[VOICEMAIL, Livia: My dad was so into Beanie Babies. He was ready for one of them to be worth so much money one day.]
Simone: Remember Beanie Babies? Those cute, understuffed toys with clever names like Chocolate the Moose or Patti the Platypus? People went crazy over them. We put out a call to you, our dear listeners, to hear how you bought into the Beanie craze with your hearts, your minds, and your hard earned cash.
[VOICEMAIL, Caller: We had to dedicate an entire room of our house to all the animals we had collected, and it really took up the bulk of our childhood.]
[VOICEMAIL, Lilian: My parents owned a toy store when I was a kid. I remember being at school and my mom calling my classroom and asking me which Beanie Babies did I want, because as soon as she put them out, they would be sold out within an hour.]
[VOICEMAIL, Sarah: We had this idea that they were going to be worth so much. So instead of playing with them, we kept the tags on them, kept them in this bin, and we would go through and make sure that they were all accounted for.]
[VOICEMAIL, Mary: I was like, “It's a stuffed animal with beans in it, you know, what's the big deal?”]
Simone: Beanie Babies were *such a big deal*...until they weren’t. The beginning of the end of the stuffed toys became clear 22 years ago this week, on August 31st, 1999, when a news flash appeared on the website of Beanie Baby manufacturer, Ty Inc. It simply read “All Beanies will be retired.”
[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: No more Quackers the Duck or Pinky the Flamingo, the company says every last one will be retired.]
[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: So after one final frenzy of buying, collectors will have to go cold turkey. And by the turn of the century, Beanie Babies will become has beens.]
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I’m Simone Polanen.
Simone: Today on the show, how Beanie Babies became a national obsession -- inspiring a frenzy of mass purchasing, toy store fights, and sky-high price speculation. And, we uncover what the Ty Inc. Beanie Baby bubble can tell us about the human desire to get rich quick.
Simone: Don’t be a meanie and keep it here, beanie…okay, I’ll, I’ll keep workshopping that one. Just, don’t go anywhere.
Simone: At the 1994 American International Toy Fair in New York City, you could find every toy imaginable…
[ARCHIVAL, Vendor 1: Behold the skeleton warriors! An epic tale that pits the ultimate forces of evil…]
Simone: For toy companies, this annual event was the place to show off their latest creations.
[ARCHIVAL, Vendor 2: These are the first musical minis ever. Beginning with our monkey family piano play set...and lots of furniture to arrange and rearrange.]
[ARCHIVAL, Vendor 3: Just fill the mold with goop, place it in the Creepy Crawlers oven! Everything you need to make over 100 jiggly, wiggly insects.]
Simone: And this year, a relatively unknown toymaker named Ty Warner had a booth to show off his latest creation.
Simone: Ty was a failed actor, now following in the footsteps of his father, who had also sold toys. He founded Ty Inc. in 1986. And for the first several years, business was slow. But this year, in 1994, he was unveiling a toy that would reverse his fortune...Beanie Babies.
Simone: The response was…modest. People didn’t really get it. Toy store owners thought they were too understuffed and too brightly colored.
Simone: Oh, what fools.
Simone: Because little did they know -- that within a year -- tides would turn in Ty’s favor. In late 1995, word was getting around about these cute little creatures.
Becky Estenssoro: I started collecting Beanie Babies back in late 1995, early 1996.
Becky: And we got the kids involved in a lot of this, so it was really kind of fun.
Simone: This is Becky Estanssoro. She runs a Beanie Baby authentication business. She can tell you which toys are real, which are fake. She has this job now, because in the 90s, she was one of the first Beanie Baby influencers.
Simone: You know, just girlboss things.
Simone: Back in the mid-90s, Becky lived with her husband and three kids in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, not too far from Beanie Baby HQ. She’d heard about the plastic bean-filled toys from her neighbor -- also named Becky -- Becky Phillips. Becky E. and Becky P. loved to collect the toys. Ty Inc. had published a list of all the Beanie Babies that were available, and the Becky’s were trying to get a full set for each of their three kids. They were just doing it for fun...until one day Becky E. made a huge discovery that would change her entire approach to collecting.
Simone: She was browsing around at a local flower shop when she saw these gift baskets. Inside of them were Beanie Babies she had never seen before…Beanies she didn’t even know existed.
Simone: Becky just couldn’t help herself...
Becky: And I'm like, “Okay, I'm going to go for it. I'm going to spend $25 for these gift baskets just to get the Beanies.”
Simone: 25 dollars for toys that usually cost just five. Clearly, she was invested.
Simone: When Becky E. got home, she rushed over to Becky P’s house, just right next door.
Becky: She was in her pajamas and I'm like, “Oh my God. Oh my God. I got to show you this.” And I said “You're not going to believe what I found here.” And so we're looking at each other and we're like, “Oh my God, there are beanies out here that are not on this list. We've got to find out what else is out there.”
Simone: They immediately started calling stores around the country that sold Ty Inc. toys, even contacting stores in Canada and in Europe, trying to find new Beanie Babies.
Becky: All of a sudden, other Beanies were starting to surface.
Becky: There's dinosaurs. There's a snake. There's a panda...Peking the Panda, there's a Chili the Polar Bear.
Becky: And we're like, “Oh my gosh, these are, these are retired. So nobody knows about these. Nobody has these.”
Simone: When Becky E. says “retired,” she means Beanies that are no longer being manufactured. The two Becky’s realized that Ty Warner, the owner of Beanie Babies, was putting models out into the world and then never making them again. That made these older versions rare…and potentially worth something, if they could get their hands on them.
Simone: And this hunt that the Becky's were going on? Ty Inc. -- the company who made Beanie Babies -- was intentionally laying the breadcrumbs for it.
Simone: Ty Warner, was a master of manipulating supply and demand. He used a strategy economists call “deliberate scarcity.” He did this in a few ways.
Simone: First, he would artificially restrict the supply by only producing each Beanie in small quantities. He’d also limit the number of toys he sent to individual stores. This made the Beanies harder to get your hands on, and all the more enticing.
Simone: Then, Ty would regularly announce the retirement of certain characters, creating a frenzy to nab those Beanies about to disappear forever. People didn’t want to miss out. And without enough supply to meet the demand, the value would skyrocket.
Simone: Ty had a very lucrative dynamic on his hands.
Becky: As he was introducing more and more Beanies, we would go around to all of these stores and we would pick up these bags and bags of Beanies.
Simone: The Beckys -- they figured out how to make Ty’s deliberate scarcity work for them. They made lists and calls and collected all the discontinued Beanies they could find.
Simone: Then, they plugged into this newish thing at the time, called the internet… ever heard of it? And got on to what Becky E. calls, “the boards” -- old-school online chat rooms -- to see if other people might be interested in their special, retired Beanies.
Becky: We were realizing people were willing to pay money on these boards for these Beanies. People were like, “Oh, I'll pay a hundred dollars for Humphrey.”
Simone: That’s Humphrey the Camel, a popular Beanie that was retired in 1995. For all you rookie Beanie heads out there.
Becky: And we're like, “Oh my God, we've got ten Humphreys. Do you realize how much money that is?” We’re just like, “We could sell these.”
Simone: Once they realized how big the demand was, they got serious: selling rare Beanies not just on the boards, but also at toy shows, the county fair and sites like beaniemom.com.
Simone: By scooping Beanies up and telling people what they were worth, the Beckys were actually creating a new, even more lucrative secondary market. The Beckys weren’t just Beanie dealers. At this time, they were the Beanie dealers.
Simone: Becky E’s background made her perfect for the job. She had a degree in business administration and computer science -- and had worked for over a dozen years in IT, building huge databases. She made her Beanie Baby side hustle, her Beanie Baby full-time gig.
Simone: I’m telling you. Girl. Boss. Things!
Simone: In late 1996, about a year after the Beckys first started collecting, prices started to take off. They were selling for hundreds, even, thousands of dollars...
Simone: And then, the Beanie Babies craze hit even higher heights. In April of 1997, about a year and a half into the toy’s popularity, Ty Warner made a partnership deal that would introduce his toys to a much wider audience.
[MCDONALD’S AD, VO: Now at McDonald’s, your kids can get Teenie Beanie Babies and a Happy Meal. Real TY Beanie Babies in a mini size to toss, talk, or just plain love.]
Simone: Teenie Beanies. Beanies…but teenier. And with their little faces… ugh I can’t, it’s just too cute! And apparently, just about everyone in America thought so, too.
Becky: The McDonald Teenie Beanies is what broke it wide open. And it went bonkers. Everybody was going to McDonald's at that time.
Simone: Including the Beckys. Their goal was to collect all ten teeny beanies that McDonald's included in their Happy Meals. Beanies like Inch the Inchworm, Nuts the Squirrel, and Smoochy the Frog. If they got a full set of ten, Becky says they could sell it for about a hundred dollars.
Simone: But there was a roadblock to making this fast money: during the promotion, McDonalds realized that the demand for these toys was greater than the supply. The McDonald's corp started suggesting that franchise owners limit the number of Happy Meals each person could buy to ten.
Simone: So the Beckys hatched a plan.
Becky: Becky got in her van with her kids. And I got in my van. We would drive through the McDonald's. We would give each of the kids $20. They would go in one door, get the Teenie Beanies. We would go through the drive-throughs, then we would pick them up at the other end of the door.
Simone: Okay, child scammers…iconic.
Simone: The McDonald’s Teenie Beanie craze sent new fans looking for the full-size versions… the OG Beanies.
Simone: The nationwide frenzy shifted from McDonald’s to local stores. People would stand in long lines, pushing and shoving so they could add to their collections. At its peak, it was estimated that Ty was shipping retailers 15,000 orders of Beanies a day.
Simone: Of course, it was always hard to get the ones you actually wanted. Deliberate scarcity in action.
Simone: But for the Beckys -- who had been stockpiling old-school Beanies for years -- this craze meant cash.
Becky: People were paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars for these rare Beanies. And they thought that they're going to take these Beanies, they are going to put them away, and they're going to sell them and use this money to send their kids to college. And be able to, you know, help the kids maybe put a down payment on a house, or whatever. They were thinking that these are going to be super valuable.
Simone: This was the moment when collecting Beanie Babies stopped being just a fun thing for parents to do with their kids. A lot of people -- both fans and dealers -- wanted to get their chance at what they thought was a legitimate investment -- an investment that they were being told not to miss.
[HOME SHOPPING CLIP, Host 1: I don’t know how to begin on this…]
[HOME SHOPPING CLIP, Host 2: When something’s that good it literally sells itself, that’s how hot this is.]
[HOME SHOPPING CLIP, Host 1: Folks, literally we have 28 Beanie Babies in here, when you consider retirement…]
Simone: Home shopping networks were marketing them like crazy. The media was spreading the hype. And Beanie experts like the Beckys were publishing price guides, speculating how much Beanies would be worth in the future.
[ARCHIVAL, Man: If you know the prices that are current for the week that you’re trading…you’re gonna be able to sit back and relax.You need to know the prices to trade, buy, or sell correctly.]
Simone: Some went so far as to take their search international...
[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: So why you may ask, are Americans arriving by the plane-load to snap them up in London? Well, it's because suppliers are running desperately low in the States.]
Simone: They were so popular in the States, that people even willingly traded in their guns for them.
[NEWS CLIP, Reporter: Police are turning to Beanie Babies in the fight against crime. In all, 40 guns were exchanged for the Beanie Babies.]
Simone: The frenzy around the toys also led to crime. A masked man robbed a gift store in California at gunpoint. He stole $5,000 worth of Beanie Babies and left the cash register full of cash untouched. One West Virginia man, who worked at a lumber yard, shot and killed his coworker partially over a Beanie Babies debt.
Simone: I mean, the grip these beanies had on our 1990s throats…“Things got out of hand” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Simone: The craze, though, didn’t last forever.
Becky: It's kind of like the stock market. If they start to go up too high, you always know there's going to be a crash.
Simone: After the break, the Beanie Babies bubble bound to burst....
Simone: So Ty-ke a seat. Nope, that’s not it either. Just stick around. I’ll, I’ll keep working on it.
Simone: Welcome back, I’ve Beanie waiting for you. Okay, I think that’s the one. Yeah? Yeah.
Simone: Before the break, Beanie Baby fever reached its peak in the late 90s....Ty Inc. was shipping the little poseable dolls nonstop. One magazine -- there were several dedicated to the toys -- had a circulation of one million. And speculators were spending thousands of dollars for toys that originally sold for five dollars each.
Simone: They were betting that other people would want to buy their Beanies down the line, for even more than they paid for them.
Simone: But by the beginning of 1999, it was pretty clear that the supply of Beanies was starting to eclipse the demand.
Leon Schlossberg: When people started seeing how many were coming up for sale on Ebay, this whole myth of Beanie Babies being rare, went right out the window. The only rare ones were the limited edition ones and probably the first two generations.
Simone: This is Leon Schlossberg, an avid collector of Beanie Babies, who owns one of the largest collections of Ty products in the world. He's actually planning on starting a Ty museum. And he remembers when everything started to fall apart.
Leon: And as speculators realize, holy cow, we're sitting on all these Beanies and so is everybody else, these things are gonna crash in value quick.
Simone: When Ty Warner announced in August of 1999 -- 22 years ago this week -- that all beanies were about to be retired, the goal seemed like it was to counteract that crash. It was all part of Ty’s deliberate scarcity strategy.
Simone: But this go around, people didn’t go on a buying frenzy like they had in the past. And dealers started to get scared. On top of that, the so-called retirement didn’t last long: just four months later, Ty Inc. announced they’d keep Beanie Babies around after all.
Simone: Over the next couple of years, people like the Becky’s started to unload their Beanies en masse, causing the prices on the secondary market to bottom out.
Leon: Beanie Babies didn't crash; what declined was the value curve and the number of adults that were speculating in Beanie Babies. And the Beanie Babies stayed just as popular as they'd ever been. Ty kept making Beanie Babies and people kept buying them. This time though, it was the kids.
Simone: In the end, it was only a ticket out for some people. Specifically, Beanie dealers who got in early -- like the Beckys.
Simone: When all was said and done, many people lost thousands of dollars, in some cases, their entire life savings on the secondary market. And Ty Warner became one of the richest people in the world. He officially became a billionaire, appearing on Forbes’s list of wealthiest Americans in 1999, with an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
Simone: Hmm, funny how things always seem to work out that way in these get-rich-quick scenarios. A few people get rich....and the rest are left stunned that the fairy tale riches they were promised never materialized.
Simone: So, why do we become so obsessed with these incredibly risky -- and frankly, pretty illogical bets on the future? What is it about us that gets us so wrapped up in a get rich quick scheme? Turns out, this kind of thing is baked into our genetics.
Bill Bernstein: First and foremost, human beings are the ape that imitates.
Simone: This is Bill Bernstein. He's a neurologist turned history buff. And he wrote a book about financial manias called The Delusions of Crowds.
Bill: You see your neighbor buying Beanie Babies and making fabulous amounts of money and that induces envy and you wonder “Why can't I get rich too?”
Simone: He says that it’s the basic premise of FOMO, or fear of missing out. And it's this envy and this desire to be like others, that leads people to get in on the scheme.
Bill: That drives prices up, and the more prices get driven up, the more attention the object of the speculation gets, and it becomes a, ugh, a vicious cycle or a virtuous cycle, however you want to call it.
Simone: Bill says that to understand why we do what the people around us are doing, it's helpful to go back more than 10,000 years, when humans were migrating to the Americas.
Bill: Human beings had to build kayaks and igloos and learn how to hunt bison on the Great Plains, or to produce poisoned blow guns in the Amazon. All of which were things we needed to survive. And so, if you can imitate the one person who knows how to do any of those things, then your chances of surviving are much greater. So that ability to imitate will be selected for.
Simone: Basically, the more we were like everyone else, the more chances we had at survival. And that trait, that tendency to imitate, just stuck around.
Simone: But there’s more than just wanting to collect Beanie Babies because our neighbor has them and told us they were valuable.
Simone: Our desire to get rich quick also has to do with another intrinsic human behavior. We’re drawn to situations where we stand to win big -- but the likelihood of us actually winning is pretty low. Again, Bill says, this impulse can be tracked back through evolutionary time.
Bill: You know, in the situation where there are a hundred people in your tribe, and only one or two of you are going to be lucky enough to kill the bear or the bison, that will actually help your tribe.
Simone: Even though the bear or the bison is hard to kill -- it’s worth the risk because you feed the whole tribe. We’ve been taught to go for these high risk situations because we needed that high reward to survive.
Simone: So these two components of human behavior -- that have been selected for over millenia -- are drivers for not just the Beanie Baby bubble, but for any other bubble. Whether we’re talking tulips in the 1600s, llamas in the 1980s, or even today's cryptocurrency craze. They’re simply not built to last forever.
Bill: The bubble finally bursts when the last participants have entered into it and then there's no one left to buy.
Simone: This is exactly how the Beanie Baby bubble formed and eventually, burst. The high prices of beanie babies weren’t actually based on anything real.
Simone: The fact that this whole economy emerged around these toys -- toys that, frankly, aren’t even that dynamic -- I think speaks volumes about how desperate we are to just get that little edge, that step up, that opportunity to live a little better.
Simone: Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of collecting Beanie Babies. For a while, my beanie babies were my most treasured possession.
Simone: However, when you’re making life plans? Based on toys?! Just remember, fortune plays a fast and unpredictable game. And the game is rigged. Sure, a few people might come out of it richer -- the Ty Warners of this world. But for the rest of us, all I’m saying is, we’re working with a system that takes advantage of our evolutionary desires to get rich quick. So if you’re gonna swing big, just make sure you’re placing value on things that actually have value. Do a little homework -- mama, let’s research!
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Sarah Craig. Next week, we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Simone: It feels like there's some kind of erasure embedded within never forget, ironically enough.
Dr. Jacob Ham: Exactly. It didn’t include us. It honestly didn't include us. I honestly feel the same way you do. Exactly the same way.
Simone: The rest of our team is producer Kinsey Clarke. And associate producer Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Maura Walz and Andrea B. Scott. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka.
Simone: Special thanks to Zac Bissonnette. And to our listeners who sent us voicemails: Livia from El Paso, Texas; Sarah Gonzales from Albuquerque, New Mexico; Mary; Lillian Wilcox; Katie; and everyone else who sent us their Beanie Baby stories. And to Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
[VOICEMAIL, Mary: We stopped at every single McDonald's and we ordered as many Beanie Babies as we could. And for the next six weeks I ate nothing but old McDonald's burgers and cheese danishes, and I am not kidding.]