THIS NEWSPAPER'S new ombudsman occasionally gets calls...


THIS NEWSPAPER'S new ombudsman occasionally gets calls from people displeased that the paper dirties their hands. The Baltimore Sun and other papers are adopting increasingly "low-rub" inks to counter that problem. The advances in printing technology, however, come with a cost:

Silly Putty doesn't pick up the Sunday comics anymore.

We came upon this revelation while trying to help a child discover the joys that the whimsical putty held for the pre-Nintendo generation. Was there any greater entertainment than flattening the putty on Dick Tracy's face, lifting the image and stretching Tracy 'til he looked like, well, Flattop?

Binney & Smith, the Crayola crayon people who bought the rights to Silly Putty 15 years ago, acknowledge that the advances in printing have reduced Silly Putty's versatility. Actually, it still makes impressions from most black and white newspaper comics and from the comic books -- for now, at least. Also, today's kids, naive to some of the joys the putty held for prior generations, appear enamored enough by putty's new florescent and glow-in-the-dark colors, the Pennsylvania-based firm says. Binney spokesman Mark O'Brien said sales have grown 60 percent since 1990, after about a decade of decline.

Binney bought the rights to Silly Putty from a man named Peter Hodgson. After failing to pan out as an experimental wartime rubber substitute by General Electric, the putty fell into the hands of Mr. Hodgson and a Connecticut toy seller named Ruth Fallgatter. After an appearance at the New York toy fair in 1950 and some ensuing publicity, Silly Putty, sold in plastic eggs, took off in sales at $1 a pop. The toy became an international hit. The Apollo astronauts took a sterling silver egg of the stuff to relieve boredom on their astral mission. Sure-fingered Baltimore Colts receiver Ray Berry used to squeeze it to strengthen his grip. Adults reportedly have used to use it to clean the keys on typewriters -- remember those? -- plug leaks and relieve stress as they tried to quit smoking.

A few competing toy putties have cropped up since. Mr. Hodgson, by the way, left an estate worth $140 million.

So feel welcome to phone our ombudsman regarding inky fingers, but remember this: The smudgy hands you save may be a child's lost opportunity with Silly Putty and the funny papers.

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