Magazine article Financial History

Bull Market Baubles: Deal Toys and the Culture of Wall Street

Magazine article Financial History

Bull Market Baubles: Deal Toys and the Culture of Wall Street

Article excerpt

Deal toys, also known as tombstones, are commemorative toys issued by investment banks to celebrate mergers, initial public offerings (IPOs) and financing. The idea for these desktop souvenirs evolved from financial "tombstone advertisements" that commonly appeared in newspapers as early as the 19th century. Tombstone ads lacked images or flourish and would be formatted to fit into the width of a single column. This format was commonly used to announce IPOs and other financial transactions.

In the 1960s, banks began commemorating these announcements by placing them within clear slabs of a new type of plastic called Lucite. Lucite is a trademark name for polymethyl methacrylate, a hard plastic that can be molded and colored and is also resistant to weathering. Industrially, Lucite is used to make components such as aircraft windows, boat windshields and car taillights.

Although tombstones started out as simple slabs, they quickly progressed into more colorful and whimsical designs. Many bankers collected these toys, which served as status symbols and subtle marketing for their successful services. Tombstones became so popular that banks would compete to see who could come up with the most creative concepts. While the majority continued to be made of plastics, some firms also incorporated metal, ceramic and glass deal toys to distinguish themselves from others. Some firms, such as Lehman Brothers, even hired full-time staff to design their deal toys.

Production of deal toys dropped significantly after the financial crisis of 2008. One reason is that there were simply less deals to celebrate. More significantly, however, is that Wall Street came under heavy criticism from the media and the public for excessive spending and grandiose culture. Deal toys specifically have been criticized as being ostentatious rewards with a hefty price tag.

For example, to celebrate a deal involving Universal Studios, J.P. Morgan ordered a batch of 10 x 15" Lucite dinosaur heads (referencing Jurassic Park) that cost $300 each. Some deal toys also outwardly expressed flippant attitudes toward major financial deals. One Austin Powers-themed tombstone in the Museum's collection celebrates a mortgage deal with quotes such as, "An Evil Deal with Evil Mortgages. I Like it."

Deal toys still have their defenders, however. Writing for the Socializing Finance blog, Daniel Buenza, a lecturer at the London School for Economics, argues that deal toys are essential to the functioning of investment banks. …

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