8 Fun Facts About Pillow People

vontoo_home_goods, eBay
vontoo_home_goods, eBay

With $120 million in sales from 1986 to 1996, Pillow People can lay a pretty good claim to being one of the great success stories of the plush toy industry. The anthropomorphic bedding offered different personas (Mr. Sandman, Beddy Bye Bunny) and licensed characters like Garfield in an effort to keep children feeling comfortable and secure after the lights went out.

Despite a love for all things ‘80s, the poly-filled people haven’t yet staged a comeback. While we wait for a company to revitalize the brand, check out some facts we dug up about their unique sales approach and the mystery of their “lost” animated series.

1. THEY WERE INSPIRED BY A NIGHTMARE.

Penny Ekstein-Lieberman had a perfect background for toy development. A former therapist with advertising credits, Ekstein-Lieberman conceived of the Pillow People after she ran in to comfort her daughter, who had just woken up from a nightmare. Sensing a need for a “friend” with a soothing face a child could turn to in order to curb their nocturnal fears, Ekstein-Lieberman developed the line as her answer to a security blanket and found a distributor in Springs Industries. The first six People—Sweet Dreams, Pillow Fighter, Mr. Sandman, Rock-A-Bye Baby, Punky Pillow, and Big Footsteps—were released in 1986.

2. THEY WEREN’T SOLD IN THE TOY DEPARTMENT.


2571ted, eBay

While Pillow People were an immediate hit, not all parents knew where to look for them. Consumers who visited the toy section of department stores would emerge empty-handed. That’s because Spring Industries was a home furnishings distributor and placed the Pillow People in the home goods or bedding sections of retail stores.

3. THEY HAD THEIR OWN PETS ...

Like any successful line of kid merchandise, Pillow People immediately looked to branch out into ancillary products. One easy spin-off: pets, which were introduced in time for the holiday 1987 season and included Little Bo Sleep, Dina Snore, and Drowsy Dog. The line also expanded to include licensed bedsheets, towels, slippers, and sleeping bags.

4. ... AND THEIR OWN HOLIDAY SPECIAL.

Pillow People Save Christmas was a 1988 seasonal special in the vein of annual animated presentations like A Charlie Brown Christmas. Airing regularly for roughly a decade, it was produced by Ekstein-Lieberman and told the story of a ragtag band of pillow creatures who fight a nightmare witch plotting to ruin the holiday season in North Pillow Valley. The special can be seen on YouTube (above).

5. A REGULAR ANIMATED SERIES DISAPPEARED.

On the strength of the holiday special, Ekstein-Lieberman pursued an ongoing Pillow People animated series via her Sandbox Entertainment production company. In this incarnation, the People would be residents of Snoozeville and charged with inserting good dreams into the sleep-scape. Three insomniacs (Wake Up, Stay Up, and Hush-Up) try to thwart their plans. Although Sandbox apparently completed preproduction work on close to 13 full episodes in anticipation of a fall 1996 debut, there’s no evidence the series ever made it to the air [PDF].

6. THEY CAMEOED IN FILM AND TELEVISION.

Pillow People mania reached sufficient heights in the 1980s and 1990s that set designers for film and television projects began adding them to scenes. The Window Rattler frequently popped up on Full House; Sweet Dreams makes an appearance in the 1988 Tom Hanks film Big; and Punky Pillow cameos in 1987’s Adventures in Babysitting.

7. THERE WERE PILLOW PEOPLE KNOCK-OFFS.

A true sign of success is fending off copycat products from companies looking to capitalize on your brand recognition. Pillow People was no different: Bibb Company released Dream Pals, a line of sleep companions that licensed characters from Pound Puppies. Similarly square-faced, they went by names like Rip Van Rabbit and Bunky Bear.

8. THEY WERE REPLACED BY AN ALL-STAR TEAM.


banfampicks, eBay

Pillow People sold strongly from 1986 to 1991, but were eventually phased out to make room for a line dubbed Pillow Stars that featured recognizable characters based on licensed properties. Among the more popular sellers: Trolls, the California Raisins, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Disney characters including Mickey Mouse, the Little Mermaid, and Snow White. (The latter was accessorized with a tiny Dopey.)

While the line was briefly revived in 1996, the Pillow People have since gone dormant. Ad agency Omlet bought a stake in the brand in 2011 but has yet to pursue any product. If you’re still desperate for a bedtime buddy, they’re usually available on eBay, often at premium collector's prices. A Window Rattler in "very good" condition recently sold for $250.

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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