Fads come and go — coonskin caps, hula hoops, pet rocks, the Rubik’s Cube — but few matched the mania and money surrounding the Beanie Babies in the 1990s. Originally intended as children’s toys, Beanie Babies sparked a quest for riches among legions of adults, a few of whom made lots of money before the bottom dropped out. In The Great Beanie Baby Bubble, Zac Bissonnette recounts the history of this unusual phenomenon.
Beanie Babies were a type of toy called “plush” for the soft material they were made of. They were filled with “beans,” actually plastic pellets, that enabled their owners, presumably children, to set them up in poses. Each Baby came with a birth date and a little poem.
The mastermind behind the Beanie Babies was an eccentric character named Ty Warner, whose complex relationships with women and employees constitute a central theme of the book. Warner was fascinated by plush toys, which have charmed children since the first Teddy Bears. He created an extensive array of Beanie Babies — Derby the Horse, Inky the Octopus, Happy the Hippo, Lucky the Ladybug, Sly the Fox and so forth. Warner was forever tinkering with them, creating different versions of each issue. He sold them through small toy stores, refusing to deal with the big discount outlets. He was one of the first toy makers to use a web site, and his Beanie Babies for a while were the biggest item on eBay, accounting for more than 10 percent of its traffic.
The Beanie Baby mania first took wings when a few people tried to collect complete sets, which became increasingly hard to do as Warner kept shutting down some lines and launching others. When McDonalds used Beanie Babies for promotions, sales skyrocketed. According to Bissonnette, in 1998 a USA Weekend poll found that 64 percent of Americans owned at least one Beanie Baby. At one point, Warner was shipping $100 million of Beanie Babies a month, and the secondary market for the rarer Babies was booming. Peanut the Elephant was selling for $5,200, Teddy the Bear was $3,500, and many others were in the $1,000 range.
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By 1999, Warner was on the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans. But the Beanie Babies mania abated, as is the way of fads. In 2013, Warner agreed to pay a $53.5-million civil penalty for tax evasion and to perform 500 hours of community service. Bissonnette tells an interesting story, but not one that celebrates human intelligence.
Hank H. Cox reviewed this book for The Washington Post.