What was the Princess Diana Beanie Baby?
In the midnineties, my older sisters and I collected Ty Beanie Babies, as most of our peer group did. When I think of Beanie Babies, I think of the piles. Big piles saturated with every color and texture of fuzz, dotted with shiny black eyes and noses. They had a nice weight to them, too, a little heavier than stuffed animals. The pile became a classic image in the Beanie Baby mythos: the collector buried in Beanies. My sisters kept their collections (numbering several dozen) safely stowed in the pockets of over-the-door shoe organizers with plastic tag protectors and careful inventory lists, while I played with mine, ripping their tags off with abandon and allowing them, despite their Ty-brand prestige, to mingle with my other stuffed animals and dolls. Not that I had any objection to them as a commodity: I enjoyed collecting them, too, lining up at Pink’s or Hallmark—the two local authorized Beanie dealers in my New Jersey town—in anticipation of new releases. I read the trade rag, Mary Beth’s Beanie World. I called my local McDonald’s answering machine to hear which Teeny Beanies they were offering with Happy Meals. I searched in vain for rare, highly sought-after defective Beanies: a Spot with no spot, an albino elephant.
Today the Internet, with its relentless nostalgia mill, won’t let us forget how worthless our Beanie Babies have become. “Remember When Everyone Was Going to Re-sell Their Beanie Babies and Become Millionaires?” a piece on E! asked. I can’t help but feel vindicated by articles like these. My sisters were convinced that their Ty collections would be worth a lot of money someday; they had to be protected. But: a toy you don’t play with? It sounded dumb. It sounded dumb because it was dumb, and I somehow got that right—this at a time when I was wrong about many, many things. This at a time when I thought that Titanic was the most culturally important, most pornographic, longest movie ever made. (I had not actually seen Titanic, but I knew from my own careful taping that you could fit six hours of video on a VHS tape, and Titanic took up two tapes, so it had to be, like, twelve hours long.)
Still, I can’t escape some weird feeling about Beanie Babies: about the bizarre hysteria they generated and the prescience with which they foresaw the Internet as a vast archive for our personal ephemera and its emotional baggage.
I remember Beanie Babies as part of the happy texture of consumerism woven into my nineties-era childhood, along with the dusty blue Dodge Caravan, the arrival of the bovine Gateway box containing my family’s first PC, the Book-It program in which Baby Sitters-Club books translated into Pizza Hut personal pan pies. I got what enjoyment I could out of them, even as the Beanie Baby didn’t exactly invite love or encourage narrative imagination in the way that a true comfort object could. The Beanie Baby was a doll of sorts, but one that was totally separate from the world of play, which relies on creative possibility. A Beanie—with its two tags, a hang Tag and a tush Tag, both never to be removed and often accompanied by embroidered chest insignia—cut off that possibility. Its packaging and identifiers underscored its status as an object and limited its ability to come alive. It was a bag of beans (or PVC/PE pellets, more specifically) and its name told us as much. Each Beanie Baby came with a bland name assigned to it—Spot the Dog, Batty the Bat, Ally the Alligator, Ears the Bunny, Inch the Inchworm. They were all about this obviousness. And boring, compared to those that kids, who are generally pretty amazing at naming things, could come up with. My sisters and I christened a stuffed brown dog “Poyles McCrocketts” in loving tribute to the French Canadian Poulet McCroquettes we’d enjoyed at a Montreal McDonald’s, the single precious American meal on our road trip through Canada.
Rilke expressed his frustration with the wax doll from his childhood this way:
With the doll we were forced to assert ourselves … It made no response whatever, so that we were put in the position of having to take over the part it should have played, of having to split our gradually enlarging personality into part and counterpart; in a sense, through it to keep the world, which was entering into us on all sides, at a distance.
I think it’s precisely this doubleness, this splitting of one’s personality in order to play both parts, that so appeals to kids who like playing with dolls and making believe. The dolls I had were just surrogates for the lives I gave them, episodically, each time I took them out. Even when I’d outgrown dolls (or had at least sensed that it was embarrassing to be seen with them) I had a group of girl portraits I had drawn on pieces of paper, and I would lay them out on the floor in a yearbook matrix and tell stories about them. The Beanie Baby offered no splitting of the self, no role-playing; it was an object to be collected. Beanie Babies were bad toys for the same reasons they were good tools for creating hysteria: their itemization and duplicability were always at the forefront, with the frenzy focusing almost entirely on matters of inventory and scarcity.
One of the reasons behind what I’d call the Beanie Baby creep factor is that they were clearly made for soccer moms. Even the term “tush tag” is pure Mom-speak. As Zac Bissonnette chronicles in The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute, Beanie Baby collecting started with a group of Chicago moms who were bent on assembling full sets of them. They began noticing unique product variations for which they would pay higher prices, and a trade market was generated. These variations were the result of the CEO Ty Warner’s extreme perfectionism. He would pull certain Beanie models after they’d shipped, deciding they didn’t look quite right and proceeding to redesign them. There would be several limited runs of a given character, with varying shades of fabric or eyeball placement. The trading of rare Beanie Babies ultimately helped launch e-commerce. There was a moment in the early days of eBay when 10 percent of transactions were Beanie Baby–related. Ty successfully commoditized the idea of a collector’s item, making it accessible to the masses. But it was collectors themselves who created a global online trading network based on extreme speculation. Ty capitalized on this, releasing limited quantities of a new Beanie Baby to create the illusion of scarcity before flooding stores with an ultimately worthless “collectible.”
Nothing made the targeted appeal to moms clearer than the Princess Diana Beanie Baby. PrincessTM, a royal-purple bear emblazoned with a white rose, was announced by Ty on October 29, 1997, just two months after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and at roughly the height of the Beanie Baby craze. While girls my age had their eyes on a different sort of English royalty—the Spice Girls, with their working-class, crass, unrefined, overtly sexual affect—moms had watched Princess Di’s tragic story unfold since the early eighties, and it’s telling that Ty designed a Beanie Baby aimed directly at their demographic.
At first, Ty permitted retailers to order only twelve Princess Beanie Babies per store, leading many collectors to believe it would be an extremely limited edition and driving the secondary market price to over two hundred dollars. The page for Princess on tycollector.com notes that “contrary to all of the hype, misinformation, and secondary market speculation, even a ‘first edition’ version of Princess made in China is currently worth approximately $29.” The site rigorously debunks every angle of Princess price inflation, from the space versus no-space hang tags, to PVC versus PE pellets, to Indonesian- versus Chinese-made versions. It concludes that short of a “PVC-eating” supervirus, the value of Princess is unlikely to dramatically increase in our lifetimes. As of this July, there were more than fifteen hundred “rare” Princesses for sale on eBay.
The PDBB was such a strange, mysterious, morbid play-object. I remember feeling like I had to treat it with reverence. You couldn’t really play with it—for what, exactly, would this funereal purple bear get up to? Outside of imagining what it might be worth someday, it was merely an object of eerie sentimentality. There’s a rich history of spooky death dolls, from the ushabti figurines placed in ancient Egyptian tombs and intended to serve as minions for the deceased to voodoo dolls and The Twilight Zone’s Talking Tina, which had the power to kill. A ballad about a young woman freezing to death in a speeding carriage inspired the popular Victorian-era Frozen Charlotte doll, a ceramic corpse that came in its own coffin and was baked into cakes and puddings as a surprise for children. Each of these totems has a fabular, cautionary air about it, and Princess tapped into this same mood. A poem on the inside of its heart-shaped tag read, “She only stayed with us long enough to teach / The world to share, to give, to reach.”
In December 1997, the same month the Princess Diana Beanie Baby came out, Titanic came to the cineplex. These events are connected in my mind, both having insinuated themselves, with treacly flourishes, into our permanent cultural memory. The two were similarly earnest, sentimental, unapologetically pop phenomena. They were part of a larger fluffy, pop-lite, heartthrobby counterpunch to the angst of early-nineties grunge—“MMMbop” as the anti-Nirvana. A 1997 Times think piece by Linda Lee—in which Gen-Y teens are referred to as Tamagotcheratis—identified this shift toward an almost fifties-esque youthquake idoldom that saw the rise of wholesome stars like Melissa Joan Hart, J. T. T., Buffy, and Titanic’s Leonardo DiCaprio. Douglas Coupland, quoted in the article, noted, “At the core of pop culture these days we find Mentos, Goosebumps, and Hanson … ‘The edge’ is over.” It’s easy to assign a youthquake to the tastes of teens themselves, but trends like the Beanie Baby point to a fascination with syrupy innocence from older demographics as well.
If there’s a teachable moment to be gleaned from Princess Di—her struggles with mental illness, the intense media scrutiny she faced—I’m not sure Ty contributed much besides a mawkish pile-on. But I do think the PDBB has something to tell us about the instant nostalgia we’ve come to know online, as well as the practice of collecting in light of the dwindling presence of objects in our lives. Arriving at a transitional time when Tamagotchi, Pokémon, and Digimon offered some of the first virtual pets, Beanie Babies tapped into an anxiety over the loss of the tangible that has come to fuel all kinds of collecting, from vinyl to cameras to postcards. Moreover, Beanie Babies rely on a nostalgia for childish imagination that they don’t themselves embody or allow. They anticipate our missing something that never quite was, a shortcut that activates the warm feelings we associate with memory-laden, lived-in toys without actually generating them; they collapse the timeline in a way that’s become overwhelmingly familiar to us in a digital world where event and analysis are simultaneous, where we take vintage-style snaps of our food situated on an endless archival feed. Princess felt most like a timeless, million-dollar collectible at the moment of purchase. Its true shelf life wasn’t linked to its value as an object but as a memory: it was always waiting to be reclaimed by the endless, zombielike cycle of ultimate-nineties-kid clickbait.
Today my sisters’ Beanie Baby collections are no longer protected. They’re buried, along with mine, in a cardboard box somewhere in our parents’ attic. We can’t get rid of them. We tried to sell them for fifty cents apiece at a garage sale ten or so years ago, but at day’s end we were still left with a great big pile.
Chantal McStay is a writer and editor in New York. She is currently an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at BOMB Magazine.