Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Silly Putty Party: The Wonderful History of America's Favorite Stretchy Compound

With the U.S.' involvement in World War II escalating, the demand for rubber was overwhelming (most of it was being used for boots, truck tires, etc.), and the government was searching for an alternative. In 1943, William Wright, a Scottish engineer for General Electric, mixed silicone oil and boric acid in a test tube. What resulted was a strange material that stretched to enormous lengths and bounced about 25% higher than a rubber ball. In 1945, GE sent the substance to engineers worldwide hoping to find a use for it, but no practical use was found.
Silly Putty floated around various scientific circles until Ruth Falgatter became interested. She paired up with marketing executive and entrepreneur Peter Hodgson. They decided to put a description of the substance in the mail-order catalog of the Block Shop toy store in New Haven, MA, which was owned by Falgatter. It was offered in small, transparent plastic eggs for $2.00 a piece. They first started selling the product under the name "Silly Putty" in 1949. It outsold all other items in the catalog but one: a box of hexagon-shaped Crayola markers which cost 50 cents. However, Ruth Falgatter decided to stop marketing the product, despite its success. Not one to quit, Hodgson gained control of the product.
At the International Toy Fair in New York in 1950, marketing execs from all around the globe advised Hodgson not to market the product; he was already 12,000 dollars in debt. Hodgson was persistent, however, and managed to get Silly Putty into Neiman Marcus and Doubleday bookstores. After moderate success there, he created the Arnold-Clark company and relocated to a barn in Connecticut.
That August, the New Yorker ran an article about Silly Putty. Over the next three days, Hodgson was flooded with over 25,000 orders. In 1957, Hodgson made the first television ad for Silly Putty. The ad featured a sailor demonstrating all the fantastic things you can do with Silly Putty. He advertised that if you pull it, it will "go on forever, like taffy, but when you give it a sharp tug it breaks in half, like a biscuit", finishing the ad by saying "nothing else is Silly Putty".
Peter Hodgson died on August 6, 1976. The next year, Binney and Smith, inc. acquired rights to Silly Putty.
After it was first put on the racks, Silly Putty sold faster than any other toy in history, with $16 million in sales for the year. Since 1950, over 300 million eggs (about 4,500 tons) of Silly Putty have been sold. But you don't need statistics to tell you that Silly Putty remains a true American classic. And remember, "nothing else is Silly Putty".

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