“My friend threw the slime in my hair and it had to be cut out.”
“I remember hearing that one came to life and I desperately hoped mine would do the same.”
“Someone in my school set fire to one. It STANK.”
When I put a call out on social media asking what people remember about the alien egg toys from the late 90s, the responses flood in. Everyone has a weird memory or a conspiracy theory they heard as a kid. But one thing comes up repeatedly: the rumours about how these inanimate objects supposedly reproduced. If you put their backs together they’d have a baby! You had to stick them in the freezer! You needed to cut their heads off! One person, now in their 30s, says they only realised a few years ago that the rumour wasn’t true.
These stories weren’t just playground gossip. Newspapers ran wild reports about the toys. A 1999 story in the Lancashire Telegraph describes how kids were convinced the aliens — officially known as Alien Eggs – would open their eyes at midnight as we entered the new millennium. There are multiple reports about people mistaking abandoned toys for foetuses, including a Guardian story in 1999, which describes a toy getting rushed to Whipps Cross hospital in London.
How did a toy alien that cost £1.99 and came surrounded in goo in a plastic egg become such a hit? And why did they attract so many outlandish rumours?
Launched in 1999, the alien egg was the brainchild of Martin Grossman, who was managing director of his family business, Glasgow-based toy company H. Grossman. By Christmas in 1999, the company had sold more than three million of the toys, a figure which rose to 7 million by 2004. Nearly 20 years after its launch, a Daily Record story from 2017 reported the total sales figures at 18 million. The toy even won the Toy Retailers Association’s coveted “craze of the year” award twice – in 1999 and 2004.
Grossman, the man behind this mysterious toy, is now retired from the toy industry and proves surprisingly tricky to get hold of. Eventually, I get some insight from publisher and managing director of trade magazine Toy World John Baulch, who’s covered the industry for 40 years.
“I describe the industry as a village community. It’s very close-knit,” he says. “I think that’s part of the reason why maybe [Martin] thought: I need to move on. Sometimes the only way to get out of a village is to completely leave it behind. I think he reached the conclusion that if he didn’t sever ties with the toy industry, he’d keep coming back.”
But Baulch, as well as everyone else I speak to, confirms that Grossman was the “originator of the craze”. Where things get murky is whether he designed the toy. Baulch explains that these kinds of toys are imported from China and that British importers and suppliers will go over to Chinese showrooms to check out their wares. “It’s possible he could have gone to a Chinese factory with the idea or he could have seen it on a showroom visit and thought: this is brilliant, I’m going to get the distribution for this and turn it into a craze,” says Baulch.
Whether the alien eggs were a 3AM brainwave or not (as the Daily Record reported in 2017), it was clear that Grossman had a hit on his hands. The toy had what Baulch calls “playground currency – the thing that kids will take to school and go, ‘Have a look at this!’”.
It wasn’t just kids who got sucked in to alien egg mania. David Hamilton was a toy buyer for the Scottish wholesale cash and carry Bonnypack at the time. He says the toys were like “gold dust”.
“I’d go to [Grossman’s] showroom and he’d show us all the new things. Alien eggs were one of the ones he was hyping up, saying this is going to be massive,” he says. “We took a chance on it, and the craze was unbelievable.”
Hamilton remembers the phone ringing off the hook with customers demanding boxes of the toys. Customers were so desperate, they would scrap with rival shopkeepers in the cash and carry. “You’d have people physically fighting,” says Hamilton. “Someone might put some boxes [of the alien eggs] in their trolley and if they left their trolley, someone else would take them out of their trolley and that would start a fight.
“It’s crazy what people do when they’ve got to get that must-have toy. I’ve seen so much fighting over toys.” H. Grossman even had to fly in stock to keep up with demand, because the usual method – by boat – was too slow.
Someone who helped drive the demand was Julie Pittilla, whose agency Pittilla PR has worked with H. Grossmans for 30 years. She says that the Guardian story about the foetus actually drove sales. “I’m not a nurse but I’ve never seen a bright green foetus, but it started off a lot more interest.” Was it planted? “I couldn’t possibly say”, she replies. Hamilton also mentions a story in a Scottish newspaper about someone finding one in a hedge and thinking it was a foetus. “Any publicity is good publicity,” he says. “Sales rocketed.”
After the success of the first alien eggs, H. Grossman launched various spin-offs, including a “new generation of alien eggs” in 2004 called Alien Cosmolights. Pittilla reels off a list of ways they expanded this bizarre alien world. “Each one had a name, there was a website where you could identify whether your alien was a friend or foe, you could become a member of the defence league to protect our planet from gooey visitors,” she says, not pausing for breath.
“They even had their own language – Scardoxian – because they were from the planet Scardox. There was a translator that translated Scardoxian into English and back again so that you could send messages in Scardoxian to your mates.” She has no idea how they came up with the alien language.
The spin-offs also included aliens that actually did have babies planted within the toy. But what about those rumours about how the OG aliens had babies if you stuck them in the fridge? “Not guilty, your honour!” says Pittilla. “I can’t explain that one. It’s not true.” I keep digging, asking if it was part of her PR strategy. “No, it wasn’t. I was keeping away from babies after the foetus incident.”
So how did those rumours start? Can we ever know? Kristian Volsing, project curator at the V&A’s Museum of Childhood says that “wild rumours abound around toys”. He adds: “With popularity comes ridiculous conspiracy theories.” He names Furbys, another popular 90s toy, as an example. “They were thought to record conversations and were therefore a threat to national security in the US, where their popularity was such that adults had them in the Pentagon offices.”
While alien eggs were hugely popular in the late 90s and early 00s, the toys are still sold today by H. Grossman and other retailers. The latest sales figures from H. Grossman are unknown, but Pittilla estimates they have sold “well over 18 million” since the launch and says that the toys are “still a concept that sells”.
Volsing attributes the alien eggs’ popularity, in part, to the wider obsession with aliens at the time. “Aliens were rife in the major pop culture events of the 1990s – in club culture, TV shows like The X-Files and films like Independence Day,” he says. “The interest in aliens was aligned with apprehensions around the millennium and the internet developing a wider reach and building conspiracy theories.” He says this interest “trickled down into designs for kids’ culture”.
As well as the collective cultural interest in aliens, the fact that alien eggs were cheap, small and collectible were key to their success. “Collecting for children fulfils psychological needs and instinctive desires from our hunter-gatherer ancestors,” explains Volsing. “The surge of mass-manufacturing of cheap plastic goods in the 1950s led companies to exploit this. Alien eggs are the 1990s version of this – pocket money toys that could be collected, swapped and lost without much thought.”
The desire to collect alien eggs is something that Shiv Wales, 29, can relate to, perhaps more than most. She says she was eight or nine when the craze took off, and remembers the rumours about the aliens giving birth (she didn’t believe them). Wales did get obsessed with the toys, though, buying spin-off lines and getting one in every colour. In total, she collected around 150 aliens.
“I got hooked on them,” she says. “I like collecting things, I don’t think that ever went away.” In fact, Wales still has her vast collection. “They’re in a box with my bouncy balls and whatever else I collected when I was a kid.”
Why has she kept them after all these years? “I’m sentimentally attached to them,” she says. “Those little aliens represent a part of my childhood. I kept them because I thought if I ever had a kid, they might want them, but chances are they’re not going to want my dodgy leftover aliens!”