Remembering Beanie Babies: The Bitcoin Of The '90s
In 1841, the journalist Charles Mackay published his smash bestseller Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (the long title was a disappointment to the publisher, who had wanted to call it Sex Explosion: A Johnny Punchfist Mystery). In an influential chapter, Mackay wrote that the nation of Holland had once been overwhelmed by a craze for tulips, so that the “ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population ... embarked in the tulip trade.”
Tulipmania grew to the point that rich men would spend half their fortune on a single flower and the whole country took to buying and selling tulip bulbs in the belief that the price would continue to rise forever. When the price dipped, everyone panicked and tried to sell their flower stockpile, causing the tulip market to collapse and tank the Dutch economy. “Men,” Mackay concluded, “think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
Of course, Mackay was a wild exaggerator and historians now agree that Tulipmania amounted to a passing craze for the flowers and a fairly ordinary dip in prices once the craze ended. There was no national hysteria and there’s no evidence anybody went bankrupt. The very idea of people sinking their entire fortunes on something as trivial as tulips seems downright silly once you think about it! Which brings us pretty neatly to Beanie Babies, the adorable stuffed toys that briefly drove everyone in the 1990s to madness.
The Birth Of The Beanie Baby Boom
The year was 1997, and McDonald’s was under siege from hordes of crazed fans (plus ça change, we guess). Weeping employees begged for a break as enraged crowds pressed against the counters, demanding 100 Happy Meals each, which we assume is roughly double the average order. In Ohio, one desperate store manager took to answering the phone with “McDonald’s, we only have the moose or the lamb.” No, it wasn’t the world’s worst beef shortage, it was just a special promotion offering a mini Beanie Baby as a Happy Meal toy. The company had foolishly blundered straight into Beanie Baby madness.
Beanie Babies had been invented less than a decade earlier by a guy called Ty Warner, who had become a successful toy salesman by the simple ruse of turning up to meetings in a purple Rolls-Royce, wearing a fur coat and holding a gold-topped cane. The toy store owners he was pitching were so surprised to be confronted by some kind of plushie pimp that they inevitably agreed to carry his products. However, the toy company eventually fired Warner after discovering he was secretly making his own stuffed animals and selling them on the side. Warner responded to this setback in the healthiest way possible (flying to Italy and spending three years drinking on a beach) before returning to launch Beanie Babies from the kitchen table of his condo.
Warner had two strokes of genius. The first was stuffing his toys with a small amount of plastic pellets. At the time, most stuffed animals were so crammed full of foam that you could club an orca unconscious with them. So kids went nuts for Ty Inc.’s Beanies, which were considered soft and huggable in contrast (orca attacks presumably skyrocketed). By 1992, Beanies had become a decent success, turning over a few million in sales a year. And that’s when Warner found his second big idea. While attending an industry trade show, Warner heard about a garden gnome maker who occasionally “retired” certain designs in order to drive up demand from gnome-maniacs. Or is “gnome enthusiasts” preferred? Sorry, we’re not familiar with the gnomenclature.
Warner decided to try this strategy in the toy market, creating artificial scarcity by “retiring” certain Beanie lines whenever he felt like it. Parents quickly proved willing to pay $10 or $15 for a retired $5 Beanie that their child just had to have. In the mid-’90s, a couple of retired Chicago school teachers launched a small business buying and selling rare Beanies. And then things went crazy.
The Market Quickly Went Insane
Overnight, the Beanie Baby futures market went through the roof, entered space, and eventually could only be detected by gravitational anomalies in Neptune’s orbit. Even non-retired Beanies (which sold for $5 in stores) were selling for $30 or more secondhand. Somehow, millions of people had convinced themselves that Beanie Babies, the mass-manufactured children’s stuffed toys, were actually immensely valuable treasures. A single Pinchers the Lobster might be worth a small fortune in 20 years, despite being made from recycled chicken coop insulation and stuffed with whatever plastic pellets they could sweep off the factory floor. It was as if the entire nation stood up in unison and declared “they’re not toys—they’re collectibles!”
It’s impossible to overemphasize how big this thing got. A single stuffed elephant sold for $5,000, even though there were at least 2,000 copies of it floating around. Before long over 10 percent of eBay’s sales were Beanies, while a thriving market grew up in plastic cases for Beanies, trade magazines for Beanie sellers, and (presumably) empty tin cans for your child to play with while you hoarded Beanies. Some guy sold over three million copies of a book speculating wildly about future Beanie prices—and that wasn’t even the biggest publishing success. A Chicago soccer mom used pictures of her Beanie collection to start a magazine called “Mary Beth’s Beanie World.” Within a year she was selling over 650,000 copies a month, even though the magazine cost more than buying a real Beanie Baby. Seriously, this was the era when people still bought actual porn mags and the stuffed toy price guide was still the hottest thing on the newsstands.
And prices just kept rising. At one show in 1997, Peking the Panda went for $1,300, while Bronty the Brontosaurus, Steg the Stegosaurus and Rex the Tyrannosaur were a steal at just $1,750 combined. The New York Times interviewed a teenager who had started collecting Beanies as an animal-loving child and who was now frantically trying to complete her collection so she could sell it for $40,000 and buy a Corvette. Every new retirement sparked giant lines outside toy shops, with adults literally fighting each other over the last Beanies. Can you imagine being a kid and seeing your mom pile-drive your kindergarten teacher through a shelf of Barbies before emerging triumphant with a heavily bloodstained Pellet the Hamster? Kids were literally getting their toys stolen on the playground because they were worth thousands overnight.
Naturally, it was only a matter of time before borderline riots erupted. Even the rumor of an impending retirement could cause people to screech their cars to a halt in the middle of the street and lay siege to the nearest toy store. MentalFloss has a harrowing list of Beanie crimes, including children hurt in toy store stampedes and a surprising amount of smuggling across the Canadian border. In Ogden, Utah, the cops had to respond to a 60-person scuffle caused by a shipment of Beanies, writing a humorous casualty report for a stuffed rat dismembered in the carnage. Things were a lot less funny in West Virginia, where a local man was shot execution-style following a dispute over several hundred dollars in Beanies. There were even reports of toy shops beefing up security following a spate of Beanie Baby heists.
In 1992, Ty Inc.’s sales had been $6 million. In 1998, they were $1.4 billion, despite the fact that the company continued to sell Beanies to retailers for $2.50 each. Do the math on that, then take a few moments to stare off at the horizon while you wait for your heart rate to return to normal. Drink some water if you need to. Because seriously, that is insane.
It Wasn’t The Only Giant '90s Collecting Boom
The Beanie Boom didn’t happen in isolation. There was a time in the '90s when it seemed like everything was becoming collectible. You couldn't even go buy mulch without the guy behind the counter screaming “that’s a limited edition triple-wormer!” and insisting it be sealed in a mylar bag for future generations. Cracked has already covered the massive comic book boom, where gullible fans camped out overnight to buy all 17 variant covers of “special event” comics like The Death of Superman, Batman vs The Unlicensed Chiropractor and The Toe-Stubbening of Mr Mxyzptlk. There wasn’t a kid alive who wasn’t secretly convinced their copy of Pouch-Man vs Mr. Stabs would be worth a fortune one day, even though several million copies had been printed and all the artwork appeared to have been done on a moving rollercoaster.
But this wasn’t limited to just comics and toys. In 1994, the Chicago Tribune published an article frantically warning parents not to “let your kids play with PEZ candy dispensers—they have too much potential as one of the hottest collectibles of the '90s. Take them away immediately, and store in a cool dry place.” Collectors across the country doubtless swung into action and began wrestling candy away from their babies, certain that in 20 years some cocaine-smeared sheikh would be screaming into the phone “I don’t care how many Picassos I have to sell to afford it, I simply must have the '95 Smurf Head PEZ Dispenser!”
And the list didn’t stop there. Baseball cards had a massive bubble that peaked in the early '90s, when frenzied collectors were literally breaking into stores in search of future riches. This is despite the fact that the market was being flooded with roughly 8 billion new trading cards per year. That’s 300 cards for every American, and items tend not to become valuable antiques when massive towers of them keep blotting out the sun. In fairness, the card companies deliberately kept the number of cards printed a secret (at least one writer blamed the baseball card collapse on eBay suddenly allowing people to see just how many cards were for sale), but the collecting mania went on. Hummel figurines, troll dolls, Lisa Frank trapper keepers ... name basically any piece of '90s kitsch and we guarantee there were mobs of people frantically squirrelling them away in the hopes of future riches.
The Collapse Forced People Into Bankruptcy
Like Bitcoin, Beanies didn’t really have any use to most of the speculators, who bought in the increasingly insane belief that the prices would go up forever. People were literally spending six figures on Beanie Babies, in the expectation that the toys would pay for their retirement. Meanwhile, toy shops were having their best years ever (if you grew up in the late '90s and toy stores seemed a paradise, Beanie speculation paid for a lot of that), although employees found themselves somewhat unnerved by the lines of “creepy” middle-aged guys who camped out outside the store every time a new Beanie was being launched. But good times never last forever, at least until the FDA finally signs off on our patent for chrono-molly, and all booms eventually end in a Fast & Furious-level crash.
For Beanie Babies, the collapse came in 1999, when 24 new Beanies were launched, tanking the price as supply exceeded demand. Panic set in as hoarders scrambled to unload their basement stuffed with stuffed animals. Ty Warner made a desperate attempt to shore up the market by announcing that his company would stop releasing new Beanies altogether, but this was greeted with the same level of skepticism as a comic book company announcing the “death” of their most popular character. By the end of the year, Beanie collections bought for tens of thousands of dollars were selling at flea markets for bus fare.
Numerous Beanie collectors found themselves ruined. One former soap opera star made his kids eat so many Happy Meals that they made themselves sick, all to get the free Teenie Beanies included as a toy. The family ultimately spent over $100,000 buying supposedly rare Beanies, leaving them facing bankruptcy after the price dropped down to $1 per toy. But even Beanie skeptics couldn’t crow too much, since the collectible collapse was shortly followed by the massive dot com bubble bursting, leaving large sectors of the American economy in tatters.
Both bubbles were driven by the same speculative drive, which saw investors spurning established blue chip companies in favor of startups like Kozmo.com, which would happily deliver a single candy bar to your door within the hour at retail cost. The Beanie craze was in many ways an Internet phenomenon (the biggest secondhand markets were on EBay and hardcore buyers egged each other on wildly on early forums) and the boom and burst were born of the same forces as the bubble. Fortunately, that was a late '90s thing and there are no other parallels before or since.