August 21, 2005


Toy story: Four decades ago, two California entrepreneurs made a killing selling Superballs, Hula Hoops, and other simple, iconic toys to America's children. Can aimless summer fun still sell in the age of hyperscheduled kids and achievement-oriented parents? (Joanna Weiss, August 21, 2005, Boston Globe)

A LITTLE MORE THAN 40 years ago, a Southern California chemical engineer approached a local toy company called Wham-O with an idea. It stemmed from a substance he had stumbled on by accident while designing an industrial valve. It didn't teach anything, or require batteries purchased separately, or appeal to a carefully-studied demographic group. But formed into a ball, it bounced--higher than anyone had seen a ball bounce before.

The folks at Wham-O, who had an eye for this sort of thing, signed him up.

After some tinkering, some practice play, and a christening with the requisite catchy name, Wham-O introduced the Superball to the world in 1965. By the end of the year, some 6 million were sold, and the company could boast another giant success. Wham-O had already introduced the Frisbee in 1957 and the Hula Hoop in 1958, and would later give the world Slip 'N Slide, Silly String, and Superelastic Bubble Plastic. It was a hothouse for simple, iconic, runaway hits.

Kids know a good thing, and the Superball and its ilk represented a particular kind of summertime fun--open-ended, free, and undisciplined. Wham-O's toys didn't need a guiding purpose so much as an air of originality. Founder Richard Knerr called it the ''wow" factor: ''If you're playing with it and showing it off and everybody says, 'What's that? What's that?"'

Then again, kids were different in those days--or, at least, their lives were different. Those endless, lazy summer afternoons are increasingly a thing of the past. A recent study by the market research firm Mintel shows that between 1981 and 1997, the percentage of childrens' days considered ''free-time" dropped from 40 to 24. Studies also show that, in the past two decades, structured sports participation has increased by some 50 percent; another Mintel report found that in 2003, a whopping 86 percent of boys aged 9 to 11 took part in an organized team sport.

And when kids aren't submitting to a regimen of scheduled activities, they're often subjected to academic exercises in the guise of play. Today's toy industry offers video games designed to teach preschoolers math, electronic ''books" that teach reading comprehension, craft kits designed to turn play time into productive time. If Wham-O had a gift for speaking to kids, many toy companies seem to be aiming their pitch directly at parents, selling them on the magnetic idea of achievement.

A new incarnation of Wham-O now hopes to speak to both, marketing a line of ''classic" toys to appeal to parents' nostalgia and kids' own longing for freestyle fun. It's the sort of synergy the toy industry always aims for, though parents and kids don't have a perfect history of seeing eye-to-eye when it comes to play.

All you need is a coffee can and a neighborhood full of kids.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2005 8:13 AM

I had a sling-shot and a pocket full of rocks.

Posted by: AllenS at August 21, 2005 8:33 AM

No horse chestnuts near you?

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2005 8:43 AM

No horse chestnuts. In my other pocket were a few (precious) ball bearings. Before global warming started, we had glaciers around here. After the ice melted, it gave young kids a lot of round rocks to shoot. Also, we got the rubber from tubes for car tires. The best rubber was from red tubes. They don't make them anymore.

Posted by: AllenS at August 21, 2005 9:07 AM

Hey, Superballs aren't for playing with during the summer, they're for taking into the classroom to send bouncing off the ceiling when the teacher's not looking!

Posted by: Goofus at August 21, 2005 10:57 AM

For a very funny fictional origin of the Hula Hoop, check out The Hudsucker Proxy (1994).

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 21, 2005 12:53 PM

Rocks? Why not try superballs in the shape and coloring of rocks? Here's some for Mr. Judd. But for me, the peak of civilization was when I discovered that you could order superballs by the gross for less than $10.

P.S. I can't find them now, but for educational and fun I got some superballs in the shapes of of the Platonic solids.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 21, 2005 2:37 PM

These are too precious! I love that the ad clarified that a gross = 144 items. It's hard to hold in your imagination. Think of it! 144 colored superballs in primary and secondary colors, each and every one an inch in diameter, and then, even more! A suggestion I might even like these other items. Darn tootin' I would. Click and more wonders appear. Superballs shaped like rocks, and greedy creature that I am, I'm disconsolate that the Platonic solids collection of superballs is denied me. Oh the humanity.

And my kids think I don't have a life. What do they know? No way I'm sharing the Oriental Trading website with them.

Posted by: erp at August 21, 2005 3:13 PM

Someone recently dropped 10000 superballs off a building in SF as part of a commercial:


Posted by: Mike Earl at August 21, 2005 3:41 PM

Only one inch in diameter, sounds dangerous, could get lodged in the windpipe, better takem off market

Posted by: Perry at August 22, 2005 6:51 PM