Sure It’s Silly, but After 45 Years Sales Are Still Bouncing Along : Toys: That glob of goo called Silly Putty became a craze in the ‘50s. It’s still a consistent seller despite a lack of advertising.
In a world where sleek, speeding Rollerblades and high-tech video games compete for kids’ attention, it may be a little 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 became a craze in the 1950s. Children would not 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.
It’s still in play in the ‘90s.
Belinda Lux, a physical therapist at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Associates of East Hartford, Conn., says Silly Putty is a good material for hand-squeezing exercises because it has the same consistency as products promoted specifically for that purpose.
It can be used for pumping action to promote healing and for general strengthening of the hands, she says.
A few years ago, Silly Putty was used at the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo to make casts of the hands and feet of gorillas for educational purposes.
The 6 million units produced last year are triple the 2 million turned out in 1987, says maker Binney & Smith Inc.
Susan Tucker, spokeswoman for corporate affairs at Binney & Smith, says that since the company acquired Silly Putty in 1977, it has been a consistent seller with little marketing or advertising support.
Marketing research for Silly Putty’s 40th anniversary, in 1990, showed that 97% of American households recognize the Silly Putty name and that almost 70% of American households have purchased Silly Putty at some time.
In 1990, the maker added four fluorescent colors--magenta, orange, green and yellow. In the next year, Glow in the Dark Silly Putty arrived. Most pieces, still packed in plastic eggs, are priced at less than $2.
Of the variety on the market today, the original, known as Classic Silly Putty, is still the best seller.
The man who made Silly Putty possible was Peter Hodgson, an out-of-work copywriter from New Haven, Conn. In 1949, Hodgson went to work 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 this “gupp,” as he called it.
The gupp also had no place to go. It had been discovered six years earlier by James Wright, an engineer working 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. No practical use was developed.
Hodgson first held it in his hand in a New Haven toy shop, whose owner, Ruth Fallgatter, had been given the gupp by a friend who was an engineer with GE. Hodgson suggested that Fallgatter 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. With the help of part-time workers from Yale University, the putty was balled up in 1-ounce portions and tucked in plastic eggs (Easter lay ahead). The price was about $1 apiece.
Hodgson got Doubleday bookstores to take his product. But Silly Putty sales didn’t really roll until August. It got a mention in The New Yorker magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section.
Hodgson’s phone rang for four days, and he had a quarter-million orders.
In the next 17 years, the company expanded into Canada and West Germany, and annual sales reached $5 million.
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 to help fasten down tools during weightlessness.
Other uses found for Silly Putty include cleaning typewriter keys, plugging leaks, removing lint from clothing, and steadying a wobbly table.
Silly Putty made Hodgson a very wealthy man. He and his wife, Margaret, lived in Madison, Conn., in a mansion, with 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.
In 1977, the business was sold to Binney & Smith, maker of Crayola crayons, in Easton, Pa.