We went into the Doubleday bookshop at Fifth Avenue and Fifty Second Street the other day, intending, in our innocence, to buy a book, and found all the clerks busy selling Silly Putty, a gooey, pinkish, repellent-looking commodity that comes in plastic containers the size and shape of eggs.How an item in the August 26th, 1950 New Yorker's Talk of the Town column turned a marketing consultant into a millionare by Christmas.
The shell of the egg is in two equal sections of different colors (various color combinations are offered); you pull them apart and there is the Silly Putty. We watched a demonstration of a few things that can be done with Silly Putty, and recalled a party we attended back in 1944. General Electric gave it to introduce to the press and public silicone, a freak substance its chemists had produced in the course of experiments in synthetic-rubber making. G.E. called it "bouncing putty;" it not only bounced like a rubber ball but stretched like taffy, and flew into a hundred pieces when hit by a hammer and then went right back together again. Well, Silly Putty is on the order of bouncing putty-for which, as far as we know, G. E. has never found any general practical use-but is being promoted on a purely recreational basis. It not only bounces when rolled in a ball and stretches like taffy but can be modeled into various nonpermanent shapes, and if pressed fiat against comic strips, it picks up the pictures, in color. If tugged at quickly, it breaks in a brittle way; if left alone, it sinks into a disinterested heap.
After absorbing the elementary facts about Silly Putty, including the price-a dollar an egg-we sought out Mr. Lee Weber, the manager of the bookshop, to ascertain the mysterious link between it and Doubleday. He told us that Silly Putty is the most terrific item the Doubleday shops have been privileged to handle since "Forever Amber." "Normally, we only handle books and phonograph records in our New York shops," he said. "We first heard of Silly Putty when our St. Louis shop, which has a toy department, stocked some eggs and had a sensational run on them. We got hold of Peter Hodgson, a New Haven man, who was responsible for turning them out, stocked them, and in the past month have sold over ten thousand eggs." It is Mr. Weber's opinion that Silly Putty is the biggest novelty of 1950. The Doubleday clerks seem to have a compulsion to toy with the stuff, he told us, and are always glad to demonstrate it. The eggs come in regular pasteboard egg crates containing a dozen each, and people often buy a dozen at a time-at no reduction in price. Compulsively picking up an egg, l\1r. Weber opened it, took out the putty, rolled it into a sphere, and ricocheted it off an unabridged dictionary. "'We sell the eggs mostly to men who claim they're buying them for their children," he continued. "Actually, Silly Putty is a fine toy for adults. We don't recommend giving it to children under seven, in any event. They may get it in their hair or swallow it. It's not toxic, though. A man came in the other day and said that his little boy had swallowed his Silly Putty two days before and was feeling fine."
After leaving Doubleday's, we got in touch with Hodgson, the manufacturer, who agrees with Weber that Silly Putty is a dish for adults. "It means five minutes of escape from neurosis," he said. "It means not having to worry about Korea or family difficulties. And it appeals to people of superior intellect; the inherent ridiculousness of the material acts as an emotional release to hard-pressed adults." About a year ago, Hodgson told us, he happened to pick up a blob of silicone that a chemist had left at the house of a friend of his. It fascinated him, and stirred his commercial imagination. "I figured that maybe I wasn't the brightest guy in the world," he said, "but at least I was thirty-eight, and if I got a bang out of it, other adults would. I arranged with some chemical engineers in Schenectady to turn out a few trial batches for me. When we got just what we wanted, I patented the name Silly Putty and was ready to go into business. That was last spring, around Easter time. Easter eggs being so unimaginative, I decided to combine my putty with Easter and give them both a lift. The stuff costs me seven dollars a pound, or almost as much as bar silver; that's why I can only sell an ounce of it for a dollar. We've started making it in thousand-pound lots and hope to get the price down." We asked Hodgson what he believed the future of Silly Putty to be and he had an emphatic answer. "It's here to stay," he said, and cited a number of practical uses for it. Hospital patients can use it for therapeutic hand exercises. A New Haven surgeon works out with it every morning before operating. It is a perfect furniture leveller; you just stick some of it under the short leg of a jiggly table and there you are. Hodgson told us that he buys his eggshells from a plastic company, that he has orders on hand for a quarter-million putty eggs, that he now has a staff of ten workmen and expects to increase it to thirty soon, and that by Labor Day his output will be great enough to fill, belatedly, a large order from Macy's toy department. "We'll sell a million eggs by Christmas," he said.
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