This week marks another auspicious anniversary in the annals of boomer history: On July 1, 1952, Silly Putty was registered as a trademark. Though the substance has now been sold for more than fifty years, it remains one of the few toys introduced during boomer years that are still being marketed today.
The story of the origins of Silly Putty date back to World War II. Japan, realizing how important rubber was to an army (tires, boots, etc.), cut the supply lines to rubber-producing countries that exported to the U.S. As a result the U.S. government rationed rubber all through the war, but also asked scientists to work on creating a substitute. In 1943 an engineer named James Wright, working out of General Electric’s lab in New Haven, Connecticut, mixed boric acid with silicone oil and a few other chemicals and discovered that the resulting substance had strange properties: it seemed to act as both a liquid and a solid; it could be molded and shaped repeatedly; when rolled into a sphere, it could bounce higher than a rubber ball; it could pick up ink from newspapers. But it wasn’t going to work as a substitute for rubber. He sent his results to scientists around the world, hoping one of them could find a practical use for the new stuff. No one proffered an answer.
By 1949, word reached Ruth Fallgatter, an owner of a toy store. She produced a catalog each year with the help of an advertising consultant named Peter Hodgson. Legend has it it was Hodgson who convinced Fallgatter to place the putty in her catalog, packed in a plastic egg. Even though the material sold well — it was marketed as an adult novelty at the time — it was dropped after a year. Hodgson felt there was an opportunity in the offing, so he borrowed $147 and bought a large quantity of the stuff. He enlisted the help of Yale students to package one-ounce balls into plastic eggs and went to work selling them for one dollar each. It was Hodgson who named the substance Silly Putty.
In 1950, Hodgson showed Silly Putty at the International Toy Fair in New York. It wasn’t particularly well-received, but Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores did decide to carry Silly Putty. Through a visit to Doubleday bookstore, a reporter for The New Yorker magazine discovered it and bought one. He was fascinated by the way the putty could act as both a liquid and a solid while having other strange properties, and wrote about it for the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” column in August of that year. Almost immediately after the publishing of the article, Hodgson started getting orders for the product.
Around 1955, the focus of the marketing for the product changed from adult novelty to kids’ toy. In 1957, Hodgson began advertising Silly Putty in TV commercials that ran during The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo, the top kids’ shows of the day. The rest is boomer history. Silly Putty went worldwide in 1961.
The smoking “sea captain” in this commercial is reported to be none other than Peter Hodgson himself. Remember: this was what marketing to children looked like in the 1950s!
Mister Boomer recalls when he and his brother and sister received an egg of Silly Putty in an Easter Basket, probably in the late fifties. He and his siblings would flatten the stuff out and copy comics from the newspaper. Mister B favored figures that were more easily isolated without a lot of background — Family Circus, Beetle Bailey and Li’l Abner mostly, even though those were not his favorite comics. It was fun to stretch the copied face and body to oblivion, then fold the putty over on itself and watch the distorted image disappear, ready to copy anew. Mister B also made tiny sculptures from the putty, on the order of miniature balloon animals. Utilizing the properties of the substance, he could quickly tear off chunks to form heads, bodies, tails and legs. Once he recalls bouncing a Silly Putty-formed ball on the sidewalk with his sister. Tossing the “ball” with one bounce between them, it often ended up in the grass or picked up dirt from the sidewalk. Back inside, Mister B painstakingly picked out each blade of dried grass, dirt and pebbles before he put it to rest in its plastic case. Mister B was always fascinated at how a ball placed inside the plastic egg one day could “melt” into the shape of the egg by the next morning.
Silly Putty was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2001. The rights were sold to Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayola crayons, shortly after the death of Peter Hodgson in 1976. Though some dispute that it was invented by James Wright and point to a similar result by Earl Warrick and Rob Roy McGregor in 1943, most sources attribute the invention to Wright.
Now that newspaper ink is no longer a petroleum-based formula, but rather soy-based, the copy properties of Silly Putty has been diminished. It hasn’t hurt sales of the silly stuff one bit. Like the Etch-A-Sketch and Slinky, Silly Putty is as popular or even more so than in our early boomer years.
Was there a Silly Putty egg in your Boomer past?