Illustration: Kate Hazell

Riots in toy shops, mass hysteria and 24-hour-news: remembering the Beanie Babies craze of the 1990ss

They were meant for children, but it was adults who behaved immaturely
March 31, 2020
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 in this exact point in time, when a combination of media, upwardly-mobile ambition and a brand new buyers’ market came together to create a fad to rival the Tulip mania of Old Amsterdam.  

First, there was eBay. The auction site that began with the sale of a broken laser pointer in 1995 was providing ordinary people a new way to sell ordinary things at extraordinary prices. The popularity of the site led to the mass-adoption of a phrase that was previously only used by antique dealers: this could be worth something.

Warner’s habit of abruptly discontinuing toys added to a sense that anyone could have something trivial that was nonetheless hugely valuable. Snort the Bull, purchased for five dollars, could suddenly be sold for $6,500. Peanut the Elephant could go for $7,000. And so, people began buying up Beanie Babies in their hundreds, creating riots in toy stores and the death of at least one security guard. Most of the people who bought these Beanie Babies didn’t see themselves as collectors—no, they were simply savvy investors.  

No taste, no money

If the 1980s was synonymous with people who had more money than taste, the 1990s Beanie craze went a step further. It captivated people who were short on taste and perhaps money too, but were hypnotised by the idea of sitting on something that could later become valuable.  

The craze became a news item for 24-hour cable news channels that had no shortage of children, enthusiasts and “experts” who were willing to be interviewed about their collections. The coverage drove the market to a fever pitch that went on for years. A couple divorcing in 1999 were forced to split up their collection on the courtroom floor, under the supervision of a judge.  

And then? It ended. The children who’d first loved Beanie Babies grew out of them, and without the steady backbone of the legitimate enthusiasts, the market ceased to exist. While the craze might have died, the impulses that drove it kept barrelling along. Recent bubbles may have been more Bitcoin than Beanie, but the adult need to obsess over childish things has found other modes of expression: The Harry Potter frenzy of the early noughties, the iron grip of comic books on modern cinema, the Disney Princess BuzzFeed quizzes that grown adults use to self-classify as Annas, Elsas and the rest.  

The people who thought they could get rich from Beanie Babies were ultimately left with nothing but a bag of less-than-magic beans. People are still trying to flog their Beanie Babies on Ebay for thousands, hoping against all odds that their Princess Diana bear really is worth the small fortune that they were promised. Listings for Beanie Babies are common; sales are, unfortunately, rare.