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 pillows 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. Pillow People 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. Pillow People weren’t sold in the toy department.
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. An animated Pillow People 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. Pillow People made cameos in film and TV.
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. They were similarly square-faced and went by names like Rip Van Rabbit and Bunky Bear.
8. They were replaced by an all-star team.
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: A Sweet Dreams is currently available for $500.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2022.