From the Archives: The PEOPLE Article That Kicked Off the Beanie Baby Craze, as Seen in 'Beanie Mania'

The HBO Max documentary Beanie Mania looks back at the stuffed toys' journey from local fad to nationwide phenomenon — and this PEOPLE article kicked off the insanity

Ty Warner, creator of Beanie Babies toys
Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Beanie Mania premiered on HBO Max Dec. 23, taking a look back at one of the most over-the-top fads in American history. From 1996 to 2000, the tiny stuffed animals flew off toy store shelves, drove collectors into a frenzy and sold on the secondary market for thousands of dollars. (Drivers on an Atlanta highway even risked their lives trying to grab McDonalds' Teenie Beanies that had spilled onto the road.)

As the documentary explains, the whole thing started with a group of enthusiastic moms in suburban Naperville, Ill. — one of whom, Joni Hirsch Blackman, happened to be a stringer for PEOPLE. She profiled the brand's elusive founder, Ty Warner, for a July 1, 1996 article in the magazine, which helped kick off the nationwide craze for the tiny, $5 plush animals.

How much are Beanie Babies worth today? Though they hardly reach the dizzying heights profiled in the film (during which conventions, pricing guides and magazines were dedicated to the market), you can find some of the more "desirable bears" (like "Princess") listed on eBay for about $40, and more selling in the $5-10 range. Beanie Mania says that, as people are discovering their parents' or grandparents' collections in storage, interest is going up again and demand is starting to rise.

Read on for the PEOPLE article that helped start it all (then go dig in your closet to see if you still have a mint-condition "Legs").

They have soft heads, floppy ears and squishy bodies. They're also small enough to fit in your pocket. But to store owners like Richard Gernady, whose suburban Glenview, Ill., shop sold 5,000 of the pint-size, stuffed animals in the week before Valentine's Day, Beanie Babies are huge. They may become "the biggest thing ever in retailing," Gernady predicts. "Elvis, Sinatra and the Beatles combined."

Well, maybe. But at the very least, Beanies seem to be the next blip on the hula hoop-Pet Rock-Rubik's Cube-Cabbage Patch Doll toy-of-the-moment continuum.

"I knew I had a winner," says Chicago toy designer H. Ty Warner, founder and sole owner of Beanie-producing Ty, Inc. With a production-line-busting, 1,000 percent increase in orders since last year, Warner is paddling hard to keep ahead of the tidal wave.

A 30-year toy-industry veteran, the 50ish Warner — who shares his posh Oak Brook, Ill., home with girlfriend Faith McGowan, a former lighting store manager, and her daughters Lauren, 13, and Jenna, 11 — has run his own stuffed-animal company since 1985.

Seeing an opening for pocket-size, low-cost toys that weren't, as he puts it, "real trash," he developed the Beanies in 1993, purposely under-stuffing them to make them more huggable. Shop owners say the 66-piece line — which takes on new members every six months — appeals as much to adult collectors as it does to kids.

Lately the appeal is getting stronger. In April, Warner leased three 737s to fly an emergency shipment of Beanies from the factory in Seoul to U.S. stores in time for Easter. "The more we ship, the more people want," Warner says.

The appeal of Beanies seems to be their sweet faces, soft structures and cartoony names (Chops the lamb, Chocolate the moose, Speedy the turtle). The $5 price tag doesn't hurt either.

Jim Weaver, a Glenview, Ill., United Parcel Service driver who often runs gauntlets of Beanie-maniacs when he delivers to toy stores, says kids are just as excited about buying Tabasco the red bull as they are about Air Jordans.

"How many times can you buy something for five bucks that's going to drive a kid bananas?" he asks.

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