Every winter, parents scramble to secure the hottest toy of the holiday season for their kids. This yuletide tradition can be traced back to the Cabbage Patch Doll Riots of the early 1980s, and even the Tickle Me Elmo craze of the mid-90s. Back in those primitive days before internet preorders existed, throwing fists and ripping toys out of other people’s hands was all part of the process of making your child happy for the holidays.
The Furby was possibly the most mind-boggling of these trends, a toy kids today might describe as “cute but cringe,” yet still sold over 40 million products during its first lifespan. A Frankenstein’s monster of a bug-eyed bird and a Mogwai from Gremlins, Furby was more akin to a fluffy Borg from Star Trek with state-of-the-art electronics housed within its soft six-inch body. This toy was so advanced that even U.S. officials took notice, and they weren’t pleased. Inexplicably remaining part of the zeitgeist twenty-five years after it first arrived, this electronic children’s plush has enjoyed a shelf life of massive sales, technological breakthroughs, and plenty of controversy. This is the story of how Furby transitioned from the most wanted toy in America to America’s Most Wanted!
After acquiring Tiger Electronics in 1997, Hasbro pushed forward an idea they hoped would dominate toy stores during the 1998 holiday season. Electronic toys like the Tamagotchi were hot, and the prolific toymaker had something different and new up their sleeves to compete. Furbies were viewed as an evolution of Teddy Ruxpin, but they were so much more. This animatronic plush could speak and move, responding in real-time to verbal and physical stimuli while seemingly learning and adapting as it played with your kids. It was like a pet that didn’t make a mess – a dream come true for kids and parents alike!
It wasn’t anything too special that Furbies could wiggle their ears and feet, blink their eyes, and flap their tiny beaks. It was their more advanced innovations that had parents across the nation emptying their wallets. Out of the box, Furby could only speak a few dozen phrases of their native tongue, “Furbish.” But as kids played with them, they learned to converse in the language of their users. Twenty-four languages were preprogrammed into the critter to make this possible, including English, Spanish, French, Greek, Chinese, and Hebrew, as well as its ability to respond to positive and negative physical stimuli. Furby loved being stroked and kissed but didn’t appreciate roughhousing. During an experiment conducted at MIT, children were given hamsters, barbies, and Furbies, and asked to hold them upside down for as long as they could. While the live animals were restored to proper orientation almost immediately, so too were the Furbies, who were programmed to cry after spending 30 seconds in uncomfortable positions.
In reality, it was preprogrammed to function in this manner, inciting excitement from kids and concern from adults.
Public Enemy Furby
Occasionally, children’s toys face problems like recalls due to defective or dangerous elements. In this case, the Furby was the dangerous element.
Thanks to its non-stop babbling, parents quickly realized how painful owning a Furby could be. Even mocked today in Bluey as Chattermax, a toy that conveniently always seems misplaced by the parents, Furby was unstoppable once it started talking. There was no off-switch, meaning the only way to shut it down was to remove the batteries. Have you tried taking a beloved toy out of a child’s hand? Welcome to Tantrum City! Reports also claimed Furbies were teaching children bad words, which turned out to be misheard Furbish words.
Furbies escalated from a household nuisance into a national security threat by 1999. The Furby wasn’t considered a weapon of mass destruction or anything lethal, but federal agencies were suspicious of its potential use as a tool of espionage.
Besides the features mentioned earlier, Furbies could communicate with each other thanks to an infrared sensor above their eyes, which came out in the form of never-ending high-pitched squawks (and why parents never wanted more than one Furby in a room at a time). The U.S. officials worried these features could covertly record audio or take photos leading the NSA and Pentagon among others to ban the toy from their buildings. (Imagine them banning iPhones now!) Other erroneous rumors about it included Furby’s ability to hijack a NASA space shuttle, interfere with airplanes (leading the FAA to also briefly ban them), and even disrupt medical equipment in an operating room.
The first era of Furby ended in 2001 as abruptly as its sudden rise in popularity. Like a Rocky movie, Furby didn’t hear any bell and refused to stay down.
Furby has been revived five times since its inception, each improving on the past while remaining modern by integrating app play and Bluetooth connectivity. In 2023, the Furby returned for its fifth iteration, featuring over 600 verbal responses including positive affirmations, the ability to light up and dance, and more. For the first time in the creature’s history, it now has a “calm-down” mode to help kids relax, instead of winding them up more with its constant noise. This new version is advertised as a “screen-free” experience, low-tech in comparison to its predecessors with no app feature, in addition to being less annoying.
As peculiar as the original Furby was, these toys were ahead of their times. Among the most advanced electronic of its day, Furbies remain a nostalgic throwback that parents can share with their kids. Hardcore fans speak Furbish as fluently as Trekkies converse in Klingon, although the Long Furby is best left ignored. Furby is a misunderstood staple of the holiday season, seeking affection more than espionage, and ready to create new memories with you and your kids.