Wooly Willy is a toy in which metal filings are moved about with a magnetic wand to add features to a cartoon face. In Smethport, Pennsylvania, in McKean County, near the New York border, there is a small auto parts store, tucked away on Fulton Street one-half block off Main. This used to be a toy factory, and it was the birthplace of Smethport’s most beloved citizen—an international icon whose fiftieth birthday Smethport celebrated in 2005: Wooly Willy.
The original Wooly Willy was created by James Herzog with the help of his brother Donald in their father’s toy production company. Toy retailers initially laughed at the idea, but Wooly Willy soon spread beyond the boundaries of Smethport and, eventually, the U.S. Ralph Herzog started the toy company in 1931 as Smethport Specialty Company changed its name to R.W. Herzog, and started manufacturing insulators for proximity bomb fuses for WWI. These fuses allowed operators to control the exact moment of explosion and were considered one of the war’s most important weapons.
After the war, they went back to toys and the original name. The factory resumed production of the Flicker Top, one of the only toys that had remained popular during the Depression. It also continued to sell the themed three-piece magnet sets that had begun the business in 1922. It was the waste from these magnets that gave James the 1955 idea for the Wooly Willy game. Around the same time, the U.S. Army began making 3-D maps by vacuum-forming heated plastic.
The ends of the magnet had to be run across a grinding wheel to make them level and it created a lot of dust. I came in and ground the magnets one day and all of a sudden it came to me. I put a pile of dust on a piece of cardboard and used magnets to play around with it.James (Jim) Herzog
Donald Herzog suggested to his brother that this process could be used to contain the magnetic pieces in a formed plastic case. Local artist Leonard Mackowski would design the face of Willy and the display card for them. Mackowski would often hide his name in the art on the back of the package. Using a wand with a small magnetic tip at the end, a user could move the magnetite whisker material around Wooly Willy, giving him anything from bangs to beards to bowties.
Thumbnail pictures on the display card gave users creative ideas for different “magnetic personalities.” At this point, the two brothers had a finished product—simple, portable, and inexpensively produced. Sales started slowly. When Herzog approached a buyer at the G.C Murphy Headquarters in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the buyer set out to prove to Herzog once and for all that his toy would not sell.
He ordered six dozen Wooly Willys for the G.C. Murphy chain toy shop in Indianapolis, insisting “I’ll still have all of them a year from now.” “Two days later,” Herzog recounts, “he called and ordered a thousand dozen. The rest is history.”
Over the years, Wooly Willy has spawned countless imitators. Some, like Dapper Dan the Magnetic Man, were produced by the Smethport Specialty Company. But many more were simply “inspired” by Wooly Willy. So along 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 have been official Simpsons versions, not-particularly-official-looking Beatles versions, and mentions everywhere from Family Guy, The Office, to That ‘70s Show. Wooly Willy is everywhere, from this incredibly impressive real-life homage to this all-Bill Murray tribute.
He’s been named one of the 100 most influential toys of the 20th century by the Toy Industry Association. The original, official version, complete with Smethport name-drop, has sold a staggering 75 million units in the 65 years since its creation.
That’s more than 1 million a year—an incredibly difficult figure to sustain for that long, especially for a product that has changed so little, hasn’t lent itself to multimedia spinoffs, and isn’t what you might call high-tech. I remember my mom buying me this kind of toy at dime stores when I was a kid.