Silly Putty: The story of the stretchy, bouncy wonder toy of the 20th century

Silly Putty Wonder toy of the 20th century (1951)

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The 20th mid-century was — for better and for worse — an era of chemistry innovations for the consumer market.

From polyester to Tupperware — and, eventually, plastic-everything — synthetic products became increasingly available.

Silly Putty, we can all agree, is one of those items that is decidedly in the “For Better” column — so much so that it was initially promoted primarily to adults for its mental health benefits, including its use as a smoking cessation tool.

Read on for the history of Silly Putty and learn what this magical stuff — fascinating to children and adults alike — is even made out of!

Ulcers bothering you? Try Silly Putty (1951)

By Glenn Williams – Hutchinson News-Herald (Hutchinson, Kansas) April 8, 1951

Well, sir, I’m here to tell you that in the past couple of days, I’ve had more fun than the oft-cited barrel-full of monkeys. (And that, incidentally, raises the question of what monkeys do in barrels to have so much fun.)

Oh, well, to get back to the subject, this fun cost me only a dollar, which is pretty cheap even for innocent fun these days.

The source of all this fun is a small glob of rather repulsive-looking, clay-like material called Silly Putty. A number of local stores are selling it these days.

Silly Putty is just as silly as its name. If you roll it up in a ball, it will bounce like rubber, but if you grab it and give it a sharp jerk, it will break in brittle fashion. On the other hand, if you pull at it gently, it will stretch like bubble gum.

It has other strange and wonderful qualities. If you hit it with a hammer, it will shatter into countless pieces. But if you just leave it alone on a flat surface, it will soggily spread out like a pancake. Spread it out on a comic strip or a newspaper, and it will faithfully reproduce the printing or pictures.

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Vintage Silly Putty ad
Vintage Silly Putty ad in the back of a comic book

Local merchants report the stuff is selling rather rapidly and that most of it is sold to adults who rather sheepishly say they’re buying it for their children. The first Silly Putty to appear in Hutchinson was ordered by a druggist for a child stricken by polio. He figured kneading the putty would help the girl regain full use of her hands.

Other than that, the putty apparently has no practical value, but that doesn’t keep it from being fun.

I understand Silly Putty was first invented by some General Electric scientists, who, after driving themselves crazy trying to find a good use for it, gave up and let it spread where it pleased. The principal ingredient is silicone, whatever that is.

Silly Putty is sold in little, plastic, egg-shaped containers which keep the stuff from running wild.

The company which has the sales rights for the Silly Putty claim it has great psychological value. Eases neuroses and takes one’s mind off such things as high taxes and the blonde across the street.

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In fact, they hint, such scenes as the following are common all over the country since Silly Putty made its blessed appearance:

Scene: Suburban home.

Lights, camera, action:

Tired businessman afflicted by ulcers walks into door of home, slaps wife, kicks cat, ignores fond children. Undaunted wife scurries to cupboard, takes out container of Silly Putty, hands it to cross hubby. Cross hubby kneads putty into ball, bounces it on floor few times, giggles to self, kisses wife, pats cat, speaks fondly to fond children.

End of action.

I wouldn’t know about all that. I’ve got no wife, cat, fond children, home or ulcers. I’m just the simple Simon type who likes to watch the stuff bounce up and down.

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Vintage Silly Putty in silver package

Silly Putty history: The man who makes millions selling gobs of silly putty (1969)

There’s something strangely exciting about meeting the man who discovered Silly Putty.

Tell someone you’re going to meet the Silly Putty man and you get a wonderfully honest reaction: “Really? You mean there’s actually a Silly Putty man?’

Silly Putty isn’t the sort of thing you associate with an individual. You sort of think it’s always just been like the yo-yo or the tricycle.

Silly Putty has become a part of childhood — and, for parents, of adulthood.

For Peter Hodgson, it is a million-dollar livelihood and still a big mystery.

‘When I tell people I made mine in Silly Putty, you ought to see the looks I get,” Hodgson says.

HE’S MADE a ton, pal. A pile. A mountain. All of it from that curious hunk of pinkish “solid liquid” material that stretches, bounces, molds and delights.

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The Silly Putty story is an American Classic.

YouTube video

During World War II, chemists worked day and night to invent synthetic rubber. Experimenters tried every material known to man. One such material was silicone.

An engineer named James Wright dropped boric acid into some silicone oil and found that the gooey substance that resulted bounced when dropped on the floor.

But Hodgson, a New York marketing expert, acquired a bouncing hunk of stretchable silicone.

‘I had the stuff on my desk for years,” he says of his research desk at ‘Look’ magazine. “People would come in and spend 15 minutes of my time playing and pulling and talking about the stuff. It was fascinating.”

Hodgson decided to market this fascination. He borrowed $147 in the winter of 1949-50, ordered a batch of the material, named it Silly Putty, slapped a dollar price tag on it and the money hasn’t stopped rolling in.

Vintage Silly Putty ad

“I DON’T KNOW why it caught on,” Hodgson admits. “We marketed it for adults who took it home and the kids took it away from them. Now we market it for the kids and the adults steal it from them.

“What is a toy anyway? A Cadillac is a toy to some people, right? So is a blond.

“A simple elemental thing. Something frivolous. Something associated purely with fun, something intrinsically fun…”

“Are you still talking about the blonde?” I asked.

“Don’t be silly,” Hodgson said. “Be Silly Putty. Say, maybe Silly Putty is a blonde.”

This took us into another subject of silicone use: Silicone injections by topless go-go dancers who use it to increase the size of their topless.

“Let’s make one thing clear,” Hodgson said, “these injections weren’t Silly Putty.”

Thus Hodgson reminded that Silly Putty is for kids, and we were drifting far afield.

silly putty green comics
Photo by me and the sysop (Creative Commons)

“Why are you going around the country promoting Silly Putty?” I asked. (I conduct a snappy interview.)

“I really don’t know why exactly,” Hodgson said. “I just enjoy getting around to our major markets.

“Detroit is a big Silly Putty city. So are Cleveland and Milwaukee, along with New York. But the best market of all is Baltimore, a really wild Silly Putty city.”

I told him that’s the sort of thing you expect from Baltimore.

In the '70s, it wasn't a party until someone started spraying Silly String

HODGSON WENT ON to say that they had a shock recently when a number of orders began coming in from tobacco shops.

“Don’t tell me people are starting to smoke Silly Putty,” I said.

“Just the opposite,” Hodgson said. “People trying to quit smoking play with Silly Putty. Gives them something to do with their hands at the peak moment of their desire. Honest.

“We’ve never heard of anyone actually trying to smoke Silly Putty, although some of our biggest fans are hippies and Yippies.

“Paul Krassner, who edits that hippie magazine, ‘The Realist,’ recently told ‘Life’ magazine that Silly Putty summed up his entire view of life. I hope to meet that guy some day.”

“Truth is Silly Putty… Silly Putty shall set you free.” – Paul Krassner

Maybe Silly Putty will really set us free. I mean, why not?

Silly putty & comics

kitty comics silly putty

Photo above by the_vampire_hanna

What is Silly Putty made of?

What is Silly Putty made out of? How did someone invent it — and why?

It’s hard to imagine that there has been a kid — or adult, for that matter — who hasn’t played with a lump of Silly Putty at some point in their lives.

The appropriately-named substance bounces, but breaks when given a sharp blow. You can form it into any shape you want, but if you leave it alone long enough, that shape will turn into a puddle.

And, of course, you can still sometimes use it to transfer your favorite comic strip from the newspaper to another piece of paper. (Caveat: This trick only works well on newsprint that uses an old-school petroleum-based ink — and most newspapers have now transitioned to the sharper, more environmentally friendly, and less-expensive soy-based inks.)

Silly Putty has even gone into space: the Apollo 8 astronauts used it as a stress reliever — and to stick their tools to the spacecraft’s walls to keep them from floating away.

Puttering around

The original silly putty was an orangeish-pink, but now you can find it in a few other varieties — including glow-in-the dark, color-changing and metallic versions.

So what is that stuff, and why did anyone make it in the first place?

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Silly science

The question of who actually invented Silly Putty is a matter of some debate. Earl Warrick of Dow Corning filed a patent in 1947, while James Wright of General Electric filed one in 1951 for essentially the same process.

While Warrick claimed until his death that he was the substance’s true innovator, Silly Putty’s own history recognizes Wright as the father of the toy.

Regardless of which man actually invented the goo first, it arose out of an attempt to create an acceptable synthetic rubber substitute during WWII, as the Japanese had invaded and captured many of the rubber-producing areas of the world.

It was during these attempts that both men discovered, independently, that reacting boric acid with silicone oil produced the gooey, bouncy, non-toxic material we came to know as Silly Putty. The full ingredient list for Dow Corning’s “3179 Dilatant Compound” which is simply generic Silly Putty (a trademarked name) — is as follows:

  • 65% – Dimethyl Siloxane, hydroxy-terminated polymers with boric acid
  • 17% – Silica, quartz crystalline
  • 9% – Thixotrol ST
  • 4% – Polydimethylsiloxane
  • 1% – Decamethyl cyclopentasiloxane
  • 1% – Glycerine
  • 1% – Titanium Dioxide

Of course, if you want more than an egg’s worth of Silly Putty, but don’t feel like shelling out $800 to buy a hundred pounds of it, you can always roll your own… though you would not want to try this process in your kitchen at home, since the process releases toxic hydrogen chloride gas.

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