Silly Putty Doesn't Work Anymore

Folio Weekly | August 1, 2006
When the Silly Putty empire asked its followers in 2001 to write in with their “silliest uses” of America’s favorite viscoelastic liquid, Putty enthusiasts responded with more than 3,000 functions of the stretchable, bounceable, breakable substance. Pam Straub of North Hampton, N.H., uses it to attach unwanted vegetables to the underside of her family’s dinner table. Judith Daly of Norwich, Conn., molds Silly Putty to resemble a swollen gland and fakes sick. Ron Franko of Library, Pa., even helped authorities catch a local vandal by using Silly Putty to lift fingerprints off his burglarized truck.

While it’s helpful to know “the toy with one moving part” can insulate a beer can or provide a pet hamster with a boat, the most alluring and timeless characteristic of the stuff is its ability to lift ink off color comics pages, offering a near-perfect mirror image that the user can stretch and distort at his discretion.

Unbeknownst to the average Putty fan, however — and even to some newspapers — the comics trick is a thing of the past. Because of changes in ink formulas and a switch to “cold” printing processes, the ink transfer no longer works with some newspapers’ Sunday comics pages — including those of Northeast Florida’s dailies. Smash the .47 ounces of inorganic polymer into the St. Augustine Record’s Beetle Bailey or The Florida Times-Union’s Leroy Lockhorn, peel it off the page and … nothing. Just a pink, oily, cartoonless surface. (Sure, the transfer works on A-1, but who wants an impression of a Lebanese mass grave?)

When St. Augustine Record production director Steve Carswell was contacted about the matter last Wednesday, he was blissfully unaware — and ignorant of the gravity of the situation. “That’s good,” replied Carswell. “That means we have low ink rub-off. You won’t get it on your hands or clothes.”

Carswell notes that the Sunday comics of both the Record and The Times-Union are printed at the same facility in Sylacauga, Ala. He doesn’t know when the pages lost their ability to transfer. In fact, he was more than a little skeptical of the fact.

“I doubt what you’re telling me is true,” he says. “I think I could make it work.” He was asked to try and report back with his results. At press time, he had not.

While Silly Putty University (sillyputty.com) teaches that the substance no longer picks up some comics — and makes clear that it’s the newspapers that have changed, not the putty — a survey of Northeast Floridians revealed the average resident is unaware of the development. Even Wikipedia’s extensive Silly Putty entry makes no mention. One local toy store owner, however, is all too familiar with the change.

“I had heard that somewhere,” says Kenneth Box, manager of The Toy Factory at The Jacksonville Landing. As a child, Box enjoyed using Silly Putty and comics to “pull off somebody’s face and stretch it out.” “You had to try it at least once,” he recalls. “You had to know it worked.”

While Box says The Toy Factory’s sales of Silly Putty haven’t suffered, he laments that one of Silly Putty’s most popular functions is becoming a thing of the past.

“It’s a shame,” he says. “It was a neat thing for kids to do. It’s unfortunate that some kids won’t be able to do that now.”

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