls but my safety, I was suddenly pushed to the floor with my shoes flying in different directions. As I was lying on the floor being trampled and calling for help, I feared for my life. I arose stocking footed, face bleeding and knees badly bruised.”
1984: G.I. Joe, He-Man, Rainbow Brite
Cabbage Patch Dolls were still popular in 1984 but they had some serious competition with some of the great fad names that only a child of the ’80s would remember.
If you were a young boy, you had to decide if you were a Transformers kid or a Gobot guy.
The larger Transformers were more in demand than the smaller Gobots.
G.I. Joe was back in vogue.
The plastic figures were smaller than the originals and came with little weapons which were usually lost shortly after opening.
He-Man, and the Masters of the Universe, had larger figures. There was the title character and the big bad guy Skeletor, who had evil henchmen like Beast Man, Trap Jaw and Mer-Man.
Figures cost $6 but the top accessories, Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain, cost $40.
For young ladies, the popular toys were the “Crystal” Barbie, My Little Pony and Rainbow Brite.
Adults wanted to get their hands on the board game, Trivial Pursuit.
1985: The Bear with the Gift for Gab
In 1985, the Cabbage Patch Doll was out.
Teddy Ruxpin, a talking bear whose face and eyes moved when he spoke, was in.
“The dolls are at the top of the list,” said Rick Auston, store manager at Kid’s World at the Camillus Mall.
Teddy was not as hard to find as a Cabbage Patch Kid, but the price of it was rising.
Kid’s World began the holiday season selling the bear, who had a cassette player built into its back, for $59 but, as its popularity grew, so did Teddy’s price tag.
By Dec. 19, the same store was selling him for $84.
Skateboards, largely because of Marty McFly in the “Back to the Future” movies, were popular among boys. Transformers, He-Man and Voltron was also big.
Tonka’s Pound Puppy dolls, “adorable stuffed mutts” which children could “adopt,” were also a favorite.
1986: Christmas toys go high-tech
The Herald-Journal’s Margaret LeBrun wrote that 1986 would be the “most electronically sophisticated Christmas yet.”
Laser Tag games were the hottest gift.
“It’s like bringing home ‘Star Wars’ into the home,” said Rick Anguilla of Toy & World magazine told her.
Infrared guns that electronically recorded hits on a chest plate worn by opponents took children’s old-fashioned “cops-and-robbers” game to a whole new level.
Laser Tag by Worlds of Wonder and Photon by LJN Toys were hard to come by in Central New York.
“Laser Tag is unavailable,” said Bob Husband, manager of the Hills department store at Penn Can Mall. “It has shades of Cabbage Patch written all over it.”
“We get 100 calls a day,” said a manager at Kid’s World.
The toy was expensive too.
A Laser Tag set-up, with a single zapper, sensor and belt cost $50, and since the toy was zero fun by yourself, a parent would have to buy at least two.
Photon sets of two cost $133.75.
Teddy Ruxpin had been replaced by Cricket and Baby Talk dolls.
Cricket, who cost $90, had a built-in cassette player and told jokes and nursary rhymes.
Baby Talk was the most “intelligent, like-like electronic doll ever developed, according to Lewis Galoob Toys. The $70 doll could converse with 16 different phrases, made typical baby noises and asked for more when she did not get enough from her bottle. She even said “Thank you” when she did!
1987: The year without the big toy
Christmas 1987 was a strange one. There was not one “must-have” toy.
“No one — not toymakers, storeowners, or Wall Street analysts — is sure just what” kids wanted in ’87, said the AP’s Joyce Rosenberg. She was positive that there would be no “megahits.”
She guessed that toy manufacturers’ ideas flopped in 1987 or there was fallout from the stock market crash from a few months before.
Last year’s hits, Laser Tag and Pound Puppies, were no longer popular.
Talking dolls did OK. There was now a talking Cabbage Patch Doll, and Mattel’s “Heather” had a vocabulary which matured like that of a real child.
Peter Harris, of F.A.O. Schwartz said that kids and parents returned to the basics in 1987.
“The trends suggest that people were looking for traditional rather than ‘faddy’ toys.”
Board games did well; Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble and especially the new hit, Pictionary.
Staples like G.I. Joe for boys and Barbies for girls were under many trees.
So was ALF, yes…ALF. The alien from NBC’s sitcom had a talking doll from Coleco.
The toy business roared back in 1988.
Listen to these names:
“Real Ghostbusters” action figures, Starting Lineup sports figurines, Pee-Wee Herman dolls, Hot Wheel sets, Micro Machines, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all huge among boys.
Girls saw a resurgence in Barbie, which had its biggest year in decades. Mattel had a “Little Miss Makeup” doll and Hasbro produced a “Dolly Surprise” doll which had hair that grew.
But the must-have toy was Nintendo’s 8-bit Entertainment System which changed the video game world forever.
The powerful machine, which blew away the graphics of the old Atari, was expected to make $1.7 billion in 1988, more than doubling what the decade’s previous monster hit, the Cabbage Patch Doll, had earned.
“Look under Christmas trees across the country this year,” The Herald-Journal wrote on Dec. 12, “and you’ll find packages with the name Nintendo waiting for millions of children.”
1989: Nintendo was still the king and some old favorites
Nintendo was still top of the mountain come 1989.
The video game titan had even more games and more accessories, like the Power Glove which the company introduced in October.
In the summer, Nintendo changed the video game world again. It introduced the portable Game Boy system and kids around Central New York were being frustrated by the game “Tetris” like their older brothers and sisters had been with the Rubik’s Cube eight years before. The original “creamed-spinach” colored screen Game Boy sold for $90.
Nintendo had some competition in 1989.
Atari released their own handheld system, called Lynx, which promised sharper more colorful graphics. It also game with a much higher price tag of $180.
The Sega Genesis was also in stores for $200.
The big doll was the Oopsie Daisy, which crawled and fell down.
Perennial favorites like Barbie and G.I. Joe were again popular.
Are you a history nut? Check out our true-crime podcast
An invention from Upstate NY soon became the preferred method of execution across the United States — the electric chair. In “The Condemned,” we trace the history of the chair through the stories of five men who were sentenced to death for their crimes. Explore our series here.
This feature is a part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on . Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle at or call 315-427-3958.