As Ned Brainard sang in his hit pop standard The Flubber Song, “Flubber – it’s a boon to man.”
Or was it?
Walt Disney was no stranger to promotional tie-in merchandise, going back all the way to his early Hollywood successes. A constant stream of Mickey Mouse tchotchkes had provided a much-needed financial boost in those days, and clever cross-promotion continued to be one of the key foundations of Walt’s fortune.
When Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor debuted in 1961, there was naturally a resultant demand among film-going youth for the movies’s gravity-defying substance “flubber”. In the fall of 1962, and in anticipation of the film’s 1963 sequel Son of Flubber, toy shelves across the nation were stocked with Flubber courtesy of Disney licensee Hassenfeld Bros., Inc. of Rhode Island. The silvery, glittery substance came in a ball, but could be stretched or bounced. Made of butadiane, a synthetic rubber, and mineral oil, it was very similar to the more familiar product Silly Putty.
All went well until the following spring, when news services began to report of rashes that were attributed to Flubber. In the February 28th, 1963 edition of the Los Angeles Times, it was said that health officials on both the local and state level were investigating an “outbreak” of rashes in school children. Officials were unsure of the source of the rashes, saying that they could be due to contact dermatitis caused by Flubber or even a simple viral outbreak.
Apparently the “outbreak” was none too serious; Dr. George M. Uhl, Los Angeles city health officer, was quoted as describing the rash as “so faint it is hard to see.”
Hassenfeld Bros. claimed that the problem couldn’t be due to their product; Flubber had been tested commercially in several markets before it was introduced nationwide and none of its customers had reported any rash during that time. Nevertheless, they referred the claims to their testing laboratories which embarked on trials to see if the product could be responsible. (Some modern sources say that these trials were conducted on volunteer convicts!)
An answer seemed to come quickly; by March 1st the Los Angeles Times declared that Flubber had been cleared in the mystery. The City Health Department’s director of communicable disease, one Dr. Herbert Cowper, opined that the affected children did not have dermatitis, but were rather the victim of a virus. This interpretation was backed up by a team of virologists from the USC School of Medicine who had been consulted; apparently the USC team had examined stricken students at a local school and discovered that not all of those affected had played with Flubber.
Flubber seemed to be in the clear – or was it?
By March 17th the Washington Post reported that a series of outbreaks reported in Los Angeles, Kansas City, St. Louis, New York City and Phoenix had led the Food and Drug Administration to open its own Flubber fact-finding foray. “A number of cases of mouth rash have been reported by health authorities,” said an agency spokesman. “The reaction appears to be associated with a novelty toy called Flubber.” Despite the fact that the FDA pointed out that “no cause and effect relationship between flubber and a rash has been demonstrated to date,” Merrill L. Hassenfeld, president of Hassenfeld Bros., issued a statement proclaiming the FDA comments to be “somewhat ridiculous.”
The complaints continued to spread. In April the Baltimore City Health Department issued a warning about Flubber, and encouraged stores to pull the product from their shelves. It also “strongly recommended” that any Flubber already purchased “be discarded in the trash.” The Baltimore Sun cited local dermatologist Dr. Harry M. Robinson, Jr., president of the Baltimore City Medical Society, as having referred several cases of Flubber-related contact dermatitis to local health officials. According to Robinson, the Flubber caused “considerable inconvenience and discomfort” to those affected. Health department investigations in local elementary schools revealed several outbreaks; in one class sixteen of twenty-seven students who had Flubber exposure developed “redness and eruptions” while seven out of sixteen students in another class were so afflicted.
Flubber was on the ropes. On the first of May, 1963, Hassenfeld Bros. pulled the plug for good. The FDA, speaking to the Associated Press, said that a survey provided compelling data that Flubber had indeed caused the outbreak of rashes. According to the agency, they had received around 1,600 reports overall of skin irritation related to Flubber. Flubber was pulled from shelves, along with two knock-off imitators, “Robly Rubber,” manufactured by the Old Fox Toy Company, and “Plubber,” a product of Deca Plastics Material Co. Inc. According to Hassenfeld Bros., over four million units of Flubber had been sold since September 1962; it’s unknown how many of the complains involved Flubber or were instead the result of the imitation products.
Still, Hassenfeld Bros. maintained its innocence. Merrill Hassenfeld told the Associated Press that tests both preceding and following Flubber’s release all showed that “it was not the product that caused rashes.” According to Hassenfeld, the FDA had informed him that laboratory tests on animals found no causal relation between Flubber and skin rash.
Nevertheless, Hassenfeld Bros. has pulled Flubber from shelves and was now stuck with millions of balls of Flubber that needed disposal. Since this took place in the “good ol’ days” before “onerous” government regulation ruined all the fun by preventing businesses from doing whatever the heck they wanted to do, the disposal of Flubber proved a colorful tale that has been occasionally (and somewhat flamboyantly) recounted over the years.
Hassenfeld tried dumping the Flubber at the landfill, but local authorities weren’t having it. Attempts to burn the Flubber resulted in clouds of acrid black smoke that was equally frowned upon by locals. Eventually Hassenfeld found a lake and simply tried to dump the Flubber there; unfortunately for them, Flubber floats and they had to hire boats to skim the water for several days to recover the bobbing blobs.
According to reports, the final resting place of all the Flubber was rather prosaic – Hassenfeld dug a big hole near their offices, dumped the Flubber into it, ran it all over with a steamroller, and paved it over for a new parking lot. Thus Flubber met an untimely, Hoffa-esque fate that ensured it a place in urban legend beside all those E.T. The Extra Terrestrial Atari cartridges in the New Mexico desert.
And yet, the Flubber endured. Son of Flubber proved a huge success and The Absent-Minded Professor received remakes for television in 1988 and (unfortunately) at the cinemas in 1997.
Weep not for the Hassenfeld Brothers, either. The company, which began in 1923 as a textile remnant company in New Jersey, found continued success in the toy industry until it adopted a shorter, snappier name in 1968 – Hasbro.