Boomers Got Silly

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?

Boomers and Summer Songs: Will I See You In September?

Summer’s here and with it, a new crop of summer songs will be released for today’s youth. What is it about summer songs that etch memories into our collective biological databases and stick with us into our sunset years? Summer songs can be defined as those released in the months of June, July and August, traditionally the summer break from school. They generally speak of seeking fun or love. The songs remind us of a warm wind in our hair and sand between our toes, all the while delivering a hook that’s easy to remember and often to sing along to. And it doesn’t hurt to have a good beat and be easy to dance to, either. The adjective that most comes to mind for people when they think of summer songs is “breezy”…even the summer love songs seem somehow less intense, despite the “heavy” subjects of finding, keeping or losing love.

The phenomenon of summer songs, however, is a relatively new one. From the 1920s to post-war America, music was programmed for specific times on the radio as opposed to “all music, all the time.” Without television (most middle class homes didn’t pick up the TV-watching habit until after the War), radio was the prime entertainment vehicle, and the majority of programming — including music — wasn’t aimed at teens. With one radio in the house, teens listened to whatever their parents listened to.

After the War the Boomer Generation began in earnest and by the 1950s a youth culture demographic was emerging. Check the top summer hits of the early 1950s, however, and the pattern that dominated the radio playlists in pre-war broadcasting remained. It seemed like the stations wanted to pick up where they left off. Slowly, as the decade unfolded, newer music was added to the playlists alongside orchestral favorites for the older set. For the first time, kids were listening to music that was not their parents’ music. “Crossover” artists like Percy Faith and His Orchestra, Doris Day and Patti Page could appeal to both the young and their parents, while older artists like Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole still held some appeal for the younger set.

By 1955, America was ready for a change in summer musical tastes. That year, one song dominated the Billboard charts from July 9 through September 2: Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets. Rock ‘n Roll had breached the walls of the radio establishment and planted its youth flag indelibly into the summer music charts. The following year Elvis began his march to immortality with several summer hits, including Heartbreak Hotel (1956), Teddy Bear (1957) and Hard Headed Woman (1958). Coupled with the growing popularity of the transistor radio and teenagers being able to afford at least cheap transportation — jalopies of their own, all equipped with radios — and summer music rose like a tsunami anywhere teens would gather.

There are so many memorable summer hits in the decades of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s — prime boomer years — that Mister B is overwhelmed by the notion of trying to distill his favorites into a top 10 list. What he will do instead is relate some of what he considers the most important summer releases of the 1960s, either because of memories that were created on account of the songs, or what they meant to the youth around him.

As Mister B first began to notice the difference between the sexes, Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini by Brian Hyland hit the charts in the summer of 1960. It was a fun, catchy tune that pointed out in no uncertain terms that our generation would be different than the one before, and launched a series of novelty tunes that would find a place on the summer charts for years to come.

1962 brought us Vacation by Connie Francis. What could be more summer-like than enthusiastically spelling out the word? It still to this day evokes memories of the anticipation of school ending and summer vacation starting for Mister B. That same year, Neil Sedaka had a summer hit with Breaking Up is Hard to Do. Every time Mister B hears that song, he’s immediately transported to his grandmother’s house where he spent a week each summer. Sitting at her kitchen table and glueing together a model car kit, Neil’s song played on through Mister B’s transistor radio.

The next summer, 1963, was perhaps one of the best for boomer summer hits. Mister B can’t help but get his toes tapping when Martha and the Vandelas sing Heat Wave. That same summer brought us It’s My Party by Lesley Gore; Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer by Nat King Cole; Fingertips — Pt. 2 by Little Stevie Wonder; Wipe Out by the Surfaris; and two mega-hits by the Beach Boys: Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA. The Beach Boys went on to become what many consider to be the quintessential summer song band. Many will point to Good Vibrations as one their favorites, and great summer fare — however, that song was actually released in December of 1966, and thus not a summer song by definition. The Surfaris’ Wipe Out became such an instant classic summer song that once school started back up, the boys in Mister B’s class would practice trying to play the song’s infectious drumming using number two pencils on the edge of their desks, much to the chagrin of their teachers.

The Beatles hit the summer charts in 1964 with A Hard Day’s Night. Their music was generally released in fall and spring, but they did have a few summer hits, including Paperback Writer (1966), All you Need Is Love (1967) and Get Back (1968). Also of note in 1964 were Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand) by the Shangri-las (Mister B still has the 45); Chapel of Love by the Dixie Cups (appropriately played over the store PA system as Mister B did his grocery shopping this first week of summer); and A World Without Love by Peter & Gordon. That one is a good example of a love song built for the summer.

1965 brought us California Girls by The Beach Boys; (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction by The Rolling Stones and Mr. Tambourine Man by The Byrds. Mister B’s neighbor friend lent him his acoustic guitar for a few days that summer, so he could practice that classic guitar riff from Satisfaction. While never learning to play the guitar, that experience was almost enough to get him to take up an instrument…almost. After all, it was summer.

Aretha Franklin couldn’t get any Respect in the summer of 1967. Mister B has always had a penchant for soul, and this, he thought, was the best version of the much-recorded song. Meanwhile, The Doors were asking everyone to Light My Fire. The Beatles weighed in with the summer ditty, All You Need Is Love.

Sealed With A Kiss by Gary Lewis & The Playboys hit the charts in the summer of 1968. A great summer love song, it didn’t have much in the area of range changes, so was easy to sing along to. That same summer gave us Summer Rain by Johnny Rivers; Summertime Blues by Blue Cheer; and People Got to Be Free by the Rascals, the last two announcing that times were indeed a-changing.

1969 brought some real fun in the summer months with the super-sweet sound of Sugar, Sugar by the Archies and Honkey Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones. Mister B’s memory, however, shifts into overdrive with two other great summer hits that year: Hot Fun in the Summertime by Sly & the Family Stone and In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry.

The lists go on and on, reminding boomers of hot days and even hotter nights; first kisses and first loves; great parties and great friends. Would summer songs be with us to this day if it weren’t for the growing population that became known as the Boomer Generation? Perhaps that can best be answered by asking if the world is a better place when a summer song like The Drifters’ Under the Boardwalk plays through your car radio.

What were your favorite summer songs, boomers?