Welcome to How I Got Radicalized, a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.
We laughed about the Beanie Babies. There were hundreds of them, piled onto shelves in my little sisters’ bedroom. The shelves were high up, but there were just a few Beanies truly off-limits, the Princess Diana bear, a platypus, Weenie the dachshund. The rare babies had plastic covers over their tags. Princess Diana Bear was supposed to stay in a plastic case, but was often found lollygagging with the commoners. My siblings and I played with the Beanie Babies, but they weren’t our toys. This was the ’90s and those pellet stuffed animals were my stay-at-home mom’s personal investments.
My mom didn’t graduate college. She had me in her early twenties and three more kids followed. My dad was the breadwinner and she was the homemaker. As we got a little older, she sought a way to participate in the economic world outside our home. She always floundered. There was no solid ground for a full-time homemaker to find financial footing. She dabbled in a few multilevel marketing schemes (MLMs), which promised to let her continue caretaking while giving her personal economic stability. I remember her making food for a Longaberger Basket party; cheese spreads, crackers, and a company story that sold enough baskets to save a Moses for every generation of the human story. But she found MLMs were exploitative and unprofitable, an unpersuasive combination.
My mom is what we now call a “creative.” Her DIY home projects would have net her 500,000 followers in today’s influencer market. She refinished found objects for our house. She made an old chicken crate into our coffee table. As a kid, I slept in a cast iron bed she found half-buried in a hill in New Mexico. She brought it back to California where she powdercoated it before setting it up in my room. In my memories of my childhood, my mom is in our front yard sanding something on a tarp. Mom was always producing something in our home, but the production wasn’t profitable. She was a young mom decades before Instagram. She had no accessible way to monetize her domesticity.
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When the Beanie Baby Bubble began to form in 1996, my mom sensed an opportunity. It was a market she could understand. She was good at finding things and she had access to just enough capital to hop into the fray. The Beanie Baby market was run by women like her. The women were approachable. They didn’t talk down to her because she was a mother. Many of them were mothers too. When she found a Beanie Baby on eBay, the seller was often a mom trying to make a living from home. They’d message back and forth about their babies, the ones they gave birth to along with the stuffed ones. When she bought the Beanie Babies at sticker price, the interaction was bonding. Ty Warner only sold Beanies to independently owned shops, little corner toy stores, and strip mall stationery shops. As often as not, there was a woman who owned the store behind the counter. They’d connect over sold-out Beanie shipments. There was no jargon my mom had to learn, no obvious proof she was an outsider and so an easy mark. It all seemed so legible. She just had to buy and sell.
Retailers didn’t like Beanie Babies when Ty Warner first released them. They thought they were cheap-looking. The Beanies had two things going for them. The animals were lightly filled with plastic pellets, which made them poseable in a way other stuffed animals at the time were not. And Beanie Babies weren’t forever. Their creator, Ty Warner, retired Beanies. The retirements made some Beanies rare and therefore valuable. Since the retirements were random, all Beanie Babies had the potential to become valuable. Warner didn’t invent this strategy and he wasn’t the last to profit from it. Collectors bought piles of $7 Beanies in the hopes that one day a few of them would face retirement.
She was a young mom decades before Instagram. She had no accessible way to monetize her domesticity.
Four women in Chicago are credited with creating the Beanie Baby secondary market. Becky Phillips, Becky Estenssoro, Dr. Paula Benchik-Abrinko, and Peggy Gallagher. When retirements began, collecting quickly followed. The women called all over the country searching for rare Beanie Babies, driving demand and interest in communities they’d never visited. Gallagher started ordering Beanie Babies from Ty’s German distributor, paying MSRP for Beanies that couldn’t be found stateside. She turned a $2,000 order into a $300,000 cash out. Benchik-Abrinko ended calls to neighboring hospitals requesting to be transferred to the gift shop. She’d purchase all the Beanie Babies they had. Gallagher started a Beanie Baby price list, creating market prices out of whole cloth, or maybe stuffed cloth. Zac Bissonnette, who wrote a book on the Beanie Bubble, writes, “In the beginning she simply decreed that most retired Beanie Babies were worth $10 or $20 each, and then watched in amazement as the market went there.”
Mom found some Beanies online, but kept most of her searches local. She’d stop into stores to check on inventory after dropping us off at school. She knew what she was looking for; she kept a mental inventory of the declared value of the babies. She depended on price guides made by other collectors, reports in the news, rumors in the shops that sold them, “Did you hear that a Peanut the elephant went for $10,000 in Chicago?” Sometimes we’d tease her, “How much is that shelf worth?” We were laughing, and she was too, but she could always tell us. She had plans for the money she’d make when she finally sold the collection. Trips for the family and college tuition. My mom’s work was unpaid. She volunteered, she raised us while my dad worked 80 hour weeks keeping his small business going, she cared nearly full time for aging parents. Our house depended on her and so did several others. But she was completely dependent on my dad’s income. When she occasionally applied to jobs, her empty resume never warranted an interview. Beanie Babies were the rare chance for a stay-at-home mom to gain economic footing without exploiting other moms an MLM downline.
Every Beanie Baby collector had at least one story of triumph, my mom’s was at the stationery store down the street from our house. They sold greeting cards, Mary Engelbreit prints, and Beanie Babies. When the shop got their shipment of six Princess Diana bears, they decided to hold a silent auction for one of them. The Princess Diana Bear was released to honor Diana after her death; proceeds from the bear went to a memorial fund in her name. Like so many other young women at the time, my mom felt a kinship with Diana. She cried when she died. This bear had value but it also had meaning. The auction was silent but my mom squealed when she won it. For $150, the bear was hers. A week later we talked about what a good deal she’d gotten. We’d heard of other Princess Diana bears selling for $500 on this new thing called eBay.
In his book about the founding of eBay, The Perfect Store, Adam Cohen writes, “It would be an exaggeration to say that eBay was built on Beanie Babies, but not by much.” Beanie Babies were the first internet viral sensation. In just one month in 1997, $500,000-worth of Beanie Babies were sold on eBay, “totaling 6.6% of overall sales.” Between 1994 and 1999 the annual rate of return on Beanie Baby investment was 170%. We laughed when we asked my mom what her shelves of Beanie Babies were worth, but she’d made an investment with proven returns.
My family wasn’t the only one laughing about Beanie Babies. This mostly female-controlled, pellet-stuffed market was everyone’s favorite punchline. Dave Barry wrote, “Whenever you have something intended as innocent fun for children, you can count on adults to turn it into an obsessive, grotesquely overcommercialized ‘hobby’ with the same whimsy content as the Bataan Death March.’’ Clapping and laughing in the car with my mom when we got a rare Teeny Beanie in a McDonald’s Happy Meal didn’t feel grotesque, but maybe it was. It is interesting to note, Barry’s criticism is just another variation of the same line women who stay home get when they try to enter any kind of economic market. Except now we hear about how grotesquely overcommercialized influencers are when they do sponsored posts from their kitchens.
Grotesque or not, the Beanie Baby secondary market made Ty Warner a billionaire. It spurred a multiyear Beanie buying frenzy. Warner wasn’t very kind about the collectors that made his empire, calling them “crazy.” Women are credited with, and sometimes blamed for, creating the Beanie Baby Bubble, but Warner manipulated it. Beanie Baby retirements, teased on the Beanie Baby website, were orchestrated to force a scarcity mindset. Nothing golden stays, not even when it’s stuffed with plastic pellets. Ty Toys burst their own Beanie Bubble when they discontinued the toys and sent a shock of uncertainty through the market. Beanie Babies weren’t worth anything if they were all being retired. In 2000, Ty Toys restarted the line, but it was too late to capture the magic or the madness.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The Beanie Baby Boom and the recent GameStop Boom aren’t so different from one another. Both were secondary markets driven by individual investors. Individual investors are driven more by sentiment than fundamentals. The meaning of the stock or stuffie matters to them. Our reactions to them are telling. All markets are made up. GameStop options are less tangible than Pinchers the lobster. When Redditors decided to meme stock GameStop, they were irrational heroes. When moms decided to meme stock Beanie Babies, they were irrational idiots.
Women are credited with, and sometimes blamed for, creating the Beanie Baby Bubble, but Ty Warner manipulated it.
My mom didn’t sell in time. MLMs and secondary markets are different, but success in both depends on early adoption. The people who got into the Beanie Baby Bubble early did well. The ones that got in a little later, or held onto their Beanies too long, did not. The worldwide Beanie Baby Bubble burst in 1999. I am not sure when the Beanie Bubble burst in my house. I just know we stopped asking my mom how much her shelves of Beanie Babies were worth when she started shrugging her shoulders as an answer. She gave most of the toys away; we lost others. My mom made other attempts in my childhood to maintain our homesphere while entering the marketsphere. Selling her watercolor prints, making rolled beeswax candles, starting a children’s choir. None of them paid enough to pay for our childcare.
Sometimes secondary markets matter not because of their overall financial impact but because of their cultural impact. The cultural impact of the Beanie Bubble bears investigation. Peer-reviewed articles and think pieces tried to pick out the lessons from it. Some people concentrated on the toy’s groundbreaking internet virality, others on the market’s collapse. Me? I learned that in ’90s America, a full-time caregiver’s best shot at economic empowerment came in the form of a purple stuffed bear. In 2021, there’s not even a bear for stay-at-home moms to sit next to their hopes on a shelf.