Jim Henson’s Muppets made pigs and frogs endearing and Walt Disney turned a common rodent into a cultural icon.
Now, Drew Oliver thinks it’s time for bacteria, viruses and other maligned microorganisms to share the love.
Instead of standard Christmas gifts, a growing number of people are looking under the tree for giant stuffed cold germs, cuddly E coli, hugworthy heartworm and other oddities from Oliver’s Stamford-based company, Giant Microbes. Oliver says the toys are true to the microbes they represent except, of course, for their eyes and enhanced colors.
Once popular mostly as “geek chic” among medical workers and niche groups, the stuffed microbe toys have spawned Facebook fan sites and a subculture of collectors who eagerly await each new release.
They pounced on this fall’s newcomers — including measles, rubella and the oh-so-popular diarrhea — and posted pictures on their Facebook pages of their new mini-microbe Christmas tree ornaments.
Being a purveyor of pretend pestilence might seem an odd career turn for Oliver, 40, who was a Chicago corporate attorney when he incorporated Giant Microbes in 2001.
As a father of four, he thought stuffed versions of microbes that cause sore throats, the flu and other common ailments could help children understand the illnesses and avoid some of them with good hygiene.
Sales launched in 2002, but business took a few years to pick up and, even then, largely in niche markets such as museum shops and college bookstores. But in the last few years, the stuffed germs have spread like the common cold microbe that remains its flagship and biggest seller.
In recent years, the Giant Microbes line has gone beyond the common microbes to exotic ones such as malaria and sleeping sickness, tiny critters such as dust mites and bed bugs and water dwellers like copepods and algae.
Some US Red Cross divisions use the stuffed red blood cell in school presentations and the Education Centre Library serving Ontario’s Canadore College and Nipissing University has dozens of Giant Microbes in its lending inventory.
The microbes, which Oliver describes as whimsy rooted firmly in science, harken to his college days as an editor at the offbeat Harvard Lampoon humor magazine.
The toys depict each microbe at a million times its actual size or larger and each comes with an often breezy, but informative, information card about their origins and avoiding illnesses they spread.
Each has eyes to give them a “face,” so to speak. Some also have special features: a tiny knife and fork embroidered on the chest of the flesh-eating disease’s microbe, for example, and a black cape on the MRSA bacterium known colloquially as the “superbug” for its resistance to certain antibiotics.
Another category that sells well: the microbes carrying sexually transmitted diseases. Needless to say, Oliver adds, those aren’t marketed to children.