It's all plastic and All-American. Uncle Milton's Ant Farm hit the toy market in 1956, when Milton Levine, a mail-order businessman who specialized in novelties such as spud guns and rubber shrunken heads, looked down at some bugs crashing his sister's Fourth of July pool party. As a child, Levine had turned Mason jars into ant observatories. Hmm, he thought, what if I could bottle and sell all the fun that kids have watching ants? Soon after, Levine created an ant farm prototype out of a plastic handkerchief box. Only problem? "I didn't know a damn thing about ants," recalls the spry 85-year-old.
Known to children of all ages as "Uncle Milton," the semi-retired Levine says luck led him to the desert location where he dug up his mother lode of ants, a species that just "happened" to be unique among several thousand for its inclination to tunnel during daylight. Today, the California desert source of these ants is the company's most closely guarded secret--a key ingredient much like the white pulverized lava rock that enhances ant visibility and proves cheaper than sand to ship.
"Of course, any fool can make something out of plastic," he says. "The real trick is mailing the ants."
Because toy merchants are not typically interested in baby-sitting a stock of hungry ants, Uncle Milton only distributes the insects through direct mail via a redeemable stock certificate that comes with each $10 farm. Milton's Westlake Village headquarters, live ant central, boasts its own post office and seven full-time employees. During the past 42 years, it has shipped more than $125 million worth of ants to destinations from Tokyo to Toledo. At about two cents per ant, that's quite a swarm.
Many kids send notes, the best of which are posted in Levine's office. "My favorite," he says, "goes, 'Dear Uncle Milton, please send me some more ants. My brother tipped over the ant farm and peed on the ants.' "
Unlike other pets, the 3-to-4-month life expectancy of Ant Farm dwellers quickly raises the issue of mortality with children. "Eventually, everything goes," Levine says. "That's just one of life's lessons, and one I'm very proud that we help kids learn." Another favorite: "If everyone worked like ants, we'd be in good shape."
"People all over the world love ants. Maybe because they're social animals, too. I know I love them. I'll never step on an ant; I can't. It'd be like stepping on a golden goose."
Uncle Milton's Ant Farm, (818) 707-0800