A Silly Failure That Became an Iconic American Product



On this date in History: During World War II,  rubber was a difficult commodity to acquire in the United States since many of the world’s rubber plantations were in control of the Japanese.   As part of an overall conservation and rationing campaign during World War II, tire drives were held in the US  where people turned in old tires so that the rubber could be recycled for the war effort.   People also surrendered rubber rain coats, rubber boots and anything else that was at least partly made from rubber.   The production of tires was limited and gasoline rationing came about to partly limit American’s driving on tires.  Along those same lines, Americans were urged to carpool; riding alone was described as “riding with Hitler.”  The government even put out advertising to inform people how they could care for rubber products so that they would last longer.   But, the demand for rubber in the war for rafts, gas masks, boots and truck tires was so great that Uncle Sam needed to find something to substitute for rubber.  So, stateside chemists went to work to find an alternative to rubber.   General Electric engineer James Wright was working on the project when he mixed silicone oil with boric acid.  On this date in 1943, the effort of James Wright resulted in a gooey substance that could be molded like clay, stretched, snapped and shattered when struck with a hammer.  If a piece was pressed to news print, it picked up the ink.  I’m not certain of the process of events that led to that revelation.  At one point,  Wright dropped it and he found that it bounced.   None of this seemed too practical for his project and, as a suitable replacement for rubber,  Wright’s effort was a failure.  But the boys in the lab had a lot of fun with his accidental invention.   The only use GE had for it was to sell it as a molding material or caulk.

Peter Hodgson: A Man With Silly Vision

Enter toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter.  The “Nutty Putty,”  as the boys at GE had called it, had been passed around to family and friends and some of the interesting substance found its way into her hands in 1949.   Her advertising consultant, Peter Hodgson, convinced her to obtain and package some “Nutty Putty” and put it in her catalog.   At two dollars a piece, the fun stuff was the biggest selling catalog item that year next to a 50 cent box of crayons.  The success caught the attention of Hodgson who was looking for a way to get out from under a $12,000 debt.    Now,  GE had a bunch of the stuff on hand and wanted to get rid of what seemed to be a product without much of a market.   So,  in 1950, Hodgson borrowed $147 and bought a bunch of it and presumably also obtained production rights.  He got a bunch of Yale students to divide the globs of goo into one ounce balls and place them in plastic eggs that were placed in egg cartons.   I’m not sure why Hodgson did not just call it “Nutty Putty,” but after a while of contemplation and suggestion taking, he finally determined his toy would be called “Silly Putty” and the price would be one dollar per egg.   In February 1950, He took his Silly Putty to the International Toy Fair in New York but no one had much vision because his pitch fell on deaf ears.   While he could not convince folks at the fair of Silly Putty’s potential, he was a good enough salesman to get his eggs stocked in Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores.   But it took a bit of luck for Hodgson’s idea to pay off. 

The Packaging For Silly Putty Looked Like a TV to Tie in With the Flood of Television Advertising

A reporter for The New Yorker just happened to go into a Doubleday bookstore and notice the display of eggs.  He bought one and took it home.  That led him to write a story about Silly Putty in the “Talk of the Town” section of the August 26, 1950 publication.  Advertising consultant Hodgson inadvertantly had gotten the best free advertising he could imagine.  Orders for Silly Putty came flooding in.  At first, it was marketed as a “real solid liquid” and was considered an adult novelty item.  But, by the mid 1950’s the strategy shifted from adults to kids, which is probably what Hodgson had in mind in the first place.  Hodgson strategically placed television advertisements for Silly Putty on broadcasts of The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo.  Since those shows were the favorites of children, he efficiently used his advertising dollars to influence his target audience. 

Getting Silly with Putty

 In 1961, his son took up the marketing reigns and went to Russia for a bunch of expositions, including one in Gorky Park where Silly Putty was introduced to thousands. As he traveled, he utilized various forms of transportation. He even rode a motorcycle to Kiev and the Caucasus. On his way home, he married a Swede!   Two years later his introduction of Silly Putty to England coincided with the debut of The Beatles.   He must have gotten his father’s advertising genes because,  in 1976,  he tied a promotion to the Tour de France.  Peter Hodgson, Jr remained active until his father’s death that same year. But, the mistake of James Wright continues to intrigue kids of all ages to this date.  

Worthy of Not so silly study

There are some interesting aspects of Silly Putty that only reinforce the moniker.  In the 1950’s, the Smithsonian Institute had a Silly Putty exhibit and then in 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 took some Silly Putty with them when they orbited the moon.  After Hodgson’s death, the makers of the Crayola Crayons that had outsold Silly Putty in the 1949 toy catalog bought the rights to Silly Putty.  Today, the Binney and Smith company (now known as Crayola LLC)  turns out about 600 pounds of Silly Putty a day at its silly plant in Pennsylvania.  But, alas, one of the great aspects of Silly Putty has gone by the wayside.  A change in the printing process prohibits Silly Putty from copying images of comics in most modern publications.  Nevertheless, the same substance that was useless as a rubber substitute has found some practical purposes as people use it to plug holes, remove lint and relieve stress.  And to cap it off,  a physicist used Silly Putty as the basis of experiment to demonstrate the utility of a microscope in determining time dependent matrial properties.  As we go deeper into the 21st century, there is no telling how Silly Putty might change the world.

Weather  Bottom Line:  I believe the official high in Louisville on Tuesday was 95 degrees, which is far short of the record of 101.  Yes, it’s hot but it’s not unprecendented.   Look for highs again today in the mid to upper 90’s.  We have a cold front that will come down here but it will do so at night.  It seems to me that we should have  a fair chance of rain, even though its at night because it seems that a low may be riding along the front as it moves through the area.  However, none of the models are too enthusiastic as they are measuring rain in the hundreths of inches.  I think it will be more than that but it does not appear that we will get nearly enough rain.  Nevertheless, the front will knock about 7  or 8 degrees off the mercury both in the afternoons and the overnight hours through the weekend.

4 Responses

  1. I’m of the Silly Putty generation. I was just distressed to read that assorted changes in printing, etc. have made it impossible to pull images from comic books. That was one of the best things about the stuff. Well, that and the fact that if you were really, really quick about it you could temporarily stick cats’ paws to the ground for a few seconds.

    Maybe it still would work with Manga or graphic novels – but I’ll leave the experiment to someone else.

  2. I’m sure it still works with some publications. I bet it works with USA today. BTW, I spoke with my professor/mentor about the library stuff. He said that the problem one runs into with getting archival stuff over the net from a library is that one does not know if they put the entire file to the net. Also, he informed me that the Rosenberg Library was in Galveston…I thought that you were talking about the town of Rosenberg. I wondered why the Galveston stuff would be in Rosenberg.

  3. Ah – I hadn’t thought about that confusion (Rosenberg/Galv). The library seems to be very good about indicating what is or is not online. When I was reading interviews with and letters among residents who lived on Todville Road in Seabrook during the 1900 storm, I would come across occasional statements that the entry was partial, and that full documents were available at the library. They seem to be rather professional about it all.

    For academic use or publication, your caveats are on target. But for overviews and “trail markers” that indicate paths into interesting territory, you can’t beat online sites like the Rosenberg.

    I will admit there’s just “something” about going to the library itself – did you discover it’s the oldest continuously operating library in Texas?

  4. You’ve piqued (sp?) my interest. And yes, in Louisville, one thing that is not on line is an old file of newspaper clippings that the librarians of the past created over time. They cannot be accessed in any way except by going through the actual file. Believe it or not, they were planning on destroying it. One of the staff was trying to prevent that from happening. I hope that she was successful. It was very helpful as, because most people don’t know about it, my work was considered to be unique and new.

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