How ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ Caused Holiday Hysteria Back In 1996

History Lesson

The year is 1998. I’m 12 years old, and fond of wearing oversized sweatshirts with dalmatians on them. In Social Studies one day, my teacher, Mrs. G, tells the class about her imminent status of Best Mom Ever — she has scored a Furby for her daughter for Christmas.

“It was hard,” she announces, “But she had to have one.”

Sitting in my desk, three rows back, I secretly judge Mrs. G’s daughter as being very spoiled. At this point, I’ve never heard of Furbies, but soon, I am more than familiar with the singing, wheezing, (and possibly eavesdropping) robotic balls of fur. And while I don’t get one for Christmas — it’s the year my parents decide to get me the oh-so-educational 300-In-One Electronic Project Lab — I eventually do acquire one second-hand, from my friend Diana, who is too creeped out by hers to keep it.

After a week of playing with my animatronic hand-me-down, I decide I’m creeped out too and take out its batteries in a fit of terror. Goodbye, Furby.

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Of course, Furby wasn’t the first must-have toy craze to sweep America. Remember Teddy Ruxpin or Cabbage Patch Dolls? And even at its peak, Furby could never inspire the same mania in parents as Tickle Me Elmo.

Tickle Me Elmo was the ‘Charlie Bit My Finger‘ of toys-gone-viral. It was trample-the-store-employee-level huge.

In the beginning, Tickle Me Elmo was conceived by inventor Ron Dubren as “Tickles the Chimp.” In 1992, the idea (and tech) was purchased by Tyco Preschool, who had a licensing play in mind. Durbren’s creation was set up as the Tickle Me Tasmanian Devil — until Tyco lost its contract with Looney Tunes.

Enter a struggling Sesame Street, reeling in the aftermath of Jim Henson’s death and the appearance (and unbridled success) of a certain purple, singing dinosaur. Tyco made a deal with Sesame Street that gave them the rights to use the characters in its soft toy divisions starting in January 1996. By July, Tickle Me Elmo was on store shelves.