by Susan Freinkel
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt of the third chapter, “Flitting Through Plasticville,” in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel. It is excerpted with permission of the publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and author.
When my older son was born, a well-meaning friend—who had no children of her own—gave him a beautiful cherrywood rattle. It was smooth to the touch, safe to mouth, made a lovely plinking sound when shaken—and my son wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted the gaily colored set of plastic keys and, later, the squeaky vinyl bath book and, still later, the bright orange car with big blue wheels that made clicking sounds when it was pushed along the floor.
Plastic is the medium of play today, so like most families with young children, we soon filled our house with enough junk to stock the midway at a state fair. We were forever tripping over remote-controlled cars, pulling plastic soldiers from between couch cushions, and cursing Lego when we stepped barefoot on the sharp-edged blocks in the middle of the night. My two sons accumulated an arsenal of plastic guns and Jedi swords. My daughter gathered a nursery of plastic baby dolls. (So much for our efforts to fight gender stereotyping.) For birthday parties, I stocked the goody bags with items from the catalog of the Oriental Trading Company, specialists in cheap plastic doodads: whistles, bouncy balls, squirt guns, glow sticks, all of which would invariably break or disappear minutes after the goody bags were distributed. It was only years later that I began to wonder: Where does this stuff come from?
My search for an answer to that question started one dreary winter day with a visit to the corporate headquarters of Wham-O, a company built on the wild, bouncy, springy, squishy, floaty possibilities presented by plastics. Wham-O introduced some of the most iconic toys of our age, from Hula-Hoops to Slip ’n Slides to its top-selling product, the Frisbee. Since the flying discs were introduced, in 1957, the company has sold more than a hundred million. Every American household surely has at least one; my family has somehow accumulated five, even though we almost never play with them.
This simple but ubiquitous toy offers an ideal window into the plastics industry, to the plants and processes that bond us ever closer with polymers by feeding our consumer desires. Plastics constitute the nation’s third-largest manufacturing industry, behind only cars and steel. About one million Americans work directly in plastics. It’s a sprawling industry that reaches into every sector of the economy, encompassing a few dozen petrochemical companies that create raw plastic polymers, thousands of equipment manufacturers and mold makers, and many thousands more processors that take raw plastics and fashion them into finished parts and products, such as toys.
Wham-O was started in Southern California, and its corporate headquarters are now in a modest one-story brick building in Emeryville, California, a sliver of a town wedged between Berkeley and Oakland. In the reception area, I was greeted by three big black-and-white photos of celebrities playing with Frisbees: a grinning Fred MacMurray (the classic TV dad from My Three Sons); the leads from The Dukes of Hazzard; and a distinctly pregubernatorial Arnold Schwarzenegger, in tight, skimpy shorts and a body-hugging T-shirt, spinning a disc on his finger. The prominence of the photos drives home how important the Frisbee remains to Wham-O even now, more than a half century after the toy’s debut.
Walter Frederick Morrison, inventor of the Pluto
Platter — the original flying disc.
Photo courtesy Connecticut State Library.
“It’s really our bread and butter,” explained David Waisblum, who at that point oversaw all aspects of the Frisbee brand, from manufacture to marketing. It was a dream job for Waisblum, a former stockbroker and self-confessed Frisbee freak who’d been an avid player of disc golf since he got out of high school. Disc, he explained, is the generic term for the toy. The name Frisbee is trademarked, so it can be used only for the flying discs that Wham-O makes. When I met him, Waisblum was in his early 40s but looked much younger, partly because he was dressed in teen uniform: baggy jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie sweatshirt. Stocky, with shaggy brown hair, a goatee, and a mile-a-minute mouth, he reminded me of the actor Jack Black.
The company makes about 30 types of Frisbees and many were displayed on the wall in the conference room. It was a showcase of disc technology. Wham-O has found numerous ways to optimize discs: some glow in the dark; some have rims that make them easy for dogs to catch; some are heavy enough to slice through the blusters of a windy day. There are Frisbees specially engineered for the major disc sports: ultimate (a team game similar to football); disc golf (similar to regular golf except players aim for baskets, not holes); freestyle (spinning the discs and other discrobatics); and disc dog (just what it sounds like). Each demands a disc of a slightly different size, weight, and profile.
Then, of course, there are the basic recreational discs for your run-of-the-mill game of catch; they account for about half of all Frisbee sales. Waisblum wouldn’t say how many Frisbees the company sold each year, but he claimed it was more than the annual sale of all baseballs, footballs, and soccer balls combined. I was surprised and skeptical, but to Waisblum it made perfect sense. “Balls are boring,” he declared, then quoted another enthusiast who wrote that “when a ball dreams, it dreams it’s a Frisbee.”
In Frisbee genealogy, all descend from the original flying disc developed by the man Waisblum reverently referred to as “our inventor,” Walter Frederick Morrison. In 1937, when he was a high-school student in Southern California, Morrison joined his girlfriend Lucille’s family for Thanksgiving dinner, where he was introduced to the family game of “flipping” a big metal popcorn-pot lid. It was way more fun that just tossing around a ball, he decided. The next summer he and Lucille were flipping cake pans back and forth on the beach when a sunbather approached and asked if he could buy one. A business was born. The couple began peddling cake pans all along Southern California beaches, and Morrison started dreaming of ways to streamline and merchandise a better flying disc.
The 1967 Frisbee patent, filed by Ed Headrick on
behalf of Wham-O.
Graphic courtesy U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The business would have a long gestation. After serving as a fighter pilot in World War II, Morrison returned to Southern California, still enthralled by what he called “the Flittin’ Disc idea.” His stint in the U.S. Air Force had taught him something about what it takes to make things fly, and his cake-pan experience had convinced him he needed a material more pliable and less ding-prone than tin. Having seen how the new synthetic materials performed during the war, he thought to himself: Plastic, that’s just the ticket.
He spent several years trying out various designs and varieties of the recently introduced thermoplastics, hawking each new incarnation at county fairs. He and Lucille flitted the discs back and forth, mesmerizing onlookers with these new playthings that floated, dipped, skipped, and sailed in a repertoire of motion that balls rarely attained. The couple teased the crowds, claiming the discs were pulled along an invisible wire. The wire cost money, but anyone who bought one would get a disc for free!
In 1955, Morrison embarked on yet another redesign. This time he thickened and deepened the rim to increase its centrifugal force, and he added new details to give it more of a flying-saucer look, a nod to the public’s growing fascination with UFOs. He added a small cupola on the top, where little green men might sit, along with the names of all the planets. He and Lucille, now married, dubbed it the Pluto Platter. It was their best flying disc yet. The discs were sold in plastic bags covered with references to the space theme, including the dubious instruction Use bag for space helmet, if head fits. One day, when Morrison was demonstrating Pluto Platters at a downtown Los Angeles parking lot, a man stepped out of the crowd and told him that the management at a local company had been thinking about marketing a flying disc. “It might be worthwhile to meet with the Boys at Wham-O,” the man said.
The Boys were Rich Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin, high-school friends who had teamed up in 1948 to sell slingshots and sporting goods by mail order. Wham-O’s early catalog was a modern parent’s book of nightmares, filled with items guaranteed to put someone’s eye out, if not remove a limb. There was the Malayan blowgun, with its “tempered steel hunting darts”; the throwing dagger, which was “balanced to stick”; and the cap pistol that “actually shoots peas, beans, tapioca, etc.” As Knerr later recalled, “You couldn’t buy those things just anywhere.” Good as sales of such items were, by the 1950s, the pair could see there was an even brighter future in the business of toys.
The modern toy industry is in many ways the product of two major developments in the post–World War II era: the baby boom and the polymer boom. Though there had been plastic toys since the early days of celluloid — think of the kewpie doll — the convergence of those two broad trends sealed the marriage of plastic and play. After ramping up production for the war, the major manufacturers were swimming in supplies of the new thermoplastics, materials that could truly fulfill a pair of British chemists’ utopian dream of a world “where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbor dirt or germs.” Thanks to the phenomenal postwar birthrate, there were millions of childish hands eager to play. During the peak years of the baby boom, annual toy sales leaped, from $84 million in 1940 to $1.25 billion in 1960. And an ever-increasing number of those toys were made of plastic: 40 percent by 1947. Today, plastics are a given in toy making; they’re “like air,” one manufacturer told me.
These cheap, lightweight, flexible materials vastly expanded play possibilities while raising profit margins. Fleshy vinyl permitted the manufacture of dolls that would “ ‘feel’ real as well as look real.” Or not, as in the case of the impossibly curvaceous Barbie, who debuted in 1957. There were model cars, trains, and planes that had more detailing than wood or metal had ever allowed but that could still be sold for just a couple of bucks each. There were types of playthings never seen before, such as Silly Putty, developed by a scientist who was trying to create a synthetic rubber for the army in the early years of World War II. The military couldn’t figure out what to do with it, but an entrepreneurial toy-store owner had an idea. And the SuperBall, which appeared in 1965 (and which Charles Eames considered one of the most elegant designs of the year). I remember how amazed my friends and I were by that little sphere of compressed black rubber (packed with so much energy that one early prototype tore apart the molding machine trying to get out). We’d spend recess bouncing the balls over one another, over the jungle gym, over the fences, over the roof until our exasperated teachers confiscated them.
The major plastics producers ran aggressive campaigns pushing plastics on Toyland. To promote its house brand of polystyrene, Styron, Dow Chemical invited manufacturers to submit toys made of the stuff for a corporate seal of approval. Those that passed muster were allowed to carry the Styron label, touting the material as “5 times tougher!” (Did anyone ask: “Than what?”) Even after rejecting nearly half of the 1,900 submitted items, the company still issued well over ten million labels by the end of 1949. Companies also appealed directly to consumers: “Take it from the Real Santa Claus,” a beaming Saint Nick declared in one 1948 ad in the Saturday Evening Post, “Toys of Monsanto Plastics bring Christmas Cheers.”
But plastics’ ascension was also the inevitable result of their sheer low-cost availability. In the early 1950s, for instance, eight different chemical companies quickly built factories to start producing polyethylene, widely viewed as the most promising of the new plastics. Prices plunged to less than a dime a pound. The low cost stimulated scores of new applications, which absorbed supplies of the plastic, which in turn stimulated more production. All at once there was a host of new cheap toys, like dime-store cowboy-and-Indian sets and snap-together pop beads (which at one point were absorbing 40,000 pounds of polyethylene a month). Such boom-bust cycles have long driven the plastics industry, though throughout the wild ups and downs, for many decades it continued to grow, in some years and for some plastics at double-digit rates.
The most dramatic example of the ping-ponging relationship between supply and demand occurred when Phillips Petroleum tried to perfect production of a new semirigid variety of polyethylene. The manufacturing was tricky, and Phillips kept running into problems, turning out one unusable batch after another. Its warehouse filled with tons of off-spec, unsold plastic, a situation that threatened disaster until Wham-O came to the rescue in 1958. It started buying up the stockpiles to produce a new toy it had developed, the Hula-Hoop. After the singer Dinah Shore featured the spinning rings on her TV show, the hoops started flying off the shelves so fast that Wham-O couldn’t keep up with orders. Tens of millions of hoops sold that first year, making short order of 15 million pounds of material that until then Phillips hadn’t been able to give away. Then, like so many fads, the craze for Hula-Hooping died as suddenly as it had taken off—and nearly took Wham-O down with it. Overnight, orders for Hula-Hoops dropped to zero. “We damn near went broke,” Rich Knerr later recalled.
The Frisbee, however, has proved more enduring. And that’s probably due to several things Wham-O did after securing the rights to Morrison’s flying saucer. For one, Melin and Knerr rechristened Morrison’s baby, picking a trademark that would distinguish their disc from the other Space Saucers, SkyPies, and Super Saucers then crowding the skies. Frisbee was a slight variation on the name used for a similar object in New England; since the 1930s, folks there had been tossing cake and pie tins from the Frisbie Pie Company and calling the sport Frisbieing.
A Frisbie's Pies pan, circa 1950 — an early
East Coast inspiration for the Frisbee.
Photo courtesy The Strong.
Wham-O recognized that the Frisbee’s longevity depended on its being seen as more than a novelty toy for playing catch. As Knerr and Melin had learned with the Hula-Hoop, even a best-selling toy can have a short shelf life. (Indeed, life in the toy market is so nasty and brutish that any toy that survives more than three seasons is considered a classic.) Sports, by contrast, have staying power and give rise to entire athletic ecosystems. Credit for nudging the Frisbee in that direction goes to a man known in disc circles as “Steady” Ed Headrick. After joining Wham-O in 1964, Headrick redesigned the Frisbee to make it more sport-worthy. He removed the goofy space references, broadened the saucer, and, to improve the aerodynamics, added concentric-circle ridges on the top, now known by discphiles as the “lines of Headrick.” Such changes vastly improved the flight capabilities, making true disc sports possible for the first time.
Headrick himself invented disc golf, and he remained so passionate about the game and the disc that when he died, in 2002, he had his ashes molded into Frisbees. “He wanted all his friends to be able to throw him around,” said Waisblum approvingly. “He wanted to come and rest on a roof somewhere, just out of reach, so he could bathe in the sun.”
For all the advances in discs, the material used for the basic model has remained essentially unchanged since Morrison sold the company his Pluto Platter. It’s the material that distinguishes a Wham-O Frisbee from a cheap knockoff (and cheap knockoffs are legion, since the disc-design patent has long since expired). Then, as now, it needed a material that was inexpensive, durable, and pliable, with the quality Waisblum called “givingness,” which makes a disc pleasurable to catch and throw. Several plastics meet some of the specifications, but only one fulfills every item on Wham-O’s wish list. That’s polyethylene, the most commonly used polymer in the world and the one that, more than any other, molded the modern age of plastics.
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