Fit to Print


Our Daily Correspondent


A 1965 ad for Silly Putty, plainly advertising its ability to pick up newsprint.

On Monday, the Times’s David Carr had a gloomy prognosis for the fate of print newspapers. He wrote,

It’s a measure of the basic problem that many people haven’t cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage. Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether? I’m not optimistic about that.

Carr and many others are alive to the societal, artistic, and human implications of this loss. All this aside, it means lost jobs. You don’t need me to say that, or to belabor the passing of an era. These things are too huge to contemplate.

So you start thinking about the stupid things. The oblong bags newspapers come in. What will people use to clean up after their dogs? Where will they get rubber bands? Will “train-style” folding become a lost art? And what about Silly Putty?

Silly Putty can’t really be called a major casualty in this overhaul, but it is something that will be decisively rendered extinct. It’s a retro toy now—if you can even call something which was so obviously the byproduct of industrial experimentation a “toy”—but with the death of the newspaper, one of its primary functions (if you can call it a function) will be nullified.

Silly Putty should be placed in a time capsule immediately on grounds of sheer weirdness. Try explaining it to an alien: “It’s putty, but it’s … silly. It’s sort of flesh-colored. It has a really distinctive chemical smell. It stretches, and snaps, and turns into a puddle. If you roll it up, it bounces like a ball. Oh, and it picks up newsprint. Then it gets really grubby and you keep it in a plastic egg, forever.” If Silly Putty’s origins are clear enough—it was a World War II–era attempt to address rubber shortages—its ability to transfer newsprint is more mysterious. How did someone figure this out? And how did anyone decide it was a selling point?

And yet, from the get-go, it was. When this sea captain (you just have to stop asking after a certain point) extolls its manifold virtues in an early commercial, newsprint-transfer is listed prominently:

In fact, it’s been a while since Silly Putty was really able to copy newsprint well: it worked only on petroleum-based inks, and in recent years, inks have increasingly been made from soy products. Nevertheless, today I purchased an egg, my first. (I don’t mean the first I’ve owned; Silly Putty was one of those things that just sort of … materialized. It’s not what any kid would request, or spend his own money on.)

It’s true: When I pressed it to Page Six, I could barely make out the name “Antonio Banderas”—and that was boldface! When I folded the mirror image back into the Silly Putty, it showed barely the faintest smudge of gray.