Each decade always seems to have their own toy fads, those must-have playthings that parents are willing to spend hours waiting in line for just so they can stuff their kids’ stocking with the latest and greatest craze sweeping America. In the 1980’s it was Cabbage Patch kids that garnered the most attention, but the 1990s had their own fair share of overnight sensations in the toy department, products that had people camping out in the aisles of their local Toys R Us in order to ensure that they wouldn’t be disappointed if stocks ran out.
Of course, some of these toys were so sophisticated that not only did they have their own independent distribution network, but they also managed to transcend the typical ‘toy’ label and cross the line into ‘collectible’ status. The most prominent examples of this trend were Beanie Babies, lovable little plush toys stuffed with plastic beans that were initially modeled after animals. Beanie Babies leapt into the public consciousness in 1993 by employing a strategy of limited production numbers for each particular model, which were given cute names like ‘Chocolate the Moose’ or ‘Legs the Frog.’ Once supplies ran out, the toys were off the market forever, leading collectors who simply had to have every single Beanie Baby to bid enormous amounts for the rarest of the rare examples. Beanie Babies were at first mostly sold through small specialty retail shops, but eventually their appeal spread to such a degree that the billion dollar Beanie Baby industry colonized the cable networks, where their cute little faces would become a home shopping staple. At the end of the decade, these toys had seen their popularity fade, although there is still an active Beanie Baby trade kept alive on eBay for hardcore collectors.
The next cuddly little object of desire to set the toy shelves on fire was an innocuous doll version of one of the world’s favorite Muppets. Tickle Me Elmo was a soft Elmo toy that would respond to squeezes and hugs with pre-recorded laughter and giggles. It would also vibrate just like the ‘real’ Elmo presumably would if his funny bone had been tickled. This seemingly innocent toy would ignite a firestorm of consumer greed, with people actually beating each other up in stores to get their hands on as many of the dolls as they could. There appeared to be no real rhyme or reason behind the Elmo toy’s sudden popularity amongst children in 1996, especially given the fact that other Muppets in the Tickle Me line did not fare nearly as well in terms of sales. Of course, there is rarely any sense to be found in a fad, and the Tickle Me Elmo story was a wild roller coaster that would not be duplicated in the decade’s closing years.
One the less aggressively consumerist toy phenomena of the 1990’s was the Tamagotchi, a tiny little computerized pet that could live on a keychain or the pocket of a child. The Tamagotchi’s world consisted of a small LCD screen where its owners could play with it, feed it, and of course tidy up after it had, ahem, taken care of business. The Tamagotchi had been a huge success in Japan and when it hit North America kids went wild, with many becoming quite attached to their digital pets. One of the key ways that the Tamagotchi drew people in was the fact that the actions of its owner – how many times the pet was played with, how well it was looked after – would have a direct influence on the ‘status’ of the creature, in terms of its happiness and its health. In fact, a neglected Tamagotchi could actually ‘suffer’ and even ‘die,’ a somewhat cruel lesson for children who had forgotten the toy in their backpack for a few weeks. There were a number of different Tamagotchis available, with a range of characteristics, looks and sensitivities that made some easier to care for than others.
Each of these toys enjoyed the spotlight for a brief but very intense period in the 1990’s, a decade where technology met cuteness and changed the lives of millions of kids around the world.