In the upcoming season of gift-giving, many eyes will brighten at on seeing a troll doll. These funny-looking figures were created in the 1950s by a Dane, Thomas Dam, who was struggling to earn a living as a fisherman. A carving hobbyist, he made a wooden figurine with exaggerated humanoid features for his daughter. It proved popular among her friends, so Dam made several more and they were snapped up locally and at fairgrounds. Encouraged, he began producing them full-time, switching the materials to natural rubber filled with sawdust, a sheepskin wig and glass eyes. In the 1960s, with demand soaring, the Dam family established factories to make plastic trolls with ever-more colorful hair, eyes and clothing. They also added animals to their product line. In 1963-1965, trolls were the second most popular toy sold in the U.S., after Barbie dolls.

Where did Dam’s idea come from? Folklore about other-worldly trolls with a malign attitude and secret abodes has scared many a Danish child – and adult – through the centuries. Dam’s genius was to make their odd features cute rather than scary. They’ve continuously charmed people around the globe, and that interest was recently fueled by the 2016 animated movie “Trolls.”

Thomas Dam died in 1986. After a couple more decades in family hands, most of the business was sold to a U.S. studio, Dreamworks Animation, although the Danish firm, Dam Things, still controls some troll images and sales. The “Trolls” movie proved to be such a hit that a sequel is already in production.

Dam Things Denmark: History of the trolls
TIME All-time 100 greatest toys: Troll Doll
Thomas Dam in video history (in Danish)
BT article on the history of trolls, by Jacob Wendt Jensen 12 Oct 2016 (in Danish)
About the Trolls movie
Collectors website: The Spruce – Meet the Trolls
– Photo of (replica, unfortunately) troll by Cathy Kristiansen