As we put our 2-year-old to bed one evening, my wife noticed that "Bunkie" -- our daughter's pink and green blanket with an elephant head -- had begun to fray. This $8 blanket has been through the wringer since we bought it soon after Chloe's birth -- dragged through mud and muck, lost and found, washed and rewashed, and held close to her nose as she fell asleep while being rocked.
It's hard for new parents to understand the power of a favored blanket or plush toy until it's lost or disintegrates and suddenly their child cannot be consoled. My own epiphany came when Chloe's older sister noticed a tear beneath one wing of her beloved "Duckie." She began sobbing in a way that startled us. Duckie and Bunkie might have been more valuable to our well-being than we realized.
We needed a backup. As I would discover, locating a blanket two years after we bought it can be a challenge, which is why smart parents buy two of everything. We had purchased the elephant at Target, which doesn't sell it any longer. I offered Chloe a pink and green blanket with a cow's head. She waved it off like a queen refusing a jester. So I checked eBay. And there it was -- Carter's model 119251H. The lowest price I found was $61. Some had sold for more than $100.
As I browsed eBay, I found dozens of postings in the "Want It Now" section from desperate parents looking to replace blankets, including a few searching for the same Carter's product. This posting was typical: "I am a desperate mom whose 18-month-old lost this thing and will not sleep. Please, if anyone can help me." One woman posted a photo of the elephant blanket on her blog. In response, sellers posted almost-cruel listings, writing, for example, "I bought this elephant for my daughter, but the only time she ever showed any interest was at the store. She hasn't touched it since." (Well, I thought, your daughter has no taste.)
When parents discover that these cheap plush items are going for premium prices, they sometimes get hostile, says Kim Seavers, who specializes in tracking down hard-to-find blankets for her eBay store, Kim's Toybox. "I get lots of e-mail about the Gerber Bunny," she says, "and Baby Morgan with the balloon print is a real hard one to find. Every once in a while parents get upset because they feel they should be able to replace a blanket for what they paid for it, which is typically about six bucks." Seavers, who has five children, advises, "If you know you will not be sleeping unless your child has that blanket, you'd better be thinking about a backup."
Seavers didn't have the elephant in stock, so I phoned Carter's to see what could be done, and to ask why the company would ever discontinue any blanket, knowing the havoc that it causes. Kevin Mitchael, who oversees branding and consumer marketing for the Atlanta-based firm, listened patiently to my plea. He still has the stuffed puppy he snuggled as a child, so he is not without empathy. "We hear from so many parents who are trying to replace lost blankets that two years ago we started what is akin to a china matching service," he tells me. "With each new product we make, we hold back some stock so that if it's discontinued, we'll be able to pull one from the warehouse for parents who call our 800 number. We will bend over backward to help."
Mitchael notes that it's impossible for any security blanket manufacturer to predict what kids will find irresistible and adjust production accordingly. Another problem is that Carter's blankets are treated as apparel -- fashion that changes with the seasons. "We used to have the same products for four or five years, but now people want something new. If we don't change, the product stops selling," says Mitchael.
Carter's had not set aside any of the elephant blankets, so it was back to eBay. After browsing the listings again, and wondering if you really can put a price on love, I decided to contact the mom who had posted the desperate note I found earlier to find out what had happened. "Our rule was that Mr. Elephant had to stay in the car, but my mom was babysitting and gave it to Paige when they went to the park," explained Laurie Valley, who is a police officer in Janesville, Wisconsin. "Four hours later, after they got back, I was packing Paige's things and said, 'Where's Mr. Elephant?' My mom froze. I went to the park immediately -- it was pouring rain -- but it was gone. Meanwhile, my mom had bought a green blanket and an elephant toy with the idea that she could sew the head on the blanket. That's how desperate you get. I said, 'I think she'll know, Mom, when she tugs on the head and it comes off.'
"We ended up on eBay, and these blankets were going for 50 bucks. I said, 'You have to be kidding me.' My mom said, 'Buy it at any price.' After losing the first blanket at $102, I bid a maximum of $250 on the second and got it for $91, plus the cost of having it sent overnight. This was after seven days of rocking Paige, who happened to have a double ear infection, at every nap and bedtime. When the new Mr. Elephant arrived, we hid it where Paige plays. We hoped she would think she had left it there. Twenty minutes later she spotted it and was ecstatic. If she had rejected it, I would have been sick."
I reported Valley's cautionary tale to my wife, and we agreed on a new rule: Duckie and Bunkie cannot leave the house. Ever. For any reason. This edict lasted about a week. Just the other day, while shopping at Sears for a refrigerator, we noticed that Chloe no longer had her elephant. We found it five aisles over, carelessly left on top of a display bin. A hundred bucks for a 16-inch-square piece of cloth? A bargain, my friend. A bargain.
(After completing this piece and showing it to my wife, she told me to stop screwing around, get on eBay and find Chloe a backup. I paid $65.)
Chip Rowe, a writer in New York, is the father of Anna, Chloe, and baby Charles.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2007.