Garbage Pail Kids trading cards were released in 1985 by Topps, the same company that thrilled kids around the world with the much-beloved Wacky Packages trading cards.
The cards were originally created as a tie-in for Garbage Pail Candy, a miniature plastic trash can filled with SweetTarts-style candies shaped like trash (fish heads, soup cans, etc.). But before long, the cards had become the real stars of the trash can.
The secret of the Garbage Pail Kids’ success was simple: sick humour. Each card listed a common boy’s or girl’s name, prefaced by a descriptive adjective: typical examples included Disgustin’ Justin, Hairy Carrie, and Dead Fred.
Each name was accompanied by a gruesome-looking kid who illustrated his/her name in a sickly imaginative way. For instance, Leaky Lindsay was shown suffering from a nasty nasal drip that looked like a gushing pair of twin fountains.
Another unique hook of the Garbage Pail Kids was that they were designed to closely resemble another famous group of toy-world children: The Cabbage Patch Kids. This made Garbage Pail Kids a smash hit with boys, who loved having the chance to laugh at the expense of a girl-toy phenomenon like the Cabbage Patch Kids.
The cards quickly became a big success and were being traded back and forth on playgrounds and in classrooms. The Topps Company kept the demand up by continually pumping out new series of cards for the kids to snap up: by the end of their four-year run, there were 15 different series of Garbage Pail Kids.
But not everybody thought Garbage Pail Kids were funny. Teachers (aka Poo-Poo Heads) disliked the distractions these cards created in class, and many parents didn’t appreciate the cards’ disgusting sense of humour. Some angry school administrators even banned Garbage Pail Kids cards from being played with or traded on the grounds of their schools.
The least amused of all was Xavier Roberts, creator of the Cabbage Patch Kids. He sued the Topps Company and eventually got them to change the design of the Garbage Pail Kids so they wouldn’t resemble his creations so closely.
Despite the controversy they inspired, Garbage Pail Kids remained popular well into the late 1980s. Their popularity also spread worldwide, as kids in Canada, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom grabbed sets of the gross-out tykes. Though the art remained the same, the names were translated into each country’s language.
The series itself went under different names in the global market, including colourful monikers like Trash Can Trolls, Bathroom Buddies, La Pandilla Basura, and Die Total Kaputten Kids.
The widespread success of Garbage Pail Kids inspired plenty of tie-in items. Before the phenomenon ended, toy and novelty stores experienced a wave of merchandise that included t-shirts, school folders, sticker albums, jewellery, key chains, and wastebaskets.
A couple of the coolest items to emerge from this wave were Cheap Toys and Crummy Candy, which were usually packaged together.
The Cheap Toys were tiny, 3-D plastic replicas of ten different Garbage Pail Kids while the Crummy Candy was similar to the Garbage Pail Candy that inspired the trading cards. Before the craze ended, there was even a Garbage Pail Kids Movie. A cartoon series was also produced but never made it to the air.
The Topps Company discontinued Garbage Pail Kids cards in 1988 after 15 successful series. No attempt has been made to revive the cards since then, but the original cards continue to be popular with trading card collectors today.
Although other phenomena have surpassed the popularity of Garbage Pail Kids, their combination of clever parody and jaw-dropping humour has definitely earned these cards their slot in toy history.