Children today, along with the parents who raise them, are routinely criticized for being too soft. But whether or not children are indeed more delicate—or “special snowflakes,” as many who subscribe to this worldview condescendingly describe other people’s children—is debatable. Such thinking is more likely to be motivated by nostalgia and hollow outrage than a careful assessment of contemporary families.
There is, however, one aspect of modern childhood in which the rigidity of yesteryear is disappearing: stuffed animals. Once a little scratchy and stiff, many of today’s plush toys—including those from companies such as Melissa and Doug, Gund, Restoration Hardware, Jellycat, and Aurora—feature softness and suppleness of unprecedented proportions. This breakthrough is the result of decades of technological innovation, as well as one that is more recent and incredibly simple.
When Barbara Isenberg founded the North American Bear Co. in 1978, she says most domestic stuffed animals were made with acrylic fabrics. These were often smoother than some of the stiff wool- and mohair-covered toys produced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they were still somewhat rough. The big shift, according to Isenberg, came during the 1980s, when Japanese textile companies began producing polyester fabrics that were much softer to the touch. As production moved to China toward the end of the 20th century, the cost of making stuffed animals out of these polyester materials went down, and the number being produced went up.
Another big difference between today’s stuffed animals and those of yesteryear is that today’s have less stuffing. Time was when these toys were jointed little creatures stuffed to the brim with cotton wadding and other dense materials. The goal was a kinder, gentler take on taxidermied animals, and toymakers strove for a degree of realism. The German company Steiff, founded in 1880 and one of the first to manufacture stuffed animals, used to stuff their toys with wood shavings and featured limbs that could rotate. Customers considered the resulting stiffness a sign of skilled craftsmanship and durability.
Many of today’s stuffed animals lack joints and are understuffed with fluffy polyester; they avoid full floppiness through the careful placement of a few beans or beads in the tush region and sometimes in the limbs. Their less than realistic bodies are matched by a more cartoony, and comforting, countenance. As a five-star Amazon review of a Gund teddy bear, with the subject line “I LOVE IT,” makes clear, the resulting coziness is key: “If you lay on it, it will not bother you. It is under stuffed and that makes it more soft and cuddly than most. I am thinking of getting me one.”
According to sales figures, the demand for plush toys remains high. Juli Lennett, a toy industry analyst for the NPD Group, said that while the toy industry is up 5.7 percent overall this year, the traditional stuffed animals category grew by 9.6 percent. Though no available data breaks down what role the newer breed of softer stuffies play in this growth, these numbers make it clear that the appeal of stuffed animals has not been diminished by an increasingly crowded, and high-tech, toy market.
“For the last three to four years, nobody has wanted to buy a hard stuffed animal,” said Ezra Ishayik, who’s been in the toy business for more than 40 years and currently runs New York City’s Mary Arnold Toys with his daughter Judy. “This is what parents want for babies, but we also have teenagers buying them. I prefer the softer ones, too.”
Not everyone feels the same way. Wendy Mitchell, founder of the Stuffed Animal Rescue Foundation, an organization that restores abandoned stuffed animals and puts them up for “adoption” at no charge, says the rising softness of stuffed animals is a “pet peeve” of hers.
“To me they feel terrible. They’re so soft, it’s almost as though they aren’t there, and that’s a problem, because these creatures are supposed to be their own entity,” she explained. Mitchell’s preference for a little resistance in her stuffed animals, by way of a slightly more textured fabric and/or denser stuffing, is similar to how many of us feel about our friends: a good companion should occasionally push back.
Such a critique raises an important question: Are today’s softer stuffed animals exclusively the result of advances in fabrics and manufacturing or a response to a contemporary emotional need?
Gary Cross, distinguished professor of history at Penn State University and author of the book Kids’ Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood, said that the invention of stuffed animals was part of a reimagining of childhood that began in the late Victorian era. Children used to be treated as adults-in-training, and many of their play objects were intended to help them learn practical skills. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a shift took place, bringing a “more relaxed and indulgent view of childhood.” While today’s soft stuffed animals represent the natural evolution of this mentality, they are also a sign of resistance against the rising pressure to return to a more adultified childhood.
“There is a fundamental contradiction that keeps cropping up. Parents want their children to be competitive and tough … but then they’re offended when their children seem to lose their sense of wondrous innocence at an early age,” Cross said.
So perhaps we buy our children the downiest animal on the shelf to offset our guilt about making them learn a foreign language or train for a sport before they’re potty trained—or to mount a subtle protest against those who do. There might also be a connection between the rise in dual-working households and our growing penchant for cuddly toys. One study found that children who attend full-day child care are more likely to develop an emotional bond with a comfort object than those who attend half-days.
Another possibility: It’s a way for parents to ward off the digitization of the world around them, which many see as a threat.
“A big trend in the toy industry is that parents want their children to have more physical interaction with toys,” said Richard Gottlieb, chief executive of Global Toy Experts and publisher of Global Toy News. “Millennial parents, in particular, are pushing back against screens and rebelling against digital play. Also, there’s a desire for softness in more frightening times.”
If that’s the case, we can count on seeing more, and plusher, stuffed animals in the years to come.