Thursday, January 12, 2012


This classic children’s toy grew out of a war time necessity. WWII cut of the United States from their supply of rubber, which was imported from the South Pacific, mostly from Malaya and Ceylon. Japan now controlled those areas and there was a great need for rubber to make jeep, truck and airplane tires and many other pieces of military hardware.

The rubber shortage led to gas rationing, just to save tires. There were also rubber drives, starting in 1942, where citizens were urged to turn in any available rubber, in the form of rain coats, garden hoses and other items. This recycled rubber went to the military, but it just wasn’t enough. So there was a military and civilian need for a rubber substitute.

The U. S. War Production Board went to General Electric, which were making many items to the military, and asked them to come up with an effective, inexpensive replacement for rubber. Synthetic rubber had already been invented in the 1920’s but it was expensive. The government wanted a cheaper substitute, made from readily available ingredients.


In 1943 a GE scientist, named James Wright, went to work on the problem. He mixed boric acid and silicone oil. This produced a putty-like substance. It was somewhat like rubber; when made into a ball it bounced better than a rubber ball. But it really didn’t work as a rubber substitute. It was too stretchy and could not be made into a solid object, it was just not suitable. The product was kept around the lab, just for fun, and was called “nutty putty”. In 1945, GE challenged engineers to find a use for the product, but none could. It was just an interesting substance, nothing more.


But a toy store salesman, Paul Hodgson, realized it’s potential. He lived in New Haven, where the GE lab was located, and he was introduced to nutty putty at a party, in 1949. Hodgson saw the potential immediately and bought a large piece of nutty putty from GE. He had the substance broken up into one ounce balls and offered it for sale.

He renamed the product “Silly Putty” and it quickly became the most popular item in his toy store. In 1950, Hodgson and store owner, Ruth Falgatter, needed a product for the upcoming Easter season. A small toy that fit inside a plastic egg would be perfect for an Easter basket present. So the product was placed in the small eggs and offered for sale.

The product did not sell that well, but favorable word of mouth and a mention in the New Yorker lead to hundreds of thousands of orders. In 1952 supplies of silicone oil were low due to military needs, so Silly Putty was rather scarce.

But by the late 1950’s, the product was a popular children’s toy and was extensively advertised on television. Silly Putty had made the transition from adult novelty to classic children’s toy. Nowadays, it is available in more colors, but it is still an inexpensive, fun toy. The best use for the toy, for me, is to lift off pictures from the Sunday funnies and stretch them out. Some people have found practical uses for the toy, such as cleaning off lint or dirt, but really this is just a fun, impractical toy.

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