Geriatric millennials (sorry) spent their childhoods coveting everything from Barbie dolls to Teddy Ruxpins. We loved them; we had to have them. So, because we’re nostalgic like that, we wanted to take a look back at some of our most beloved, extremely popular ‘80s and ‘90s toys and explore why we obsessed over them and where they are now. We turned to veteran toy expert Jessica Hartshorn, who has spent her career writing about all things parenting and toys, to do her due diligence and get to the bottom of some of our most-wished-for favorites. Behold, Scary Mommy’s nostalgia & toys extravaganza. All week, we’ll be looking at the toys that made us. You’re welcome.
Deciding which Care Bear to get your friend for their birthday was a real thing in the '80s. Was Birthday Bear too obvious? Friend Bear was more meaningful. Or should you gift your bestie a Wish Bear, kind of like giving your friend a crystal — except that it was a teal-colored stuffed bear?
Wish Bear and friends are updated, sure, but still on toy shelves and still perfectly priced for party gifts. If you have a tween or teen, you probably know that Hot Topic sells Care Bear merch too. These characters have been around for 40 years, beloved by multiple generations, and show no sign of going away. But who had the brilliant idea to create them in the first place? What is the origin of Care Bears?
The Birth of Care Bears
The Care Bears origin story mirrors that of My Little Pony. The characters were created in 1981, then launched as a successful toy line in 1982. Like the ponies, the bears always came in bright colors and were branded, in this case on their belly, with a graphic design that signifies what they stand for: a rainbow for cheer, a shamrock for luck, hearts for love, a shooting star for wishes.
But a deeper dive into the origin story of Care Bears unearths a few interesting facts.
First, did you know that the first six Care Bears were created by the same illustrator who brought Strawberry Shortcake (another iconically nostalgic craze) to life? Muriel Fahrion was working as a greeting card designer for American Greetings when the company asked her to conceptualize a rag doll character. Strawberry Shortcake was the result, and when that took off, American Greetings saw an opportunity for more cute characters. Thus, the Care Bears were born! After Fahrion got the ball rolling with the first six designs, illustrator Elena Kucharik stepped in to further the idea.
Another sweet tidbit? The Care Bears were conceptualized to help people express emotions. So, each original bear was named for the feeling he or she represented: Tenderheart, Good Luck, Birthday, Cheer, Bedtime, Grumpy, Wish, Funshine, and Love A Lot. It’s a little weird that the bears are gendered, but maybe that is just the nature of character toys, especially ‘80s toys.
By 1983, the Care Bears were everywhere, leading to a full merch collection of plush toys, stickers, trading cards, and, onscreen spinoffs. The Care Bears cartoon started up in 1985 — the same year the Bears got their first big-screen movie — and featured the bears versus villains with names such as Professor Coldheart. (Side note: Why are professors so often portrayed as evil?) Today’s kids can watch 22-minute episodes of Care Bears and Cousins on Netflix, where the bears primarily make mistakes, learn from them, and continue on with their happy lives.
The Difference Between Care Bears and Other ‘80s Toys
While My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, and troll dolls are toys that invite collecting and pretend play, Care Bears have always had the chance to become beloved comfort objects, like other teddy bears. They might live in the sacred spot on a child’s pillow and be cuddled at night.
Current parents grew up falling asleep with Bedtime Bear. It’s not that big of a leap, then, to see why we want to dress our infants like Care Bears. It’s a love thing. Few other retro toys make us want to give a squeeze.
Can We Talk About Grumpy Bear?
There is depressed Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. The ‘80s introduced Grumpy Smurf, also a downer. Grumpy Bear, on the other hand, was and is the rare child’s character who can express doubt and worry while still being adorable. Grumpy Bear has energy; he is just pessimistic — or, he would say, a realist. Some kids (and parents) relate to Grumpy Bear and his angst, so thank goodness he’s still around. There’s even a giant plush Grumpy Bear as well as a baby-sized Grumpy Bear Halloween costume.
The bottom line is we still relate to the bears, want to gift the bears, and don’t mind our kids watching the show. It gives us a little slice of our childhood back. The ‘80s birthed some toy phenomenons that were not fads. These cuddly, anthropomorphic bears prove that some things from that “gnarly” decade have staying power!