Synopses & Reviews
A Mania for Tulips
They came from all over Holland, dressed like crows in black from head to foot and journeying along frozen tracks rendered treacherous by the scars of a thousand hooves and narrow wheels. They had cloaked and blanketed themselves against the biting winter wind -- the wealthiest rattling along in unsprung carriages that jerked from rut to pothole like an untried sailor lurching through a hurricane, the rest on horseback with their heads bowed against the cold. Traveling singly or in twos and threes, they clattered through the flat and sterile landscape north of Amsterdam, riding on until they came to the little town of Alkmaar near the coast.
They were middle-aged and stoutly built: shrewd and successful men who had made their money in trade, who knew how to turn a profit and what it meant to live well. Most were clean-shaven and ruddy-faced; their clothes, though drab, were cut from the finest cloth, and the purses that they carried were snugly full of money. Passing through the gates of the town at dusk, the visitors made their way through Alkmaar's cramped and narrow streets and found rooms in taverns near the busy marketplace. There they ate and drank and puffed their long clay pipes into the night, calling for great pitchers of wine and plates of roasted meats, sprawling back in their hard wooden chairs and talking shop till past midnight by the smoky, jaundice-yellow light of the peat fires in the grates.
The business of these rich Dutch merchants was not grain or spices, timber or fish. They dealt, rather, in tulip bulbs -- drab and anonymous brown packages of no intrinsic worth, which resembled nothing so much as onions. Yet as unpromising as they might at first appear, flowers at this time were far more precious than the richest commodities that could be found piled up on the wharves of Amsterdam. Some tulips were so scarce and so greatly coveted that they were worth more than a hundred times their weight in gold, and successful bulb dealers could make huge profits. At this time the richest man in the whole of the United Provinces was worth 400,000 guilders -- a sum amassed over several generations. But some tulip traders were buying and selling single flowers for hundreds, even thousands of guilders and building paper fortunes of as much as forty or sixty thousand guilders in a matter of a year or two.
The bulb dealers had come to Alkmaar to attend an unprecedented auction. The guardians of the little orphanage in the town had come into the possession of one of the most valuable collections of tulips in the whole of the Netherlands. Caring more for the flowers' value than for their beauty, they were selling off the bulbs for the benefit of some of the children in their care. So shortly after dawn broke, gray and chill, the traders began to make their way to the saleroom in the Nieuwe Schutters-Doelen -- the headquarters of Alkmaar's civic guard, an ornate and gabled building in the center of the town.
It was a large room, but they filled it. The bidding started briskly and soon became frantic. Single bulbs were knocked down for 200 guilders, then 400, 600, 1,000, and more. Four of the hundred or so lots were sold for in excess of 2,000 guilders apiece. And when at last the final tulip had been sold and all the money tallied, the auction proved to have raised a total of 90,000 guilders, which was, quite literally, a fortune in those days.
The date was February 5, 1637, the day flower fever reached such a pitch of frenzy in the United Provinces that once-worthless bulbs truly theatened to supplant precious metals as objects of desire. That day the tulip completed a journey that had begun hundreds of years before and thousands of miles away.
and#8220;Equally heartwarming and heartbreaking, this accessible work will captivate.and#8221;
and#8212;Library Journal, Starred review
and#8220;Bissonnette (Debt-Free U) does a masterful job of tracing the rise and fall of the Beanie Baby phenomenon of the 1990s . . .and#160; This cautionary tale of elevated consumerism, with collectors fretting over what they didnand#8217;t have rather than taking pleasure in what they did, serves as a useful history lesson for today, told with wit and subtlety.and#8221;
and#8220;The spectacular story of the strangest speculative bubble there ever was and the man behind it. A must-read for anyone looking to understand how manias start and markets go insane."
and#8212;LIAQUAT AHAMED, Pulitzer Prizeand#8211;winningand#160;author of Lords of Finance
and#8220;Fascinating, strange, sad, funny, and entirely engrossing,and#160;The Great Beanie Baby Bubbleand#160;is a smart, engaging book thatand#8217;s as much about the odd saga of these plush toys as it is about the nature of obsession and desire.and#8221;
and#8212;SUSAN ORLEAN, author ofand#160;Rin Tin Tin
and#8220;In spare, elegant prose, Zac Bissonnette tells the riveting story of how Ty Warner ruthlessly built Beanie Babies into a mania as misguided and regrettable as the 1637 Dutch tulip craze and
mortgage-backed securities in 2008. You wonand#8217;t be able to put this book down.and#8221;
and#8212;WILLIAM D. COHAN, author ofand#160;Money and Power
and#8220;The amazing story of the time the world lost its mind over little beanbag critters named Punchers, Humphrey, and Wingless Quackers. Zac Bissonnette takes us on a journey into the secretive world of the man behind the mania, Ty Warner.and#8221;
and#8212;BILL DEDMAN, coauthor of the bestselling biographyand#160;Empty Mansions
A bestselling journalist delivers the never-before-told story of the plush animaland#160;craze that became the tulip mania of the 1990s
In the annals of consumer crazes, nothing compares to Beanieand#160;Babies. In just three years, collectors who saw the toys as aand#160;means of speculation made creator Ty Warner, an eccentricand#160;college dropout, a billionaireand#151;without advertising or big-boxand#160;distribution. Beanie Babies were ten percent of eBayand#8217;s sales inand#160;its early days, with an average selling price of $30and#151;six timesand#160;the retail price. At the peak of the bubble in 1999, Warner reportedand#160;a personal income of $662 millionand#151;more than Hasbroand#160;and Mattel combined.
The end of the craze was swift and devastating, withand#160;and#147;rareand#8221; Beanie Babies deemed worthless as quickly as theyand#8217;dand#160;once been deemed priceless.
Bissonnette draws on hundreds of interviews (includingand#160;a visit to a man who lives with his 40,000 Ty productsand#160;and an in-prison interview with a guy who killed a coworkerand#160;over a Beanie Baby debt) for the first book on the strangestand#160;speculative mania of all time.
and#147;Whenever you have something intended as innocent fun for children, you can count on adults to turn it into an obsessive, grotesquely over-commercialized and#145;hobbyand#8217; with the same whimsy content as the Bataan Death March."
and#151;Humorist Dave Barry on Beanie Babies,and#160;The Miami Herald, 1998
There has never been a craze like Beanie Babies. The $5 beanbag animals with names like Seaweed the Otter and Gigi the Poodle drove millions of Americans into a greed-fueled frenzy as they chased the rarest Beanie Babies, whose values escalated weekly in the late 1990s.and#160;
A single Beanie Baby sold for $10,000, and on eBay the animals comprised 10 percent of all sales. Suburban moms stalked UPS trucks to get the latest models, a retired soap opera star lost his kidsand#8217; six-figure college funds investing in them, and a New Jersey father sold three million copies of a self-published price guide that predictedand#160;what each animal would be worth in ten years. More than any other consumer good in history, Beanie Babies were carried to the height of success by a collective belief that their values would always rise.
Just as strange as the mass hysteria was the man behind it. From the day he started in the toy industry, after dropping out of college, Ty Warner devoted all his energy to creating what he hoped would be the most perfect stuffed animals the world had ever seen. Sometimes called the and#147;Steve Jobs of plushand#8221; by his employees, heand#160;obsessed over every detail of every animal. He had no marketing budget and no connections, but he had something more valuableand#151;an intuitive grasp of human psychology that would make him the richest man in the history of toys.and#160;
Through first-ever interviews with former Ty Inc. employees, Warnerand#8217;s sister, and the two ex-girlfriends who were by his side as he achieved the American dream,and#160;The Great Beanie Baby Bubbleand#160;tells the inspiring yet tragic story of one of Americaand#8217;s most enigmatic self-made tycoons. Bestselling author Zac Bissonnette uncovers Warnerand#8217;s highly original approach to productand#160;development, sales, and marketing that enabled the acquisition of plush animals to activate the same endorphins chased by stock speculatorsand#160;and gamblers.
Starting with a few Beanie-crazed housewives on a cul-de-sac in Naperville, Illinois, Beanie Babies became the first viral craze of the Internet era. Bissonnette traces their rise from the beginning of the official websiteand#151;one of the first corporate websites to aggressivelyand#160;engage consumersand#151;to the day when and#147;rareand#8221; modelsand#160;became worthless as quickly as theyand#8217;d once been deemed priceless. He also explores the big questions: Why did grown men and women lose their minds over stuffed animals? Was it something unique about the last years of the American centuryand#151;or just the weirdest version of the irrational episodes that have happened periodically ever since the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s?
The Great Beanie Baby Bubbleand#160;is a classic American story of people winning and losing vast fortunes chasing what one dealer remembers as and#147;the most spectacular dream ever sold.and#8221;
About the Author
Zac Bissonnette wrote two acclaimed bestsellers before hisand#160;twenty-fourth birthday: Debt-Free U and How to Be Richer, Smarter, andand#160;Better-Looking Than Your Parents. He has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Bloomberg, among others. He lives in New York City.