Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
In 1995, Chicago-based plush toy manufacturer maker Ty Warner had a problem.
Against all odds, he had already built himself a respectable business selling plush toys—after having been fired by plush toy manufacturer Dakin for violating their non-compete clause—but now he was having supply chain issues with one of his more popular toys, Lovie the Lamb. Lovie had proven to be one of Ty’s most popular stuffed toys to date—she was a particularly popular purchase at hospital gift shops—but difficulties with a Chinese manufacturer had made Warner incapable of continuing production on her. When he told the hospitals she was out of production, they were not happy—and you never want to make the people who have power over both IVs and catheters angry.
But then Warner had an inspiration.
He was thinking about makers of “collectibles”—figurines, commemorative plates, that sort of thing. Those guys didn’t “stop production” on their items. They broke the molds, and then they “retired” them. The limited availability was a feature, not a bug—it made the items exclusive and unique. People couldn’t wait to get their hands on one so they could display them proudly. Maybe Warner could do the same thing with plushies.For anyone who didn’t live through the nineties, it’s difficult to explain how big a deal Beanie Babies were.
It was a stroke of genius, really. When the hospitals and toy stores called, he didn’t apologize or beg for mercy; he just informed them that Lovie the Lamb had been retired. What used to be a failure that required an apology was suddenly an intriguing and mysterious proclamation. And it would be used—and used, and used—when Warner launched his most iconic line of toys, Beanie Babies. And in the process, he would launch them into a level of the stratosphere that no plush toy had ever touched.
For anyone who didn’t live through the nineties, it’s difficult to explain how big a deal Beanie Babies were. First you saw them at boutiques, at flower shops and gift shops. Then maybe a couple of the girls in your fifth grade class were playing with them, and sure, you had to admit they were cute. Then everyone’s mom suddenly became obsessed with them, buying them by the truckload and storing them away in bins, jealously guarding their heart-shaped tags with terrible poems inside. And then there were riots at the McDonald’s because they were giving them away with Happy Meals, and at some point, even the boys you knew started collecting them.
It was a little insane, and a little hard to understand, but the raw appeal of the toys wasn’t exactly inexplicable. Prior to the rise of the beanies, most stuffed toys were literally stuffed—just filled with as much cotton batting (or worse) as they would hold. The result was a stiff toy that held its shape but just wasn’t cuddly or poseable. Shockingly, before Warner, no one of note had ever thought about stuffing toys loosely and adding some plastic pellets (“beans”) in the feet and rear. The result of Warner’s changeup were toys that flopped around in a lifelike way. You tossed them on the bed, and they looked like they might have climbed up there themselves.
It wasn’t just the understuffing and the beans that made them a hit, though—it was Warner’s habit of “retiring” them.
While Beanie Babies weren’t a huge success when they launched in 1993—in fact, they sold so poorly that several stores began refusing to carry them—by 1995, Beanie collecting had begun to emerge as a hobby. There was apparently a group of Chicago-area women who had first noticed the toys in gift shops, thought they were cute, and began buying them for fun. Soon, though, they started comparing their collections and noticing discrepancies. Warner had revised the face on his teddy bear (ever the perfectionist, Warner actually revised his toys quite frequently). He had changed the bear’s name from Brownie to Cubbie. And certain tags had been revised.
This wasn’t just a fun hobby—these were Franklin Mint–level shenanigans.
From the Chicago area, Beanie mania began to spread across the United States and eventually the globe. Warner and his company were mostly caught off guard by the insanity—they’d made the things to sell for a few bucks at gift shops, not to tip off a worldwide craze—but they did their best to stay out in front of it, releasing and retiring Beanies on a whim, and treating each new product like an event. When the occasional production error happened—such as when Peanut the Elephant was released in royal blue instead of sky blue—the price would skyrocket. The fury was, of course, fueled by the parallel rise of eBay—the now-quaint internet auction site where you could find literally anything, bid on it, and then lose.
When McDonald’s ran a promotion offering Happy Meals with “Teeny Beanie Babies” (is that, like…a baby baby?), it became clear that things were getting out of hand. People would order a hundred meals, and then decline the food—or worse, throw it away—just to get their hands on the limited edition Beanies. As Beanies began to sell for thousands of dollars, people managed to convince themselves that these stuffed toys were a sound investment that would pay for college or retirement and began hoarding them. In at least one case, a divorced couple fought bitterly over their Beanie collection in court.
The problem with this economic bubble was, of course, the same problem with every economic bubble—something is only valuable as long as people want it. Sure, your “old-face teddy” would get you thousands, or even tens of thousands—if you could find a buyer. Once the whales got bored of collecting, though, the bottom would fall out and your tub of plushies with perfectly preserved tags would be just another trash barrel.
What collectors, as usual, couldn’t see was that there was a sole source for the Beanies—Ty, Inc.—and that source’s incentives were more-or-less directly opposed to the interests of investors and collectors. While Ty certainly benefited from the perception that Beanies were rare, they only profited off of the ones they actually sold (for a measly five dollars each!), and therefore were poised to make far more money by putting as many of them out into the world as possible. Eventually, the immovable object of mass delusion gave way to the irresistible force of market flooding. As more and more collectors realized that basically everyone had several of these “rare” items, they abandoned their obsession in droves, and people were all left feeling awfully stupid with their big tubs of Beanies slowly getting destroyed by mildew and moths.
Fortunately, we soon all remembered that where our treasure was, there our heart was, also. So we came to our senses and invested in Bitcoin.