Silly putty: It's almost 50! It's still silly! And it still sells!
This story ran Aug. 2, 1995 in The Courant
In a world where sleek, speeding Rollerblades and high-tech video games compete for kids' attention, it may be surprising that a glob of goo known as Silly Putty keeps bouncing along, 45 years after it arrived on the scene.
This pliable little plaything was a bit of marketing magic that catapulted Connecticut into the toy-making spotlight in August 1950, shortly after the "gupp," as he called it, was first sold by Peter Hodgson, an out-of-work copywriter from New Haven.
It became a craze in the 1950s. Children wouldn't sit still until they got their hands on Silly Putty. Then they sat only long enough to press it against their favorite comics and peel away the impressions. As soon as a kid learned how high Silly Putty bounced, these pinkish, nut-sized balls were ricocheting all around their homes.
A '90s kind of thing
In 1968 the astronauts on the Apollo 8 moon mission carried Silly Putty into space in a specially designed sterling-silver egg -- to alleviate boredom and help fasten down tools during weightlessness.
Students from Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., used Silly Putty to help them prepare for the New England final competition for the annual Science Bowl of the U.S. Department of Energy -- a Q & A match in which the team that pushes the buzzer first gets to answer.
"I've been using it to strengthen my thumb and forefinger," said team captain Brad Gagne, a senior. "The Silly Putty is to get quick on the reflexes."
Free-lance writer Jama Coomes wrote this year in the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal that she has owned the same Silly Putty for almost five years, and it "has saved me thousands of dollars in psychiatrist's fees."
Coomes described the therapeutic values of Silly Putty while kneading it, bouncing it, rolling it, stretching it and lifting impressions of faces of newly engaged couples from newspaper pages; then distorting them to release her anger at a date who stood her up.
The Columbus (Ohio) Zoo used it to make casts of the hands and feet of gorillas for educational purposes.
Silly Putty can also be used to clean typewriter keys, plug leaks, remove lint from clothing and steady wobbly tables.
The 6 million units produced last year are three times what was produced in 1987, says Binney & Smith Inc., the Crayola crayon people who have made Silly Putty for the past 18 years.
A market survey in 1990 showed that 97 percent of American households recognize the name Silly Putty and that almost 70 percent of American households have purchased it at some time.
In 1990, they added four fluorescent colors -- magenta, orange, green and yellow. In 1991, Glow in the Dark Silly Putty arrived. Most pieces, still packed in plastic eggs, are priced under $2. But Classic Silly Putty is still the best seller.
The man who made it all possible was Hodgson. In 1949 he went to work in New Haven for an advertising agency, which folded in six months. Out of work and broke, this restless, energetic 37-year-old was searching for something to do when he met up with "gupp."
Gupp also had no place to go. It had been discovered six years earlier by James Wright, an engineer in General Electric's New Haven laboratory. Seeking to develop a synthetic rubber, Wright combined boric acid and silicone oil and got bouncing putty.
General Electric sent samples to engineers around the world but nobody could find anything practical to do with it.
Hodgson discovered it in a New Haven toy shop, whose owner, Ruth Fallgatter, had gotten the gupp from a friend who was an engineer with GE. Hodgson suggested she make it a toy for adults, but she wasn't interested.
"I'm a marketing man," he thought, so he decided to give the gupp a silly name and market it.
Already $12,000 in debt, Hodgson borrowed $147 to buy a batch of the stuff. He and some part-time workers from Yale University, balled the putty up in 1-ounce portions and tucked into plastic eggs (Easter was coming. The price was about $1 a piece.
Hodgson got Doubleday bookstores to take his product. But Silly Putty sales didn't really roll until August when it was mentioned in The New Yorker magazine's "Talk of the Town" section Aug. 26.
Hodgson's phone rang for four days, and he had a quarter-million orders. He moved his production operation into a converted barn on Totoket Road in North Branford. In the next 17 years, the company expanded into Canada and West Germany, and annual sales reached $5 million.
Silly Putty made Hodgson a very wealthy man. He and his wife, Margaret, lived in Madison in a mansion, with a tennis court and swimming pool, on 88 partially wooded acres overlooking Long Island Sound. Their place came to be known as the Silly Putty Estate. Hodgson died there at age 64 in 1976, leaving an estate of $140 million.
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