Wooly Willy: The Toy No One Wanted
In the 1950s Smethport Specialty Company produced magnetic and metal toys, along with military components. Brothers Donald and James Herzog worked for the Pennsylvania company when, in 1955, James realized the dust from grinding magnets could be used as a drawing tool. Soon after he filed to patent the first Wooly Willy magnetic drawing kit. That same year the US Army needed a 3D map, which the company produced by vacuum forming plastic. Donald noticed this as an ideal method for creating Wooly Willy’s clear cover.
Wooly Willy’s packaging was quite simple. It featured an illustrated cardboard backing – Willy’s naked face – with a bubble front. The compartment held metal fillings. Using a magnetic drawing wand, one could move the fillings around the board.
In the beginning, no one wanted Wooly Willy. Most toy store buyers thought it was a poor concept and wouldn’t sell. Finally, a buyer for the G. C. Murphy dime store chain ordered six dozen of the toys. Reportedly, the buyer sought to prove Wooly Willy wouldn’t sell. A few days later he ordered another 12,000, which sold out within weeks.
At a cost of $0.29, Wooly Willy quickly became the toy everyone wanted. A larger version, called Dapper Dan, retailed for $1. It was the simpler version though that survived the test of time. Dozens of knock-offs surfaced, but none were made with the same quality and most fell apart with the first few hours of use.
At a cost of $0.29, Wooly Willy soon became the toy everyone wanted. Dapper Dan, a larger version, retailed for $1, but Wooly Willy would be the toy that would survive tests of time and imagination. Plenty of knock-offs surfaced, but none with the same quality. Most of them fell within the first hours of use, having been made with cheaper plastics and boards.
In 1965, production was moved to Magnetic Avenue on Route 59 just west of Smethport, PA, where it continues to be made today.
Check out this demonstration video of Wooly Willy:
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