Some toys are created from a cartoon, some by a marketing team, others by accident, while some are created out of the need for something but turn out entirely different than was envisioned. Silly Putty fits into the last category.
When the United States entered World War II the country found itself doing everything they could on the home front to help the soldiers overseas to win the war. Whether it was in the form of rationing things such as meats, sugar, coffee, canned foods or fuel, they did. Drives were held to gather scrap metal to help build ships, tanks and planes. Any metal not being used in homes, or even in the streets like trolley tracks, were recycled. To realize the importance of this, to build just one tank it took 18 tons of metal, while building one of the Navy’s largest ships took 900 tons. Women saved the grease and fat from their cooking, selling it to their butchers, where it was collected by the military to be used for explosives.
During the 1930’s America’s supply of natural rubber came from Southeast Asia, but was soon cut off when Japan occupied the territory. Much like scrap metal drives, drives for old rubber products were held and people turned in old rain coats, boots, garden hoses and tires. New tires were extremely tough to come by since they were being rationed, so citizens were urged to drive the speed limit (which helped reduce the use of fuel) but also helped tires from wearing out so quickly. They were also requested not to drive alone which created the concept of “carpooling”.
While the U.S. did have a stockpile of natural rubber in reserve, 1 million tons in fact, it would be no were near enough to help win the war, when the consumption of said product was 600,000 tons per year. Even with the recycling of old rubber products collected there was still a need for this material to be used in everything from gas masks to scout cars, life rafts and even heavy bomber planes. Just how much did each of these items require in the form of rubber? A gas mask used 1.11 lbs of rubber, a life raft between 17 to 100 lbs, a scout car 306 lbs while a heavy bomber required 1,825 lbs.
Realizing the necessity for this material, and their stockpiles of rubber depleting, the government formed the GR-S, Government Rubber-Styrene, which involved the government working closely with chemical and other companies to help develop a form of general purpose synthetic rubber to replace the natural rubber.
Many companies began experimenting, one of which was General Electric of New Haven Connecticut. Engineer James Wright combined boric acid and silicone oil into a test tube creating something close to rubber. While his creation had many of the properties close to those which rubber has, it did not have them all and could not be used. Thankfully other companies were able to develop this general purpose synthetic rubber to help aid the soldiers and the rest is history.
But what about this non-rubber like material Wright made? This…putty?
That’s where Silly Putty eventually comes in.
Wright experimented with the putty but couldn’t find one practical use for it. In fact, no one could. Friends and family found it interesting though, how you could use it like a rubber ball, stretch or pull it, and it began to get passed along until finally it found its way to Ruth Fallgatter in 1949, owner of Block Shop Toy Store. Not sure what to exactly do with it, she hired advertising consultant Peter Hodgson to promote it in her stores catalog. Priced at $2.00, this putty outsold every item in her catalog with the exception of a pack of 50 cent Crayola crayons. However, after one year, despite the great sales, Fallgatter decided not to continue with the product.
Hodgson however had a different idea. Going with his gut, he took a loan of $147 in 1950 and bought a batch of the putty. He then filled little plastic eggs with one ounce of the putty, and after going through a list of 15 names, decided to call it “Silly Putty” and sold it for $1.00. Introduced at the 1950 International Toy Fair, Hodgson and Silly Putty was laughed at, being told to quit while he was ahead, the stuff would never sell. Despite the response he received, Hodgson was able to sell some to Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday Book Stores.
With some buyers to buy his product, Hodgson founded the Arnold Clark Company, and moved his production into a converted barn in Branford, Connecticut. To ship out his Silly Putty to his customers he bought surplus egg boxes from The Connecticut Cooperative Poultry Association, and used these to ship his eggs of Silly Putty.
During the summer of 1950, a writer from The New Yorker magazine bought an egg of Silly Putty at a Doubleday Book Store. Intrigued with it, he wrote a column about it in the “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine. When the magazine hit stands, the orders for Silly Putty jumped to more than a quarter million across the country in just three days.
When the Korean War hit, rations were put on certain items once more, one of which was silicone oil, an ingredient in the Silly Putty formula. Not able to buy this, Hodgson slowly filled out his remaining orders with only 1,500 lbs of the putty left. When the restriction was lifted in 1952, he was able to make more Silly Putty. However, in 1955 a silly thing happened to Silly Putty. Originally sold as an adult novelty toy, children began to take notice of it, and sales switched from adults to kids. One thing they discovered was you could place the Silly Putty on your favorite newspaper comic strip and the drawing would transfer to the putty. While children did this for years on both newspapers and Spider-man comics, today this is not possible due to the new ink used.
To help generate more excitement for the product, Hodgson aired commercials on TV geared towards kids during the Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody Show. By 1976 The Silly Putty Empire was well worth over $140 million and was one of the most successful toys in the country. Peter Hodgson, the only one who saw the potential in Silly Putty, died that year.
One year later Binney & Smith, owners of Crayola crayons bought Silly Putty. While the product continued to sell, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that sales increased. Silly Putty’s 40th anniversary was held, ironically enough, at the International Toy Fair in New York in 1990, the very same place where people told Hodgson the product wouldn’t sell.
1995 brought a new kind of Silly Putty, one that could change colors from the warmth of your hands. In 2000, for its Golden anniversary, metallic gold Silly Putty was created, then in 2001 Silly Putty was inducted into The National Toy Hall of Fame.
Today Silly Putty continues to entertain children and it looks like it has no signs of stopping. Here’s to 64 years of putty being silly. I hope it never gets serious.