Friday, December 31, 2010


Through the Block Shop my father came into association with Peter Hodgson, Sr. "Pete" was an advertising copywriter. Ruth Fallgatter, who owned the Block Shop, had hired Pete to put together the Block Shop catalog.

As the story goes, Pete went to a party at Ruth's in 1949. Also in attendance was James Wright, an engineer for General Electric. General Electric had been approached by the U.S. War Production Board who was "seeking an inexpensive substitute for synthetic rubber" to be "used in the mass production of jeep and airplane tires, gas masks, and a wide variety of military gear". "James Wright was assigned" to work on this project. (See Extraordinary below). One such substance, which had no readily apparent use, was a silicone rubber substance which "bounced" and which G.E. dubbed "nutty putty" . Mr. Wright brought some of the substance to the party and the participants entertained themselves with it throughout the night. Pete came up with the idea of marketing the substance as a toy. Although he was already in debt he borrowed another $147.00 and with that amount purchased a number of pounds of the product from G.E.. (Extraordinary). Pete initially hired a Yale student, John Palmer*, to cut the silicone rubber and place it in containers. Later, other Yale students were hired and they were put to work at the Block Shop. One version of Silly Putty's early history states that somehow the drabness of Easter entered Pete's mind and he decided to market the product in two tone plastic eggs. At first the novelty toy was sold to Yale students and then to residents of the New Haven community.
The 1950 Block Shop catalog yielded great results. Some accounts say that Silly Putty was the second best selling item in the 1950 edition of the catalog being beat out only by Crayola's hexagonal crayons. My aunt , who worked there at the time, was very surprised by that account. She doesn't remember that they sold mostly crayons.

I have the 1950 Block Shop catalog. On page 24 there is an ad for SARGENT CRAYONS. The ad says "Box of 32 hexagonal crayons in a wide range of colors including unusual ones like bronze and silver. A much-in-demand set. $.50, shipping weight, 1/4 lb". On page 25 there is an ad for Silly Putty. The ad says "(not illustrated, naturally). Plastic madness. It's a sort of liquid. You roll it around in the palms of your hands until it becomes a ball. You drop it on the floor and it bounces higher than a rubber ball. Stretch it quickly and it breaks ... slowly, and it pulls like taffy. Hit it with a hammer and it shatters like glass. Lay it over your newspaper and it picks up the print perfectly. Leave it alone and it melts into a tired little puddle. See? One handful $2.oo, postage .15cents".
(So at least initially, Silly Putty WAS $2.00 - though I can only remember it being $1.00).

Sargent Crayons are listed again on the inside back cover of the 1950 catalog in THE BLOCK SHOP LITTLE STORE with the statement "The purpose of this page is to provide a source of little but highly desirable toys for the many occasions when they are important. These are the odd - time presents: rewards, gifts that children give children, stowaway presents against emergencies, favors, or necessary moral boosters". On the bottom of this page it says: Produced by Peter Hodgson. Art Direction - Ellsworth G. Thompson, Illustrated by Romney Gay**, Photograph - James Pickands, II, Retouching - Bob Quick.

Silly Putty was not listed in the Block Shop Little Store.

In the book, Extraordinary Origins of Everday Things, by Charles Panatti he says "That year, in 1949, Silly Putty outsold every other item in Hodgson's toy store". (Panatti is wrong on one count - Pete didn't own the Block Shop). Pete placed Silly Putty in a number of outlets. Most notably, he received an order from Nieman Marcus who had decided to sell the substance in silver eggs. Silly Putty started in 1949. I was born in 1949. So, Silly Putty and I were "hatched" in the same year.

I found out later that Willie Ruff arrived in New Haven to start at Yale in 1949.

* I believe the name John Palmer came from an interview with my uncle, Alfred "Booster" Horner.
** Romney Gay appears to have been a children's book writer. See "The Romney Gay Mother Goose" Book, 1936, Grosset & Dunlap.

Extraordinary (p. 380) indicates that "And once mass produced, it became an overnight sensation, racking up sales during the 50's and 60's of over six million dollars a year".

Extraordinary also states that "Americans wrote to the manufacturer of their own uses .. Though the list was endless, no one then or now discovered a really practical application for the unsuccessful rubber substitute" (but see the Apollo 8 application).

Information for this section also comes from :
EXTRAORDINARY ORIGINS OF EVERYDAY THINGS, by Charles Panatti, pages379 & 380 (1987). Mr. Panatti indicates that Pete was the owner of the Block Shop. He was not the owner. The owner was Ruth Fallgatter.
HERE TO STAY: DOUBLEDAY SHOP SELLS SILLY PUTTY - New Yorker, August 26, 1950, pages 19-20.
Notes: I will attempt to find the early articles and come back and attribute quotes appropriately.