An Object That Shaped American Culture?

Did you know that “Silly Putty” was invented during World War II in some vain attempt at developing a synthetic rubber?  I mean it was pink.  Couldn’t you just see all the Fords, Buicks, and Chevrolet’s riding around on soft cushy pink round globs of “Silly Putty?”  Rubber was scarce on the Home Front, as you probably know, so those tires and tubes had to be patched over and over again to go anywhere in a car, if you had enough ration coupons to buy gas, and it was, as required, a necessary trip.  Thinking on it more, though, it could have actually worked, kind of like “FixAFlat” does today.  Instead of an inner tube, you would have the inside of the tire filled to the brim with “Silly Putty.”  As long as it didn’t squish out, it just might have kept the tire round, but I’m sure few could have afforded it, and would rather have spent the money on a re-tread.

The Japanese, in 1940, continued to occupy the rubber-producing countries in the Far East, cutting off supplies to the United States.  Hard to have a mobile army without tires on your trucks, so the War Production Board saw the need to develop a replacement, a synthetic rubber.  By 1943 a Scottish chemist working for GE combined  boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube and it “polymerized.”  Wright is beyond excited, pulls the stuff out of the test tube and throws it up in the air.  It bounces off the floor, and voila, “Bouncing Putty” is invented.

Seven years later, because no one can find a use for the stuff all that time, a toy shop owner in New Haven CT, decides to feature it in her upcoming catalog.  She puts the stuff in a clear plastic case and out sells out every other item in the “Block Shop” catalog at $2 each.  But she loses interest in the bouncing pink gooey substance, god knows why, and decides not to continue it in the next “Block Shop” catalog.  The catalog designer, Peter Hodgson Sr., thinks there’s a market for the toy.  He borrows $147 and buys some of the stuff.  Hodgson packages one ounce of the substance in clear plastic eggs and comes up with the name “Silly Putty.”

What happens next is another example of the power of the press.  A writer for “New Yorker” magazine, sees the stuff at a “Doubleday” book store, and writes a story about it which appears in the “Talk of the Town” section.  Within three days, Hodgson gets orders for over 250,000 eggs of “Silly Putty.”  Then another war steps in.  He can’t get the silicon because it is restricted due to the Korean War effort.  (Wait, that was a “police action” according to President Truman, not a war, right?)  Hodgson only has 1,500 pounds of the putty left, (Can you imagine that?) so he sparingly fills some of his back orders.  What does that produce?  Every kid in America wants an egg of “Silly Putty” and can’t get it.  Has that ever happened since, like “Cabbage Patch Kids,” and “Transformers?”  I’m pretty sure toy manufacturers took note of that phenomenon in 1951.

“Silly Putty” has been around now for 69 years.  When it reached its 50th anniversary, two eggs of the stuff were placed in the Smithsonian Institute as one of the objects that shaped American Culture.  Wow, “Silly Putty” shaped American Culture.  Well I guess you can “shape” it.  It bounces.  It’s still pink, although you can get it in many different colors today, and they even have a putty that changes color in your hand.  But what I find really amazing, is the stuff costs about the same as it did all those years ago; one dollar.  And now you can even get “Silly Putty” that glows in the dark!

Why, when everything else costs way more than it did in the 1950s, does “Silly Putty” stay at the same price point?  Riddle me that Batman?





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2 responses to “An Object That Shaped American Culture?

  1. Because it’s as gross and stinky now as it was then?

    Interesting post!

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