SALEM, MASS. — Kate Stevens and Mike Goderre have built their 18-month marriage on a foundation of good-natured banter and bartering. Negotiations big and small. So much so, in fact, that in exchange for letting her out of a visit to his parents' house, Mr. Goderre scored a charming and cherubic oversized image of his wife's head, bouncing on a spring.
"He likes to bobble my head when I'm away," says Ms. Stevens. The dynamic caricature, which Goderre pled with her to pose for, sits on the desk in his home office.
Bobbleheads, those nostalgic mementos from the dime store days, have already made a comeback in ballparks and sports arenas, with celebrities and politicians. But now the personalized version is slowly taking hold among a generation known for its embrace of irony. Today's enthusiasts are commissioning kitschy likenesses of loved ones – or, even better, of themselves.
For young adults who grew up begging their parents to let them sit for the pastel sketches sold on boardwalks, the bobblehead is the contemporary caricature.
It can be an affectionate token, minus the sappy earnestness of a gilt-framed wedding photograph. And because almost no one actually looks good as a bobblehead, it's more acceptable than gazing at a picture of yourself at the office. Sure, they can be narcissistic – but they're also redemptively funny.
Of course, the personalized bobblehead has a ways to go before attaining the inexplicable popularity of, say, the Furby. And sales are tiny compared with the sports bobble industry. Yet thanks to word of mouth, and some strategic bobblehead appearances in workplace-centered sitcoms, demand is picking up.
Take Whoopass Enterprises (whoopassenterprises.com) in Oak Park, Ill. Three years ago, when the company began making bobbleheads, requests coming in at just 200 to 300 per month were handled by the three owners. Today, 25 employees manage about 1,000 orders a month.
It's one of a few upstart Internet companies run by young, offbeat entrepreneurs – much like the clientele they cater to – that will fashion a personalized bobblehead based on a photograph.
Valentine's Day is one of their busiest times. "We get guys who like the boxer-shorts-with-little-hearts bobbleheads to give to their girlfriends," says Darby Rosenfeld, who started the company with her husband, Jaeson, and Anthony DiMaggio, a friend with a master's in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in New York. The dolls (a bride in a gown, her groom dressed as Superman; 'Popeye Tim' with overdeveloped forearms) cost $55 to $85.
For the Rosenfelds, bobbleheads are a family affair. The couple recently had their first son, and friends have demanded they "document his growth in bobbles."
"Babies do look very bobbleheady," says Mrs. Rosenfeld. "The head is in the right proportion." Surely they are the only ones.
When Bryan Guise made his first customized bobblehead in 2002, he had no intention of positioning himself at the center of two converging trends: the resurgent popularity of bobbleheads and a broader consumer desire for customization. Business has held steady since then, even as competition has increased; he makes about 1,000 dolls per year.
Mr. Guise earned a bachelor's in ceramics from the University of Iowa before starting It's You Small (itsyousmall.com). A one-man operation out of the basement of his Des Moines home, he charges between $150 and $200. His favorite features to craft are mustaches and facial hair.
Stevens's pert little bobblehead with its slim body is cuter than most. In April, the young couple was in Las Vegas when Goderre, a wedding photographer, spotted a bobblehead booth. Rather than having a sculptor work from a photograph, his wife, an unclaimed property manager, sat for a photo that was converted to a 3D mold.
The resulting bobblehead cost $200 and is an incredible likeness, complete with the sunglasses Stevens wore on her head that afternoon.
Cashman Crystal, the vendor, introduced bobbleheads to its six concession stands in Las Vegas in early 2005, selling $22,000 worth per month. Now they sell $27,000 a month, bobbleheads accounting for 20 percent of their crystal keepsake business.
The bobblehead's Golden Age was the 1960s. What began in the '50s as a giveaway for fans at ballgames spread to other sports and later to celebrities and advertising. In the past decade, according to Lou Criscione, who recently published a guide to "bobbing head" dolls, the Internet has made it easier for boomer collectors to reconnect with the vintage papier-mâché models of their youths. The latest craze is said to have been launched in 1999, when the San Francisco Giants commissioned 35,000 Willie Mays bobbleheads. The company that made them, Alexander Global Promotions, is the largest manufacturer of collectible bobbleheads, manufacturing 2 million to 3 million per year.
In what may be a harbinger of its growing popularity as the workplace decoration of choice, this year the personalized bobblehead made appearances on two sitcoms: "Scrubs," set in a hospital, and "The Office," a sendup of cubicle culture. The Dwight Schrute bobblehead, proudly placed on the fictional character's desk in "The Office," was created by It's You Small.
As for Goderre, he initially envisioned a matching set: His and her bobbleheads. Stevens would be clad only in a towel. He would be playing golf. Stevens wanted to be a cowgirl – or something else "exciting." But Bobblehead Kate was his creation. So she agreed to let her face appear over a body draped in a tiny pink towel.
"Ultimately, I wanted to have my whole family and all my friends on a shelf," says Goderre. "Thirty bobbleheads. That would be cool." But for now there's just one.