Every Christmas we see the same pattern: some toy, whether an undefinable creature named “The Furby,” or a gaming console like the Wii, becomes a national craze. People beat each other over the head just to be the parent that brings home that coveted toy for their child on Christmas morning. These toys change from year to year. In 1964, G.I. Joe was the hottest toy around; in 1977, the Star Wars action figures received the attention, and in 1983, Cabbage Patch Kids became so popular that people would going so far as to bite each other in the isles just to own one. But before Joe, Vader or Tickle-Me Elmo, there was Shirley Temple.
The first doll to become a “Christmas Craze” was first developed in 1934, in response to the Shirley Temple fan base. The first celebrity-driven doll was manufactured by The Ideal Toy and Novelty Company when Temple was 6 years old, in the third year of her movie career. The demand for both the “true” Ideal Shirley Temple doll, and the more generic versions, with her trademark ringlets and dimples, hit its peak when Bright Eyes hit theatres three days before Christmas in 1934.
Ideal Shirley Temple dolls were so popular that they sold for nearly $4.50 in their premiere year, nearly $3 more than the generic Shirley Temple look-a-like dolls that department stores sold for $1.80. The craze to have anything Shirley, but particularly a name brand Shirley doll, was overwhelming and Ideal Toy Company made over $45 million in the first seven years of production. This was an unheard of figure for the time. Other stores latched onto the hype and offered Shirley Temple look-alike contests, set up Shirley Temple displays in the lobbies, sold songbooks, coloring books, paper dolls, and anything else someone might want to buy that was linked to “The Little Curly Top.” Mothers even began to style their daughter’s hair and clothing after Shirley, so hair ribbons and clothes became produced with official “Shirley pins” on them.
In Geary County, girls and their mothers became a part of the Shirley Temple toy craze. In December of 1935, Shirley Temple was still a best seller. While there was no rush on stores, as there had been in 1934, she was still a sought after toy for many young girls. And Junction City was not immune to her tiny dimpled charm. In the December 23, 1935 edition of the Junction City Union, a section called “From Santa’s Mail Box” was published, and in Santa’s mail box were the letters children wrote to Santa asking for their most important Christmas wishes. Among those wishes? Shirley Temple.
In their letter to Santa, Betty and Beatrice Childers of Fort Riley said, “We are two little girls 6 and 4 years old and we have been real good. We each want a Shirley Temple doll.” Ida Mae Schooler had a similar Christmas wish. Perhaps she already had a coveted Shirley Temple doll because she didn’t ask for one. Instead, she desired the Shirley Temple accessories that had been introduced to the Christmas market in 1935. She said, “Dear Santa Claus- Please bring me a baby doll, teddy bear, bicycle, toy horse, Shirley Temple dress, Shirley Temple ribbon…” Even grown women were not immune to Shirley’s charm. In 1937, following the release of Shirley Temple’s version of Heidi, Catherine Unfried bought her very own Shirley doll. Not for children, as she only had one son, but for herself because the 32 year old housewife was caught up in the national phenomenon that was Shirley Temple.
Make sure you stop by the Geary County Historical Society to check out the Playtime Exhibit, featuring the 1937 Shirley Temple “Heidi” doll, among other popular toys from the past century! Open Tues-Sun, 1-4PM.
For more information about the Shirley Temple doll craze:
Cross, Gary. Kid’s Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, Presidents
and Fellows of Harvard College, 1997.
For more information about Christmas crazes of the past:
Hartlaub, Peter. “12-Must Have Toy Hits from Christmases Past.” NBCnews.com