They were meant for children, but it was adults who behaved immaturelyby Caroline O'Donoghue / March 31, 2020 / Leave a comment
There’s a scene in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory where Charlie, having been unsuccessful before in finding a prize-winning golden ticket in his chocolate bar, uncovers one in a bar he opens in the street. Within seconds, a mob—a mob of adults—has descended on him. “Run Charlie!” the shopkeeper says. “Run all the way home, and don’t stop until you get there!”
It’s an eerie, strange movie, and not just when Gene Wilder shows up. It’s there from the beginning. It’s there when the grown-ups suddenly start going to extraordinary lengths to procure Wonka bars. There’s a series of vignettes about scientists using probability machines to figure out their exact location, people being held for ransom over a box of chocolate, forgeries in South America.
The idea that adults could care so much about something supposedly for children, that they could inflate its value to the point of senseless mania, was every bit as intriguing as the factory itself. What I didn’t realise was that, while I was endlessly rewatching Willy Wonka, I was living through a golden ticket mania unlike any other.
It was the 1990s, and the craze was Beanie Babies. You might remember these pocket-sized stuffed animals, half-filled with styrofoam pellets, or “beans.” You might remember their strange slumped posture, their deferential stooping and beady black eyes. The heart-shaped name tags containing their name, birthdays and poems about their personalities.
Maybe you bought them for a child in the mid-1990s; maybe you were that child. Beanie Babies were easy to find, easy to love, and crucially, easy to collect. Ty Warner, the eccentric founder of Ty Inc, both invented the toys and marketed them in a way that was entirely new to his industry. Rather than going to Toys “R” Us, Warner would supply Beanie Babies only to independent shops, and even then, would only allow each store to have a limited supply. He announced new lines at random intervals, rather than waiting for Christmas or summer, and withdrew designs with no warning.
Creating a craze
Warner thought he was simply creating scarcity for his own product, thereby urging parents to snap up a certain bear before it was gone. But he was also creating a craze that could only have existed…