Cuddly Kingdoms

The Life Of Stuffies: An Evolutionary Exploration

Stuffed animals, now known as “stuffies,” have ... evolved since we were kids. One dad goes deep into the toy store jungle to see them in the wild and grapple with their mutation.

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Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images, Jellycat, Fuggler

The animals gathered in a tiered circular formation, facing outward. The pink puppies and red bears and brown dogs, each in their own phalanx, stare unseeingly from their perches. Nearby, a herd of elephants rests below a layer of giraffes below a tier of leopards. They form a vertical watering hole. This is the plush section of FAO Schwarz, the most iconic toy store in America. It is the natural habitat for stuffed animals — and ground zero for the study of their evolution.

The doors open and a crowd of human bipeds, hitherto stamping their feet in the cold on W. 49th Street, stream in. Parents in puffer coats, already slightly dazed by the maximalist displays of toys, stop in front of these familiar creatures. Some, perhaps, remember the teddy bears of their youth. For it is true that the stuffies of our childhood remain with us, in spiritual if not physical form, until our dotage. But the children, eyes bright with acquisitive ardor, rush past the displays of classic plushes to explore new cuddly kingdoms previously unknown to humankind.

The stuffed toy and plush industry is a multibillion behemoth. (As of 2018, it was a $7.98 billion industry projected to climb steadily through 2025.) The modern era of stuffed animals began after a German upholster, Margate Steiff, turned a pincushion into an elephant while her nephew, Richard, turned one into a bear. Around the same time, 1902 or so, a Brooklyn toy store owner started making stuffed bears as well, supposedly inspired by a truly awful story in which Teddy Roosevelt went on a bear hunt during which an American black bear was clubbed and tied to a tree. Roosevelt was offered up its stunned shackled body to shoot, but he, a sporting gentleman, refused. The bear later died.

Stuffed animals of course are not merely a facsimile of the natural world but a species of their own, resulting from co-evolution with humans. The natural habitat of stuffies is not just on shelves in a store but in the bedrooms of children. As such the creatures must adapt to the little humans who give them life by purchasing and maybe even caring for them.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly stuffed animals evolved from their animal form to a more fantastical variant.

Before we follow a youngster into the future, let’s turn down our own aisles into the past. When I was a boy, I had a stuffed animal. His name was Spot, and he was a giraffe. And I say he was my stuffed animal, for he was given to me by my father on the occasion of his leaving our family and moving into an apartment complex nearby with his very young wife, my new stepmother. Spot came with my new bedroom and a lot of change. I was 8 at the time and, not having had stuffed animals before then, had somewhat missed the window in which a child effortlessly bonds with an inanimate object, cuddly or not.

To that polyester creature, about half a foot high, I attached not so much comfort but the knowledge that someone — someone who, in my mind, had given rise to the current discomfort, namely my dad — wanted me to be comforted. At first I was skeptical of Spot and remained skeptical throughout our entire relationship. I felt, and continue to feel, that to allow myself to be comforted by this animal was to somehow let my own father off the hook. When he moved to San Diego a few years later, by which time I was a tween, he packed Spot up. When I finally arrived for my summer visit and I saw Spot nestled into my bed, a wave of anger washed over me. “It’s you again, motherf*cker,” I thought.

Actually, upon second thought, let’s not venture too deep into our past. What I’m trying to make clear is that when I was growing up, stuffed animals were animals.

Spot, for instance, that cuddly totem of parental crumminess, came from my local Toys “R” Us where he lived with bears, elephants, dogs, cats, lions, and the like. Even the fads of my era — Beanie Babies, namely — had identifiably sentient counterparts. But as we follow our young shoppers to the shelves of their choosing, it is not animals that we see but huggable household items.

Equipped with eyes, these objects sprang to life, jumping into the arms of the youth, who, in turn, allowed their own attachment for these products to grow and grow.

One of the season’s bestselling plush toys is an egg named Gudetama, sitting there in its very own habitat at FAO Schwartz. A little girl rushes to cling to a stuffie pot of succulents adorned with a winsome smile. I watch a boy, aged around 5, gravitate toward an avocado wearing a little knit cap. Next to it is a chunk of stuffed bleu cheese with a simple face on it. The blue penicillium resembles varicose veins, but this is not, one suspects, noticed by its young fans. Nor is the anthropomorphization confined to the stuffies section. In the candy section, truly a parent’s nightmare, children can buy packs of Nerds to eat and also large plush stuffed Nerd.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly stuffed animals evolved from their animal form to a more domesticated variant. Evolutionary plushologists, of which there are none, estimate the shift occurred almost exactly 100 years since the first stuffed animal was introduced. Some pinpoint the growing influence of Japanese kawaii culture, which began in the 1990s but finally broke through to the world of plushies in the 2010s as the catalyst. In this telling, the current trend of inanimate objects began with the arrival of Squishmallows, which imported a Japanese kawaii aesthetic. In the beginning, the original Squishmallows were identifiably animalian. They consisted of Cam the Cat, Wendy the Frog, Fifi the Fox, Hans the Hedgehog, Piper and Puff the Penguins, and Hoot and Holly the Owls.

As the makers of Squishmallows wallowed in their liquidity, they realized the transformative power of a face. The addition of two small dots and a meek smile could turn a pillow into a billion dollars. Soon they, and other manufacturers, were turning every animal they could find into a cute and cuddly creature. But the animal world is finite, and like Teddy Roosevelt, buffalo hunter of yore, soon they decimated animalia in their unquenchable hunger to snuggle. After the llamas and narwhals were stuffed, they turned to mythical animal creatures like unicorns. After the fantastical beasts were all turned soft, they folded back the animal kingdom upon itself. This was the era of unicorn cats and enchanted T. Rexes. And still shelves needed filling.

There are still terrestrial creatures galore, but they are slowly being crowded out by eggs, trees, and blocks of cheese.

Casting their entrepreneurial eye about, the stuffed animal illuminati alit on the common objects of our lives: house plants, coffee cups, pains au chocolat. Equipped with eyes, these objects sprang to life, jumping into the arms of the youth, who, in turn, allowed their own attachment for these products to grow and grow. This development, it must be said, makes the most sense. For as humans complete their project of species domination — pushing the lions, tigers, bears, frogs, foxes, hedgehogs, penguins, sloths, and owls toward actual extinction — why bum children out by inculcating a love for these soon-to-be-gone creatures? Why, indeed, when one could arouse a love for products like coffee, pastries, and plants? (Not to mention Nerds.)

As with so many things Darwinian, it isn’t that a new species fully and immediately supplants its predecessor. Rather, the vivification of the inanimate arose gradually. There are still terrestrial creatures galore, in other words, but they are now joined — and slowly being crowded out — by eggs, trees, and blocks of cheese.

It’s a battle all right, or at least a bacchanal. Back at FAO, the children have reached unsafe levels of excitement while their parents hit unsafe levels of despair. The shelves are in disarray. The plush puppies are on the floor. A tower of giraffes is thrown asunder, legs and necks akimbo. Even the elephants have been ripped from their place. But there, grinning from its shelf, is a hot dog. Four inches wide, 10 inches high, its legs stick straight out as it sits there. Its eyes are two black dots and its smile, a sinister parabola, seems to announce, its time has come.

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