At the beginning of production, on March 20, 1985, Sylvanian Families were created and released in Japan by Epoch, which uses the concept of dollhouses and anthropomorphic animal figures. The first releases of the dollhouses and other playsets were made of porcelain and the furniture was made of wood. However, later releases replaced the materials with plastic and metal in the production. The toys were later released in North America the same year, but with different packaging and minor differences to the characters themselves. The toyline was originally titled Pleasant Friends of the Forest Epoch System Collection Animal Toy Sylvanian Families (森のゆかいな仲間たち エポック社 システム・コレクション・アニマルトーイ・シルバニアファミリー, Mori noyu kaina nakama-tachi Epokkusha shisutemu korekushon animarutōi shirubania famirī). However it was changed to its current name.
In October 1987, the series spawned an animated series produced by DIC Animation City and TMS Entertainment, which ran for 13 episodes. The series was popular in the UK and Spain. The name of the television series based on Sylvanian Families was adapted in different countries. Thus, for example, in Spain it was called "La aldea el arce". It was also shown in the early 1990s in the US on Nick Jr. Later that same year, the success in these markets led to expansion into Western Europe, beginning with the UK subsidiary of Tomy acquiring exclusive rights for the brand in the UK. Tomy introduced Sylvanian Families into the UK market in 1987, and it quickly became a bestseller.
By 1988, Sylvanian Families had become a major success around the world, winning the British Association of Toy Retailers award for "Toy of the Year" three years consecutively, in 1987, 1988 and 1989.
In 1993, Tomy, who had been distributing the toys worldwide, lost the rights to the name "Sylvanian Families" in Canada and the USA. Tomy reintroduced the line under the new name Calico Critters of Cloverleaf Corners.
The Calico Critters line is currently distributed in the US and Canada by International Playthings, LLC.
By the late 1990s, Sylvanian Families had been discontinued in the UK, although since 1999, they have been reintroduced by Flair. Subsequently, Sylvanian families have been reintroduced in Australia and are becoming more widely available there. Tomy stopped selling Calico Critters, but a new company, International Playthings, picked up the line.
In 1999, the toyline celebrated its 15th anniversary in Japan, with the opening of the themed restaurant Sylvanian Forest Kitchen (シルバニア森のキッチン, Shirubania mori no kitchin), which was operated and managed by Epoch. The restaurant not only served food, but also sold merchandise and toys based on the franchise. The restaurant closed in February 2011.
In 2004, the franchise celebrated its 20th anniversary in Japan with the release of the Walnut Squirrel Family. In July 2004, Epoch announced a new attraction in Grinpa, a theme park managed by Fuji Kyuko. The attraction, originally called Sylvanian Village (シルバニアビレッジ, Shirubania Birejji) before it was renamed to Sylvanian Gardens (シルバニアガーデン, Shirubania Gāden), began its construction with Epoch's supervision. In 2005, the franchise hosted its very first live event titled Sylvanian Families Musical~The Large Commotion Eve Party! (シルバニアファミリーミュージカル～パーティーイブは大さわぎ！, Shirubania famirī myūjikaru ~ pātīibu wa dai sawagi!) which was hosted at the Gekidan Kogumaza Theatre. It was later released on DVD in 2006.
In 2006, the characters in the toy line were chosen to be the mascots for the National Federation of Workers and Consumers Insurance Cooperativess national mutual aid. By the end of the year, the toys sold a total of 78 million units.
In 2007, Epoch teamed up with Itochu, Nippon Columbia and Shogakukan to produce a 3DCGI Original Video Animation series based on the toy line produced by Kōji Kawaguchi and Yumiko Muriai and directed by Akira Takamura. All 3 episodes were released on June 20, 2007. According to Epoch, more episodes were planned, but these were never produced for unknown reasons. In the UK, Flair celebrated the franchise's 20th anniversary with a selected number of new items. The best selling was an Otter boat, and a reintroduced Dalmatian Family who now wore party hats that read "Happy 20th!".
In March 2009, the series celebrated its 25th anniversary in Japan with the opening of the Sylvanian Gardens attraction in Grinpa. Managed by Epoch, the attraction features real-life replicas of the houses and buildings from the toy line as well as a museum featuring an exhibition about the history of the toys. The attraction also has a shop which sells items exclusive to the park. In 2010, the franchise again hosted two musicals, Sylvanian Families Exciting Musical (シルバニアファミリーわくわくミュージカル, Shirubania famirī wakuwaku myūjikaru) and Sylvanian Families Exciting Stage (シルバニアファミリーわくわくステージ, Shirubania famirī wakuwaku sutēji), which both became a staple on promoting the toys in conventions.
On June 28, 2013, Flair confirmed that the rights for the toys in the UK will be transferred to the newly formed Epoch UK, and they began distributing the toys from January 1, 2014 onwards. Flair announced that they would stop distributing the toys on December 31, 2013.
The entire franchise is set in Sylvania (シルバニア, Shirubania), a fictional village based on 1950s Great Britain. The majority of the families are all rural middle-class, with many of them owning localized but successful family businesses, or having white-collar jobs, such as doctor, teacher, artist, news reporter, carpenter or bus driver. They are designed wearing very 1950s-like fashion. They can live in large, multistory houses, or own dwellings based on the premise of a kind of holiday home. The houses are designed very realistically, you can add your own design and decorate it .They can also indulge in many stereotypically middle-class leisure activities such as sailing or horse-riding, and often host garden parties or go on short camping holidays.
The characters, grouped into families, originally depicted typical woodland creatures such as rabbits, squirrels, bears, beavers, hedgehogs, foxes, deer, owls, raccoons, otters, skunks and mice, and later expanded to other animals such as cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, penguins, monkeys, cows, sheep, pigs, elephants, pandas, kangaroos, koalas and meerkats. Most families consist of a father, mother, sister and brother, and continue to add family members from there on such as grandparents, babies, and older siblings.
There are three animated series based on the Sylvanian Families world: Sylvanian Families, a syndicated series that premiered in 1987; Stories of the Sylvanian Families (1988), a British series animated in stop motion; and a 2007 original video animation series also called Sylvanian Families.
Aside from the animated series, the series also spawned seven video games, all produced by Epoch.Sylvanian Families: Otogi no Kuni no Pendant (シルバニアファミリー おとぎの国のペンダント, Shirubania famirī: Otogi no kuni no pendanto, lit.Sylvanian Families: The Fairyland Pendant) (Game Boy Color)
Sylvanian Melodies ~Mori no Nakama to Odori Masho!~ (シルバニアメロディー ～森のなかまと踊りましょ!～, Shirubania merodī ~Mori no naka ma to odorimasho!~, lit.Sylvanian Melodies ~Let's Dance with the Forest Friends!~) (Game Boy Color)
Sylvanian Families 2: Irozuku Mori no Fantasy (シルバニアファミリー2 色づく森のファンタジー, Shirubania famirī tsu: Irodzuku mori no fantajī, lit.Sylvanian Families 2: Rainbow Forest Fantasy) (Game Boy Color)
Sylvanian Families 3: Hoshifuru Yoru no Sunadokei (シルバニアファミリー3 星ふる夜のすなどけい, Shirubania famirī suri: Hoshifuru yoru no sunadokei, lit.Sylvanian Families 3: Hourglass of the Wishing Stars) (Game Boy Color)
Sylvanian Families 4: Meguru Kisetsu no Tapestry (シルバニアファミリー4 めぐる季節のタペストリー, Shirubania famirī fo: Meguru kisetsu no tapesutorī, lit.Sylvanian Families 4: Tapestry of the Four Seasons) (Game Boy Advance)
Sylvanian Families: Yosei no Stick to Fushigi no Ki Maron Inu no Onnanoko (シルバニアファミリー 妖精のステッキとふしぎの木 マロン犬の女の子, Shirubania famirī: Yōsei no sutekki to fushigi no ki maron inu no on'nanoko, lit.Sylvanian Families: The Fairy's Wands and the Mystery Tree Esme Huckleberry) (Game Boy Advance)
Sylvanian Families: Fashion Designer ni Naritai! Kurumi Risu no Onnanoko (シルバニアファミリー ファッションデザイナーになりたい! くるみリスの女の子, Shirubania famirī: fasshondezainā ni naritai! Kurumi risu no on'nanoko, lit.Sylvanian Families: I wanna be a Fashion Designer! Saffron Walnut) (Game Boy Advance)