One of the most enduring toys of our times – Silly Putty – wasn’t designed to be in the hands of kids. Its inventor was attempting to respond to a challenge made by the US government.
During World War II, raw materials like rubber became harder to obtain. The Japanese had invaded Asian countries were rubber trees grew freely, and, in 1942, the US governtment’s War Production Board challenged American industries to develop a synthetic rubber.
Chemical engineer James Wright, of General Electric in New Haven, Connecticut, tried many chemical combinations. In one test, he combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube, which resulted in a compound that polymerized. To test its qualities, Wright dropped the compound on the floor. It bounced.
Wright quickly noted the substance could not function as a synthetic rubber – it was soft, didn’t hold its shape, and broke when under pressure. But he and General Electric believed the goo could be used for something, so Wright, who called his creation Bouncing Putty, applied for a patent and GE sent the putty to engineers and scientists to determine possible uses. Five years later, the verdict came back: the putty could serve no useful purpose.
A party hosted by a GE executive served to introduce Bouncing Putty to Ruth Fallgatter, a New Haven toy storeowner, and Peter Hodgson, a marketing consultant. They were both impressed with this product that had become an amusement at numerous adult parties in New England. In 1949, Fallgatter contracted with Hodgson to produce her catalog, and consequently got into a discussion about Bouncing Putty. They added it to the catalog and began selling it in a clear, little case for $2. It became a top seller, second only to 50-cent boxes of Crayola hexagonal crayons. Fallgatter, however, decided to drop the putty from her catalog.
Despite being $12,000 in debt, Hodgson made a deal with GE and purchased $147 of putty with borrowed money. While he considered various names for the putty, he considered the different properties of the goo. It did more than just bounce. If he pulled it slowly, it could stretch as far as he could spread his arms. If it was pulled suddenly, it broke. When the putty was kneaded, it would get air bubbles that could be popped, making a great “snap”. Hodgson saw the compound as a fun, silly putty, and hence the name change.
As Easter was fast approaching, Hodgson decided to package 1-ounce chunks of putty into plastic eggs, which he sold for $1 each.
In February of 1950, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty at the International Toy Fair in New York. Other toy marketers saw little use for Hodgson’s product and encouraged him to abandon his promotional plans. Hodgson ignored discouraging comments and opted to produce Silly Putty in a converted barn in North Branford, CT. The “eggs” were shipped to toy stores in pasteboard egg crates Hodgson acquired from the Connecticut Cooperative Poultry Association. Still, it wasn’t until August of ’50 that Silly Putty became a real hit – when the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker spotlighted the product. Soonafter, Hodsgon received orders for more than 250,000 eggs.
Hodgson had shipped nearly 7 tons of Silly Putty to stores when trouble hit in 1951. As a result of the Korean War, the government was putting restrictions on raw materials, including silicone. Hodgson had to stop production, and he rationed the remaining 1,500 pounds of Silly Putty to his customers. The ban was lifted the following year, and the production of Silly Putty recommenced.
Within five years of its in-store introduction, the initial market for Silly Putty had flopped. Adults had lost interest in the quirky toy. Kids, however, discovered that Silly Putty could be placed on a comic or newspaper page to pick up the image, which then could be stretched and contorted. (I used to look forward to the Sunday comics myself for this reason.) By 1955, it was a favorite among children ages 6 to 12.
Recognizing the change in his customer base, Hodgson moved to advertise Silly Putty on television during Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody, making it one of the first products shown on TV to be directed specifically to kids.
In 1961, with the help of his son, Peter Hodgson Jr., Silly Putty was introduced to the children of the USSR at the US Plastics Expo in Moscow. Soon after, it was introduced to Europe. It was a huge success in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands, and, in 1963, the craze was introduced to England.
Silly Putty went to the moon in 1968. Apollo 8 astronauts reportedly used it to relieve stress. It was also used to hold down tools in the weightless atmosphere.
Hodgson’s company never made any other product, and when Hodgson died in 1976, he left behind a $140 million estate.
In 1977, Hodgson Jr. sold the rights to Silly Putty to Crayola Crayon maker Binney & Smith of Easton, Pennsylvania. By then, sales had begun to taper off, but Binney & Smith sought to increase distribution, and was quite successful. By 1987 there was a renewed fondness of Silly Putty, resulting in sales of about 2 million eggs per year. Even today, the toy putty is a common party favor and stocking stuffer.
A once-failed attempt to help during WWII resulted in a product that eventually became a household name. Silly Putty has since become one of the most popular toys and multi-use products of generations. The Smithsonian Institute included the invention as a subject of a display on the 1950s.
- Silly Putty’s original color was pinkish-beige (which still exists).
- Silly Putty is classified as a solid-liquid.
- Silly Putty has been introduced in 13 different colors, including four that glow in the dark.
- Binney & Smith used a marshmallow-cutting machine to cut Silly Putty for packaging.
- Silly Putty can bounce higher than a rubber ball. Cooling the putty will improve its bounce.
- Although denser than water, if you shape Silly Putty into a boat or similar shape, it will float.
- Silly Putty used to be able to lift print from newspapers and comics. The switch to soy-based dyes has put a damper on this neat little trick.
- Silly Putty will stretch and stretch if you pulll slowly. Pull too fast and it will break.
- Silly Putty can melt. Just as it gets softer when cupped in the hands for a length of time, it can melt to a puddle when exposed to warmer temperatures.
- More than 4500 tons of Silly Putty have been made since 1950.
- Silly Putty has been called the toy with one moving part.
Did you play with Silly Putty as a kid? What did you like most about this simple, classic toy?