Marvel Toy Company
Birth of Wooly Willy
Marvel Toy Co. becomes Smethport Specialty
Smethport Specialty Grows
Added to Smethport Historic Registry in 2008
1955: James Reese Herzog Invents the world famous Wooly Willy Magnetic Toy
The depression hit the toy business in 1929 and lasted for nearly a decade but the Magnet Set and Flicker Top remained good sellers. Expanding production required larger facilities. In 1931, a building at 304 Fulton Street that had formerly housed the Boy's Own Magazine successor to Scott Redfiled's The Boys' Magazine was purchased. In 1932 Ralph Herzog became the sole owner and changed the name to Smethport Specialty Co. William Kerr briefly manufactured toys at the Backus Company and Lyceum Theater before starting an Oldsmobile auto agency at the east end of Water Street.
With the event of World War II all toy production ceased as materials were available for war use only. Smethport Specialty became R. W. Herzog, a subcontractor for Sylvania Co., Emporium PA, supplying mica insulators for radio tubes used in proximity fuses. This device controlled the height at which a bomb would explode. The fuse was considered as one of the war's three most important weapons due to the devastation it could cause. Millions of insulators were produced on two shifts operating 48 hours per week. Eighty to 120 local women were employed for this important war effort.
After the war, mica insulator production continued but for civilian use and as material became available limited toy production returned. Eventually transisitors replaced radio tubes and insulator producting ceased in the mid 50's.
Donald and James Herzog joined the firm in the early 50's mainly working on Smethport Specialty's toy business. The Flicker Top was again produced and magnet production was expanded. In 1955 James Herzog found that dust from the magnet grinding could be used for magnetic drawing and patented the first workable Wooly Willy Magnetic Drawing set. About the same time the United States Army needed a three dimensional map which was produced by vacuum forming heated plastic. Donald Herzog suggested this process could be used to form a clear plastic to contain the magnetic drawing powder. Leonard Mackowski, a very talented Bradford artist, designed the display card. He often hid his name in the art and you will still find it on the back of the original set that has been delighting youngsters for more than 45 years.
Initially no toy buyer would purchase Wooly Willy as most thought it a very poor toy concept. Eventually a very cautious buyer at G. C. Murphy chain, McKeesport, PA, said he would try six dozen in his Indianapolis store mainly to prove that it wouldn't sell. Fortunately he was wrong. The first six dozen sold in a couple of days. His next order for that store was for 12,000 sets sold out in a few weeks. Suddenly Wooly Willy, the toy no buyer wanted, became the toy that all wanted. Wooly Willy went on to become one of the 40 most popular toys produced during the 1950 to 1980 period. It was frequently copied around the world. One set made in Japan even had "Made in Smethport, Japan." Fortunately the copiers were never willing or able to make the engineering effort to duplicate Willy's quality featurers----special magnetite powder, a sturdy anti-static plastic dome, thick display card and a strong drawing magnet.
The cost of the original Wooly Willy was 29 cents. A larger version, Dapper Dan The Magnetic Man, sold for $1. Thousands of complimentary letters were received about the Magnetic Drawing Sets. One mother wrote "My young son had been in the hospital for three months without a single smile, until he received Dapper Dan." Another said "I'm amazed--a 29 cent toy that lasted for six weeks with the constant play of my six children." TV frequently featured the sets in children's scenes and a comedian spent a half hour making jokes about the faces it could create. Seldom has such an inexpensive toy produced so much entertainment over so many years. Some bald politicians even asked for promotional sets. Hollywood once requested a large order with special pictures of a leading male and female performer only to destory the entire production run as the actress felt it diminished her image.
Demand for Magnetic Drawing sets expanded to include colored magnetic hair and with the addition of many other toys a new manufacturing facility was required. In 1965, the firm moved to Magnetic Avenue on Route 59, west of Smethport, were it continues today.
Detail of back of "Wooly Willy" showing instructions as to how to use the toy.
Detail of Leonard Mackowski artwork on back side of the Wooly Willy toy
If you look closely in the middle of the picture, to the right of the mushroom you will see the Leonard Mackowski's name. He was the talented artist from Bradford who designed the display card for the Wooly Willy. The name has been on every Wooly Willy ever produced since its beginning 45 years ago.
A brief ceremony commemorating the 30th property to
be placed on the registry was held Thursday afternoon at the building,
which is located behind Olson & Tenglund Auto Parts.
Birthplace of Wooly Willy
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