A quarter century ago, parents across America were in a frantic search for the must-have toy of the holiday season — a furry red Tickle Me Elmo doll (complete with a vibrating sound box) that their Sesame Street–watching tykes couldn’t live without.
Introduced during the summer by Tyco, Elmo wasn’t particularly in demand until October, when the doll was given away to audience members of The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and then the craze erupted — just as a similar marketing ploy in 1983 (on the Today Show) sent Cabbage Patch Doll sales into the stratosphere. The San Francisco Examiner reported on the scarcity of the plush Elmo TV character just as the official holiday shopping season got underway. Tony Aguinaldo, an assistant store manager at Target in Colma, told the newspaper that his store sold out of a few hundred of the giggling dolls the day after Thanksgiving. "(Elmo) was in our weekend ad, and he was gone the first day," said Aguinaldo.
Just how insane did the situation get? At a Walmart in Canada, an employee holding an Elmo doll "suffered a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw and knee, a broken rib and a concussion," after being stampeded by anxious shoppers, according to People magazine.
When retail stores sold out of the $30 toy, some desperate parents turned to resellers, with heavy demand pushing prices above $1,000. A million Elmos were sold by Christmas; though many parents unhappily held rainchecks that, in some cases, were still being honored months later. By Christmas 1997, more than 5 million toddlers had finally gotten their hands on the doll.
Elmo wasn’t the only hot toy of 1996. For parents of older kids, the hard-to-find toy was the Nintendo 64. The video game system offered improved 3-D displays, thanks to a 64-bit computer chip — double that of the Sega and Sony systems that had been introduced just a year earlier.
Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, GQ, Mother Jones, and websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.