Constable: Remember 'Beanie Mania'? These women in a Naperville cul-de-sac made it happen
A fun-loving neighborhood in Naperville was the epicenter of the Beanie Babies craze of the 1990s, with the lovable $5 stuffed animals generating $1.4 billion in sales worldwide for toymaker Ty Warner of Oak Brook.
"It started here on our cul-de-sac," says Becky Phillips, who teamed with then-next door neighbor Becky Estenssoro to ignite the Beanie Babies mania. The two Beckys went from collectors to dealers, publishers, authors and worldwide authorities on everything having to do with Beanie Babies.
"There were five of us who had a complete collection of the Beanie Babies, just five," remembers Phillips, who notes that she, Estenssoro, Mary Beth Sobolewski, Dr. Paula Benchik-Abrinko and her sister Peggy Gallagher were influencers before there was such a thing.
"Essentially, it was a group of soccer moms -- so-called at the time -- who mainly lived in Naperville," director Yemisi Brookes tells "Entertainment Weekly" for a story about her "Beanie Mania" documentary airing now on HBO Max. "If you look at the phenomenon in detail, without these women, it's unlikely that the phenomenon would have reached the height that it did."
Two decades later, that remains a source of pride for Phillips, a former middle school language arts teacher and current real estate agent who still lives on that block where she and Estenssoro first caught the Beanie wave.
Growing up in a family of 11, Phillips always was a collector and first heard of Beanie Babies in December 1995. The following spring, she bought three "retired" Beanie Baby butterflies for her children at Easter. She knew retired products often went up in price. Soon, she and Estenssoro cleaned out the local stores.
"We are calling everywhere across the United States," Phillips remembers, noting that she ran up a $2,000 phone bill when long distance calls were expensive. During a trip to Cleveland, she bought 75 Beanie Babies on sale for $3.99 each. Estenssoro followed a UPS delivery van to Navy Pier and cleaned out the stores. They went in AOL chat rooms to talk about Beanies Babies.
"Becky and Becky were buying and selling," remembers journalist Joni Hirsch Blackman, who still lives in that cul-de-sac. "It was just scuttlebutt. There was no craze."
A frequent writer for People magazine, Blackman pitched a Beanie Baby story idea to her editors in Chicago, who got the OK from editors in New York. While Ty Warner famously refused all interviews, he opened the doors of his office and home to Blackman for the only interview he ever gave on the subject.
"He struck me as a Willy Wonka kind of guy," says Blackman, whose story ran on July 1, 1996. "It was a really sweet story at the time."
That fall, the two Beckys sold Beanie Babies at the Kane County Flea Market and continued to sell the dolls at other toy shows. At one show, they sold $30,000 worth of Beanie Babies in two hours. With prices escalating, the pair posted a price guide on the "Beanie Mom" website run by Sara Nelson. When their price guide was used in a CNN story, the pair decided to write the first price guide book for Beanie Babies called "Beanie Mania: The Complete Collector's Guide," and they dedicated it to their children, Michelle, Michael and Caroline Phillips, and Christopher, Audra and Matthew Estenssoro.
"It was because of them that our journey began into the world of Beanie Babies -- a journey that has changed our lives forever!" they wrote.
Experts on all things Beanie Babies, they gave interviews to media outlets nationwide and beyond. "Fox loved us," Phillips says.
"I actually left the corporate world to do the Beanies full time," Estenssoro says. "It was probably one of the best times of our lives. It was amazing what we accomplished, and it was a really, really fun time."
Now living in Missouri, the 62-year-old businesswoman still runs beaniebabiespriceguide.com with editor Karen Holmes and researcher Karen Boeker, and she still makes money authenticating Beanie Babies for costumers. "Can you believe Beanies are still going? We say that every year," Estenssoro says.
But the litigious Warner, counterfeiters and unrealistic dreams of some collectors cast a shadow over Beanie Babies.
Sobolewski, one of the original Naperville mothers, founded Mary Beth's Beanie World, a popular collector magazine dedicated to the plush toys. When the billionaire Warner, who later avoided prison but was convicted of tax fraud, sued her publisher for trademark infringement, the magazine was published as Mary Beth's Bean Bag World until it ceased publication in 2001.
Counterfeiters also ruined the feel-good vibe, says Phillips.
"People were paying so much for their Beanies and they were getting ripped off," says Phillips. She and Estenssoro did the first chronology of "hang tags" and "tush tags" that were attached to each toy to help people recognize original products.
While prices on the resell market did soar for a while -- Phillips sold a prototype dinosaur for $50,000 -- the dreams of people who bought Beanie Babies in the hopes they would pay for college someday never came to fruition.
One online shopping site now features the Beanie Baby made to honor Princess Diana after her death selling for $50,000. Next to that is the same bear with an asking price of $8.
The value of the Beanie Baby craze isn't monetary.
"We did it as a family," Phillips says, noting her husband Dave, and their kids had a lot of fun traveling the country, doing interviews, attending special events and searching for rare Beanie Babies. "It was the hunt."
She still has hundreds of Beanie Babies, which she plans to pass on to grandkids, as she reads them books.
Estenssoro has 20 or 30 of the first Beanie Babies.
"I think of all the positive that came out of it," Phillips says, suggesting that kids today still will find joy in the simple creatures. "Hopefully, the tags are off and kids are playing with them."