Iron filings don’t seem like an obvious toy. They are extremely uncomfortable if swallowed, can severely damage the eyes and are best not inhaled. Nevertheless, they form the core of one of the world’s most popular toys: Wooly Willy.
Back in the good old 1955, across the country where Marty McFly reunited his parents, an icon was born. Smethport, Pennsylvania, had quite a few claims to fame – it was home to America’s first Christmas shopping season and also had the dubious honor of being Pennsylvania’s coldest city. But a happy, hairless, two-dimensional man wanted to change that.
James Reese Herzog ̵
Around the same time, the army was using new techniques with plastic to create three-dimensional maps. Known as Vacuum formingA plastic plate is heated and then molded around a shape. Duke’s brother Donald found out about this and suggested that it could be used to pick up Wooly Willy’s hair. Leonard Mackowski, an artist from nearby Bradford, Pennsylvania, was enlisted to create Willy’s face, and the Duke found themselves with a brand new product.
Unfortunately, despite its tiny price tag of 29 cents, it was a product that no one wanted. James Herzog remembered one retailer who described Wooly Willy as the worst toy he had ever seen. Eventually, a shopkeeper ordered 72 of them, partly to prove they would never sell and to encourage the Duke’s to move on from what he saw as an obviously terrible idea. Two days later he called back and ordered 12,000. Wooly Willy was a phenomenon.
Over the years, Wooly Willy has spawned countless imitators. Some, like Dapper Dan the Magnetic Man, were made by the Smethport Specialty Company. But many more were simply “inspired” by Wooly Willy.
As Herzog said, the packaging was the product that made it extremely inexpensive to manufacture. So came Mr. Doodleface and Hair-Do Harriet, Baby Face and Hairless Hugo, as well as the horror-inspired Thurston Blood, Eaton Brains, I. Sockets and Ben Toomd. There were official Simpsons versions, not particularly official-looking Beatles versions, and mentions of all over the place family Guy to That 70’s show. Wooly Willy is everywhere from this incredibly impressive real life homage to this homage to Bill Murray. It was named one of the 100 Most Influential Toys of the 20th Century by the Toy Industry Association.
The official original version with Smethport’s name drop (and artist Mackowski’s signature hidden in the artwork) has sold an astonishing 75 million units in the 65 years since its inception. That’s more than 1 million a year – an incredibly difficult number to hold up for that long, especially for a product that has changed so little, is not suitable for multimedia spin-offs, and is not what could be called High-tech.
It was a staple for the dollar, filling tons of party bags and making endless car trips go by faster. Herzog attributes the success of Wooly Willy to its simplicity: you don’t have to work for hours or have artistic flair to achieve entertaining results. It’s a happy looking man with silly hair and that’s it.