The holidays are coming, and just like every year before this one, there’s sure to be a new gift craze or fad taking the country by storm. To celebrate all things holiday gift, researched the crazes and fads of years past, from 1918 to now.
The information here comes from lists of both the hardest to find and the most popular Christmas gifts; the National Toy Hall of Fame’s toy list and Toy of the Year awards; inventions that became immediately popular; and lists of the 100 all-time greatest toys. The gifts included span ages, ranging from toddler to a few specifically for adults, and put together, we see a unique snapshot of trends from each year throughout the past century, from building bricks to electronics.
You may best know little green army men and the iconic Mr. Potato Head from the “Toy Story” franchise movies, but did you that know the miniature soldiers were first produced in the 1930s, and that the customizable face was the first toy advertised on TV about 15 years after? What about that the 1980s saw the debut of Transformers, Koosh ball, and Nintendo? The longevity of many of these gifts speaks volumes: Despite more recent advances in technology and complexity of designs for holiday crazes like Xbox, iPad, and drones, we still desire the utility and joy from gifts as simple as Legos, Polaroid Cameras, and Wiffle Balls.
Whether you want to take a trip down memory lane, discover the fads of your family’s older generations, or brush up on the hottest trends for the youngest in your family, this list is for you. Read on to see just how early the pogo stick was invented, how a pet rock came to be all the rage, and how a song about aquatic offspring has now transcended children’s melody and become part of a gift craze all its own.
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This predecessor to the Erector Set was first produced in the early 1900s, invented by Frank Hornby in the United Kingdom. In 1919, Hornby formed the Meccano Guild to encourage boys of all ages (up to adults) to gather together and get to building.
In 1920, Raggedy Ann gained a brother. Cartoonist and illustrator Johnny Gruelle began to publish the “Raggedy Andy Stories,” as a complement to Raggedy Ann, and an Andy doll came, too. Adults snapped them up so their kids could have a matching Ann and Andy set.
[Pictured: Custom-made Raggedy Andy doll (left)]
The invention of Chanel No. 5 was a game-changer in elite circles of women. Now, they could smell fresh and clean all the time, thanks to the assistant of Coco Chanel’s perfumer who accidentally added a higher chemical dose to the mixture. Chanel marketed it immediately, and it was cleared off the shelves once the holidays came around.
The pogo stick was invented in 1919 in Germany, but the first shipment arrived with warped wood and couldn’t be sold. More orders came in the following few years, with a newly designed product made from metal, and by 1922 pogo sticks were the most popular outdoor toy for children and adults and featured prominently in magazine and newspaper ads.
In 1923, A.C. Gilbert (the former Erector Set inventor) flexed his edutainment muscles once more and created a toy chemistry set, just for boys. It gained instant popularity, even though it was profoundly unsafe; it contained chemicals that set things on fire and also ones that are used to make bombs.
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The Ideal Company produced Flossie Flirt in 1924, launched just in time for Christmas. The doll flirted with her eyes, darting them from side to side, winking, and blinking. Flossie Flirt was so popular that year that some newspapers published “Doll Lady” schedules, outlining where and when dealers who sold the doll would be available.
By the time “Winnie-the-Pooh” was published in 1926, the bear was already popular, having been made famous by A.A. Milne’s poetry and newspaper stories. Winnie and his friends were inspired by a set of stuffed toys Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, had in his nursery.
In the candy world for the 1928 holiday season, everyone wanted Dubble Bubble. The gum was created accidentally by Walter Diemer at Fleer Chewing Gum Company and was stretchier, less sticky, and more prone to bubbles than regular chewing gum at the time. The first five-pound batch available sold out in one afternoon.
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No one knows exactly when the yo-yo was invented, but its first appearance in the U.S. was in 1927, when Pedro Flores, an immigrant from the Philippines, started carving and selling them. Yo-yos were a toy from his childhood. By 1929, he had two factories in Los Angeles just to keep up with demand.
The first stuffed Mickey Mouse doll was commissioned by Disney in 1930, created by a woman named Charlotte Clark. Mickey had already been around for two years, and his popularity was still increasing; the dolls were instantly popular.
The American Flyer wagon, produced by the Liberty Coaster Company in Chicago, is the original Radio Flyer wagon. The company changed its name to Radio Steel and Manufacturing in 1930, and changed the wagon name the same year. By the end of 1930, the company was making 1,500 wagons a day to supply the craze taking over the country for gifts the following year.
Another Illinois company, the Nelson Knitting Co. based in Rockford, began producing the distinctive red-heeled sock that became the typical sock monkey in 1932. Money was often tight, due to the ongoing Depression, and mothers would sew the worn-out socks into monkey toys for their children. Soon, a sock monkey pattern came with every pair of socks.
This trend wasn’t so much a toy as it was a printed collection of toys. The Sears Christmas Book, a staple for holiday shopping, showed everything anyone could want to buy someone for Christmas. The first one in 1933 was only 87 pages; by 1968, it was 608 pages.
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The first science-fiction comic strip ever, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century AD,” premiered in January 1929. It was a daily strip, followed by a color Sunday edition in 1930 and a radio show in 1932. In 1934, the first Buck Rogers replica toy ray gun debuted; it sold for 50 cents and made a “pop” sound when fired.
This year, the first canned beer hit the market in Richmond, Virginia, from Gottfried Krueger Brewery. It was so popular that by the end of the year, 37 more breweries were selling canned beer, and more than 200 million cans were sold.
In 1935, Parker Brothers started selling the real estate game Monopoly, however, the idea for the game was stolen. 1936 was a particularly popular year for the game because the original creator, Lizzie Magie, called out the thievery on the front page of The Washington Post that January.
In the mid-to-late 1930s, pedal cars were enjoying a seemingly neverending heyday. The design of the pedal cars matched the changing full-size auto industry. Some company catalogs had up to 30 pedal car models.
We’re in the middle of a superhero boom right now, and that can largely be traced back to Action Comics #1 in 1938, the first introduction of Superman. Only 200,000 copies were printed that first year, but it sold so well that the creators were quickly able to obtain a spin-off comic of their own.
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These little plastic toy soldiers were first produced in 1938, and—what timing—when World War II began in 1939, the popularity of the toys took off. Today, we can find them in all sorts of poses, including yoga.
No, blowing soap bubbles wasn’t invented in 1940. But the practice became widely popular that year, thanks to a company in Chicago that began to bottle its own solution.
A year before World War II had even ended, Captain America’s first appearance showed him punching Hitler on the cover of the comic book. It was controversial, which helped sales; the comic flew off the shelves as fast as it arrived.
Prior to 1942, books for kids were high quality, but way too expensive. Little Golden Books changed that, selling for only a quarter at accessible locations. The first year, hundreds of thousands sold, and through the holiday season into February the next year, more than 1.5 million were in print.
Dick Tracy first showed up in 1931, but gained popularity in 1944 thanks to the resurgence of the radio show the year prior. This year, the hot toy was a Dick Tracy Detective Kit, complete with a manual, suspect information, a badge, a decoder, and more.
Another year, another toy created by accident. Richard James, a mechanical engineer, was designing springs when he knocked one over and saw how it walked down the shelf. The Slinky wasn’t immediately popular when it was first released, but became wildly desired after a 1945 Christmastime demonstration of the toy in a department store in Philadelphia.
Wives and mothers everywhere rejoiced with the invention of Tupperware bowls. They were airtight, watertight, and durable, and with the new proliferation of home refrigerators, they made storage simple.
Electric football isn’t a game of skill, unless you count as a skill the patience you need to ignore that awful buzzing noise of players floating across a vibrating football field. This toy, created in 1947, was a favorite to play Christmas morning.
Crystal radios were some of the first radios, grabbing onto a signal from broadcasting stations and playing the sound through amplifiers. They were popular in the '20s and '30s but faded out, except for in the form of toys. The Tinymite Radio was manufactured in 1948 and became immediately popular.
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Silly Putty was accidentally created when an engineer was trying to develop a synthetic rubber in 1943. No one had a use for it though, until 1949, when toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter decided to sell it in her catalog. It outsold almost everything in the catalog that year.
The fortune-telling pool ball we all love didn’t start out as a ball at all; it was a tube, created by a psychic’s son. The invention was picked up by Abe Bookman, brother-in-law to a shop owner in Cincinnati, who eventually shaped it like a crystal ball. In 1950, Brunswick Billiards wanted to use the item as a giveaway and turned it into an 8-ball, and it gained immediate popularity. The toy was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2018.
The View-Master was originally designed to be a way to look at scenic photography from around the world. It was launched in 1939 at the World’s Fair and became marginally popular, but sales skyrocketed in 1951 when the discs started showing images from Disney movies.
When the first Mr. Potato Head was introduced, there was no body. It was a Bring Your Own Potato toy of just wacky face components. It was the first toy to have an actual commercial, which definitely contributed to it making over $4 million in sales in the first few months after its launch in 1952.
These tiny cars are tiny thanks to a strange rule at a school. Jack Odell’s daughter was only allowed to bring toys to school that could fit into a matchbox, so Odell produced the little diecast cars and sent her to school with it. All the students loved the cars, and when Matchbox officially launched in 1953, it cleaned up in the sales department.
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The Wiffle Ball inventor was a father, just looking for a safer way for his son to play baseball and not break any neighbors’ windows. He used old perfume packaging to create the original ball. Woolworths picked up the sets in 1954, and the game took off.
In 1953, animator Art Clokey debuted Gumby in a short film. Bigwigs at television companies loved the idea, and gave Clokey his own show, “The Gumby Show.” Gumby toys came out in 1955 and shared the same immediate success.
PEZ candy actually dates back to the '20s, but the dispensers were invented in the '50s. Character heads were added in 1955, and in 1956, one of the more popular dispensers debuted: the space gun.
By the time Frisbees were released in 1957, the flying discs had been around for nearly 90 years. It started as a “frisbie,” the empty pie tin from Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The craze took over nationally when Wham-O created the first iconic plastic disc.
Another Wham-O toy, the hula hoop was meant to capture the essence of Chinese acrobats spinning hoops on their limbs. Within the first few months of the hoop’s release in 1958, more than 25 million were sold.
The original Etch-A-Sketch, invented in 1959 in Germany, wasn’t too popular when it launched at a toy fair in Nuremberg. But it caught the eye of an Ohio company, who bought the product and saturated televisions with ads for the toy. It became a must-have for Christmas in 1960 and was so popular that the factory had to work until noon on Christmas Eve to fill all the orders.
Powered by a phonograph record in her belly, Chatty Cathy spoke 11 different phrases. She appeared in television commercials starting in 1960, and by 1961 she was the second most popular doll in the US, right behind Barbie.
[Pictured: Chatty Cathy Doll picture book]
After several iterations, the modern version of the Lego block was introduced in 1958. But it was a static toy, and even though it was already popular, it gained even more fans when the Lego wheel debuted in 1962.
Barbie was the queen of dolls in the 1960s, dominating sales. A marketing agent in New York, Stanley Weston, wanted to give boys the same joy of having a doll and developed the GI Joe action figure; Hasbro invested and started to sell it in 1964. More than 16 million GI Joe action figures sold by the end of that first year.
Tonka Trucks were invented by three people in Minnesota who originally wanted to make garden tools, but started making toy trucks after receiving a toy steam shovel. The dump truck was released in 1965, became an instant best-seller and remained to be for the next 35 years.
The original troll dolls, invented by Danish woodworker Thomas Dam in 1959, were much creepier. They were made out of wood, and had wool hair and glass eyes. The dolls gained popularity in the '60s and held onto it throughout the decade, with teens collecting them and hosting “bring your own troll” parties.
Barrel of Monkeys, the game of linking red, S-shaped plastic monkeys into a long chain, originated when Leonard Marks was waiting at a shop counter, playing with snow tire replacement chain links. By 1967, Barrel of Monkeys was #2 on the hit toys charts, just behind Wham-O’s Super Stuff.
Hot Wheels were one of Matchbox’s direct competitors, though Matchbox focused on size and Hot Wheels tricked out its cars. The first line released in 1968, called the Original Sweet 16, instantly overtook all the competition in the diecast car industry.
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If you combine a paper doll and a Barbie, you get Flatsy, a flat doll with hair, changeable clothes, and accessories. Ideal Toy Company released them in 1969, and they were immediately popular. Flatsy dolls became collectors items the very next year.
By 1970, Parker Brothers knew kids everywhere were tired of being told they couldn't play ball in the house. So the company released a ball specifically to be played inside: NERF, a soft foam ball that wouldn’t hurt a dang thing if it smashed into it. By the end of the first year, more than 4 million had been sold.
We all know the tagline: “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down!” The little wobbling egg-shaped people were invented in 1971, based on the Punching Clown from the show “Romper Room.” The dolls gained immediate success.
Polaroid, an already established company, took a giant leap forward in 1972 when it released the Polaroid instant camera. Legend holds the co-founder’s daughter was the inspiration; she was wondering why she couldn’t see vacation photos immediately after they were snapped. The camera was the cover story for Life magazine just before Christmas that year, bringing it outstanding sales.
In 1974, a new type of chalkboard was invented, one without chalk and without dust: the Magna Doodle. It was very similar to the Etch-A-Sketch—just newer—and sold millions.
The Pet Rock was originally meant as a joke, a “pet” that didn’t need any care at all, which seemed to resonate incredibly well with the ethos of the self-indulgent mid-70s. It cost $3.95 in 1975 and took over the country that year, with more than a million selling.
“A Bear Called Paddington” was first introduced to the world in 1958, through a children’s book. The bear himself in a stuffed animal version followed in 1971, and in 1975, the toy was given the green light in the U.S. market. It took off and had become a must-have for Christmas by 1976.
First introduced in 1976, squishy and oozy Slime came packaged in a plastic garbage can and became a best-seller right away. 1977 saw a new, wildly popular way to play with Slime: the Slime Monster Game, where players try to slime their opponents.
Timed well to match a country of shortening attention spans, Hungry Hungry Hippos was released in 1978 to high acclaim. Basically, you play as a plastic hippo and try to eat as many marbles as possible as fast as possible. Kids born in the early '80s remember the game well; it has been a staple in the family game room since its launch.
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The '70s started the video game craze, with Atari first reaching homes in 1975. And though 150,000 were sold that first year, it didn’t really take off until the inventor sold the system to Warner Communications. By the end of the year in 1979, sales topped $415 million.
The Rubik’s Cube was invented by a professor in Budapest in 1974, with the sole purpose of helping his students understand three-dimensional problems. The twisty turning puzzle cube became really popular in 1980, though, when it had a worldwide release at toy fairs across the globe. The toy was immediately popular and about 100 million cubes sold the first two years.
In September 1981, Smurfs first aired on television and instantly became part of a standard '80s childhood. Stuffed toys were released shortly after the first episode, just in time for the holiday season.
We can largely thank a boy and his alien for the BMX bike craze throughout the '80s. The off-road trick bikes were featured in "ET," released in 1982, and kids around the country instantly had to have them.
Cabbage Patch Kids were originally created by a 21-year-old folk artist in Georgia as dolls you could “adopt” after they were “born.” The artist, Xavier Roberts, couldn’t keep up with demand; in 1982, he joined forces with Coleco to mass-produce the dolls. When they launched to the public at large in 1983, people were so obsessed with getting one before Christmas that violent riots broke out several stores.
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In 1984, both “Transformers,” the TV show, and Transformers, the toys, were released. Hasbro produced the bendy robot toys that took on other forms, like cars, planes, and cassette tapes. Transformer fever took over, and the toys became one of the most successful franchises in history.
Teddy Ruxpin, the stuffed bear with a cassette tape in his back, entered the world of mass toy production in 1985. He could tell stories and move his mouth and eyes along with the tale. The bear sold out for Christmas and remained the top selling Christmas gift for two years.
Like the Cabbage Patch Kids, Pound Puppies were toys you could “adopt,” and they came in a cardboard carrier with a guide to taking care of the new pet. They were selling out in stores by 1985 and got an extra boost in popularity when their own cartoon premiered in the fall of 1986.
Gamers have Nintendo to thank for reviving the completely destroyed video game scene in the 1980s. Atari had fallen out of favor, and no one was buying video game systems, not even the Nintendo when it was first released; that is, until Super Mario Bros. debuted. No one knows for sure when the game went on sale in the U.S., but by 1987 it was there and taking Nintendo to stardom with it.
The world was introduced to the Koosh Ball in 1987. The creator wanted to help his kids learn how to play catch, so he invented an easily caught ball made from rubber strands, 2,000 of them per ball, to be exact. By 1988, the Koosh Ball was a must-have Christmas gift.
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Capitalizing on the popularity of the original system, Nintendo released Gameboy, a handheld video game system, in 1989. It was bundled with puzzle game Tetris and immediately took the world by storm, selling 35 million that first year.
By 1990, everyone wanted to be a hero in a half-shell, or at least have one of their own. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were sweeping across the country thanks to a comic book, a cartoon, and action figures. That year, the first movie was released, and the toys started flying off the shelves faster than ever before.
Pogs in some form have already been around since the 1600s. The original discs were about the size of milk caps, and that’s what kids used when the game became popular in Hawaii in the early 1900s. In 1991, a schoolteacher named Blossom Galbiso taught her students how to play, sparking a craze that would take over the country.
Barney, the big lovable purple dinosaur, first debuted in a TV show in April 1992. By November, more than 25,000 people were flocking to events around the country, forming lines almost a mile long, just to get a glimpse of the dino. Barney everything sold like crazy that first year.
Fun fact: The first Talkboy wasn’t actually a real thing. It was a nonfunctional prop for 1992’s "Home Alone 2." Fans wanted it though and launched a letter-writing campaign to have the voice-changing cassette recorder produced. The campaign was successful, and in 1993 the functional Talkboy instantly topped toy charts.
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The initial life cycle of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was fairly short. The show launched in 1993. In 1994, fans were causing 8-mile-long traffic jams to meet the characters, and the toys topped the holiday gift charts. Only a year later, popularity peaked with a movie and then rapidly declined. But that was just the first wave; the Power Rangers were back with a vengeance by 2013.
In 1995, the Beanie Baby toy craze took off when one of the toys, a stuffed lamb called Lovie, was discontinued. The inventor, Ty Warner, told angry customers the toy had “retired,” exponentially driving up demand. He began to do this at random to different Beanie Babies, and by the end of 1995, was raking in billions in sales.
Tickle Me Elmo, the doll that laughed more and more as you tickled it, hit shelves in July 1996. But it didn’t sell well at first; not until Rosie O’Donnell featured it on her show in October. By holiday shopping season, people were trampling one another to get the dolls, which were selling out in a matter of minutes.
In 1997, everyone wanted Tamagotchi, the portable pet you feed and play with and help grow; unless you forget to pause the game, leave it alone for a few hours, and your Tamagotchi dies. Shortly after its release, it was featured in The New York Times and was selling out nationwide, with wait lists for people hoping to get one.
Trading cards have always brought in a tidy sum, and Pokemon cards, the game based on capturing and battling adorable monsters, is no exception. In 1999, Pokemon cards were the most popular holiday gift, and also the most controversial: Some parents sued the company that year, claiming the game had given their children gambling problems.
The foldable Razor Scooter was initially released in 2000, and the company sold more than 5 million in the next few months. The scooters are still popular today among people of all ages (including adults scooting their way to work in the city), but nothing has quite matched the popularity of the first launch.
In 2001, Barbie got pushed to the side by her edgy descendants, Bratz Dolls. The dolls were fashion-forward, wore a lot of glittery makeup, and had huge doe eyes. Millions sold that first year, and now there’s a whole Bratz empire behind the dolls.
Customized spinning battle tops Beyblades were born in Japan in 1999 and launched internationally in 2002. They were an instant success, becoming the top toy that year not just in the U.S., but also in Canada, Mexico, France, Australia, and the U.K.
While Beyblades were still dominating sales in 2003, the Toy Association’s Toy of the Year Award for that year edged them down a notch and placed Electronic Hulk Hands at the top spot. The big green gloves made Hulk noises when you hit things with them.
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Robotics had come a long way since the Furby craze of 1998, and in 2004, Robosapien burst onto the market. It was a trainable robot that could interact with you and do basically whatever you wanted it to do. Kids went crazy for it, taking it to the top of the Christmas must-have lists.
The next big innovation in video game systems launched in November 2005 with the Xbox 360. It was a much anticipated release, and gamers and parents waited outside stores all night to get one, only to be confronted with low stock supplies that often left them empty-handed.
The third iteration of the PlayStation hit the shelves in late 2006, just in time for the holidays. It was the most expensive of any video game system yet, but also came in multiple versions with a 20 GB hard drive or a 60 GB hard drive.
When Apple first released the iPhone in 2006, it was an instant hit. However, the company knew not everyone was buying it, either because they had a phone already, didn’t want it, or it just cost too much. So in 2007, Apple released the iPhone without the phone: the iPod Touch. It stayed a best-seller until the next generation was released in 2008.
Nintendo’s first big motion-sensitive console released in 2006, launching a new type of video gaming that others would expand on in years to come. The console sold out at the holidays every year, and in 2008, sales reached 13.4 million units.
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Barnes & Noble took a risk in 2009 and released an e-reader called the Nook, directly into competition with Amazon’s Kindle. Sales backed the value of the decision, though. That year, the company sold out of its entire stock, and people were waiting for backordered ones through the Christmas season.
The first iPad was much anticipated as a new tablet following the release of the iPhone a few years earlier. More than 300,000 sold when it first launched, and by the end of the holidays, sales had reached the millions, outselling actual Mac computers.
Move over, Tickle Me Elmo. The red doll can now play instruments and sing. Let’s Rock Elmo knew six songs and was popular enough in 2011 to make Time’s Top 10 Everything list.
Nintendo’s next console, the Wii U, launched in November 2012, just in time for the holiday shopping craze. It sold out in the first seven days in stores, again prompting hopeful system owners to wait outside all night to get one.
Every time a new Elmo toy comes out, he creeps back into popularity, as happened in 2013 with the release of Big Hugs Elmo, the Elmo doll that hugged you back. It immediately made it on Toys-R-Us’ list of best holiday toys. Only one problem, though; it was recalled shortly after because the batteries had a tendency to overheat.
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Disney’s new movie “Frozen” was all the rage throughout 2014, but numbers after the holidays proved another movie actually spawned the highest-selling toy of the season. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie relaunched in 2014, along with the action figures, which outpaced the Elsa doll from “Frozen,” originally thought to be #1.
By April 2015, the BB-8 Droid was already being listed as one of the year’s must-have holiday gifts. The robotic ball with a detachable, independently moving head was controlled by a smartphone and by Christmas morning, Star Wars geeks of all ages had one rolling around under the tree.
Hatchimals are cute, interactive toys that hatch themselves out of eggs. They were released in October 2016 and instantly began selling out in every store that sold them.
Matching the Hatchimals-level holiday craze, 2017 saw the introduction of Fingerlings, little robotic monkeys that attaches to your finger and makes monkey noises at you. They consistently sold out within hours every time more were put on the shelf.
Bluetooth audio has been common for several years, but when Apple eliminated the wires on its earbuds, the AirPods craze took over the 2018 holidays. After the product got over the ridicule hump (aka the “rich and wealthy” who shelled out $160 for a product that, in the past, was free when it included a wire and was purchased with an iPhone), it became a ubiquitous symbol of tech and music.
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It is not unusual for a wildly popular song to transcend the airwaves into cultural and consumer offshoots, and “Baby Shark” has been no different. The WowWee Pinkfong Baby Shark Official Song Puppet is cute, yellow, and advanced: moving its mouth with your hand, in general, plays “Baby Shark”; but moving it faster or slower changes the tempo. And what would a gift craze be without options?
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