Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

The Fascinating Plastic That Everybody Loves

Let’s talk about Silly Putty, the stretchy, bouncy stuff in the plastic egg. Popular for more than 60 years, enshrined in museums, and loved by kids (of all ages), Silly Putty is nothing less than amazing. Yet this toy is simply a wad of unformed plastic material, not molded or formed in any way. More mazing still is how this enduring success came to be?

Silicone-based Silly Putty has been packaged in a rigid plastic egg since first marketed in 1950.

Early in World War II, Japan controlled much of the area where natural rubber originates. The call went out to American scientists: Develop a synthetic substitute. James Wright, an engineer experimenting in General Electric’s New Haven, CT lab, combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube, which yielded a gooey substance. He threw it on the floor and it bounced — very high.

This was not the sought-for synthetic rubber, but it was interesting. Yet despite GE’s efforts, no practical use was found for “bouncing putty.” Eventually, a toy store owner in New Haven, CT noticed it. Ruth Fallgatter and her marketing consultant Peter Hodgson put a written description into her toy catalog offering bouncing putty in a clear case for $2. It outsold everything in the catalog except for a 50-cent box of Crayola crayons.

Fallgatter lost interest but Hodgson saw potential. Already deeply in debt, he borrowed $147 to make a batch, packaged one-ounce wads in plastic eggs, priced them at $1 each, and decided on the name Silly Putty.

At the 1950 International Toy Fair in New York the toy marketers were generally negative about the putty, but Hodgson persisted and placed it with a few retail outlets, including Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday book shops.

Sculpting is one of many uses for Silly Putty

A few months later, a New Yorker magazine writer found it in

Doubleday, wrote a story about it, and Hodgson got orders for more than 250,000 eggs of Silly Putty. Government restrictions on silicone due to the Korean War almost wiped him out, but those were lifted and by 1955 Silly Putty was popular with kids aged six to twelve.

Silly Putty scored a big hit at the 1961 U.S. Plastics Expo in Moscow, becoming the gift of choice for Americans visiting the Soviet Union. In 1968 Silly Putty went to the moon, literally. The Apollo 8 astronauts used it to secure tools and relieve boredom.

Peter Hodgson died in 1976, leaving an estate reported to be about $140 million. In 1977, Binney & Smith, the maker of Crayola crayons and other products, acquired the rights to Silly Putty and the putty has continued to bounce along since then.

Silly Putty offers a glow-in-the-dark variety

Glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty plays like the original. They all do.

In 2000, a Silly Putty egg from the 1950s was displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, part of the “Material World” exhibit of inventions and materials that have shaped American culture. The following year, Silly Putty was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame (Salem, OR), joining Crayola crayons, inducted three years prior.

Binney & Smith produces more than 20,000 eggs full of Silly Putty every day at its Easton, PA factory. There are versions that glow in the dark and others that change color in your hand, but 60 years after it hit the market, you can still bounce Silly Putty higher than a rubber ball, copy pictures onto it from a newspaper, shape it into fancy sculpture, smack it with a hammer (mind the bounce-back), or squeeze it to relieve tension or strengthen your grip.

A walk through the toy aisle of any store shows that a significant majority of children’s toys are made mostly or entirely of plastics. Silly Putty, however, is still its own category: a chunk of plastic material whose only moving part is the kid playing with it.

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