"My sister took me by the arm and said, `You cannot do that-that's a collectible,' " recalls Ms. Wichmann, a longtime member of the McDonald's Collectors Club and currently editor of the group's newsletter. So for giggles, her husband, Charlie, started picking up similar items for around 10Â¢ each at flea markets and yard sales. Before too long, a hobby was born.
"None of us are collecting these toys hoping to put our children and grandchildren through college," Ms. Wichmann says warmly. "It's just fun. It brings out the kid in all of us."
That, it seems, sums up the enduring popularity of McDonald's collectibles among consumers young and old: They're simple and they're engaging. Plus, for some of the more involved promotions-like 101 figurines for "101 Dalmatians," housed in a separately purchased carrying case-they present a relatively straightforward challenge, one that almost always works to the benefit of McDonald's restaurateurs.
"When they say `collect all six items,' they instill in people and especially children that they need all six," notes Gary Sohmers, an appraiser of modern toys on "Antiques Roadshow" and publisher of allcollectors.com. "It's a marketing directive to the consumer, really. You don't just want to buy a Happy Meal today; you want one tomorrow and the next day as well, until you complete the set."
The first Happy Meal found its way into restaurants in 1979 with what McDonald's chief archivist Mike Bullington calls "a kind of circus wagon train theme." The decorative box included, among other items, a McDoodler stencil, a McWrist wallet and erasers bearing the beckoning visages of McDonald's characters.
Ms. Wichmann cites the enduring nostalgia appeal of the toys as the primary motivation to collect them. "If you surround yourself with the things from your youth, you always feel young, right?" she asks rhetorically.
Peter Holden, who boasts visiting approximately 12,000 McDonald's locations over the years, agrees. A purchasing agent for Imaging Acceptance Corp., Mr. Holden says the collectibles that appeal most to adults are those items that remind them of their first McDonald's experience or, in many cases, of their own time toiling beneath the Golden Arches. Old uniforms and menus, tray liners, store signs and countertop displays-what Mr. Sohmers calls "ephemera"-hold the most value, both sentimentally and financially.
Mr. Holden owns around 50 document boxes filled with items such as these, but counts wooden trays from the chain's early days and a garbage can cover blown away from an Alexandria, Va., McDonald's during a windstorm as among his most coveted possessions.
Hard-core collectors patiently answer questions about the modern era of McDonald's collectibles, but it's clear that tchotchkes like Teenie Beanie Babies, Furbies, Legos and any number of Disney-flick-themed offerings don't excite them as much as vintage memorabilia. A 1999 "Inspector Gadget" tie-in, in which eight separate pieces could be collected and assembled into a single 15-inch figurine, gets high marks, as do Mattel's Hot Wheels miniature cars.
The collector community views the 1997 Teenie Beanie Babies hysteria (supply didn't match demand, to put it mildly) with bemusement. "What was really a shame is that you had all these people buying the Happy Meals and throwing away the food," tut-tuts Ms. Wichmann. "Then a couple months later they realized that there were thousands upon thousands of Teenie Beanie Babies out there."