Kids of the late ‘80s and ‘90s (and, of course, Rosie O’Donnell) loved their Koosh balls. They were easy to catch, easy to throw, and didn’t hurt nearly as much as traditional balls when you got hit by one. Here are a few things you might not have known about the weird, wonderful toy.
1. THE INVENTOR CREATED KOOSH BALLS BECAUSE HIS KIDS COULDN’T MASTER PLAYING CATCH.
In 1986, engineer Scott Stillinger was having trouble teaching his two young kids how to play catch. Balls were too bouncy, and bean bags too heavy. The California resident soon realized he needed a better ball—one that was soft, wouldn’t bounce, and could be grasped easily. “I intuitively knew that a rubber-filament ball would do the trick, so I set out to try to find a way to make that,” Stillinger told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989. He started with a box of rubber bands and then refined the design of his energy-absorbent ball, eventually settling on natural rubber latex in non-toxic colors.
2. STILLINGER WAS SO CONFIDENT ABOUT KOOSH THAT HE QUIT HIS JOB TO MAKE THEM—AND HE WASN’T THE ONLY ONE.
In late 1986, Stillinger showed a prototype of the ball to his brother-in-law, Mark Button, who’d worked in marketing at Mattel. The men—and their wives—were confident enough in the product to quit their jobs and start a toy company called OddzOn Products. Stillinger later called their early prototypes “crude … When I look back at how crude they were compared to where we are today, we were crazy.” But when they showed the ball to a store owner, she told them, “You’re going to be millionaires.” Stillinger built the machine that would make the balls and operated it out of a barn near his house.
3. STILLINGER FILED FOR A PATENT IN 1987.
The patent, which was granted in 1988, outlined the issues with regular balls:
“One of the problems with many conventional throwing/catching devices is that, on impact, they do not absorb much energy, and accordingly, tend to bounce and get away from one’s grasp easily. Also, they sometimes hurt to catch. Another problem is that, typically, they do not offer a surface configuration that promotes quick, sure gripping.”
Their ball—“an amusement device which has a substantially spherical configuration, and which is formed from a large plurality of floppy, elastomeric filaments that radiate in a dense, bushy manner from a central core region”—would “avoid these significant disadvantages in a very practical and satisfactory manner”:
“The filaments are sufficiently floppy to collapse on impact, thus to absorb enough energy to avoid any tendency to bounce. They are also sufficiently dense and floppy that they tend to quickly thread their way between the fingers of a user on contact with the hand. These features promote sure and quick capture of the device during the act of catching.”
4. STILLINGER AND BUTTON HAD MORE THAN 200 OPTIONS FOR THE NAME.
Stillinger told People in 1989 that “Through a process of surveys and logic, we decided on Koosh.” According to The Secret History of Balls, the duo started with more than 200 names before asking kids and adults to pick their favorite from a list of finalists. The ball is also said to be named after the sound it makes when caught.
5. A STANDARD KOOSH IS MADE OF 2000 RUBBER FILAMENTS.
6. THE MEDIA MADE FUN OF THE BALL, AND THE INDUSTRY DIDN’T GET IT—BUT CUSTOMERS LOVED IT.
According to The Secret Life of Balls, “The media reveled in making fun of the soft ball. A Sports Illustrated writer compared the Koosh to a Star Trektribble, while another reporter likened it to a ‘psychedelic sea urchin.’” Koosh balls were also called “The Pet Rock of the ‘80s.” Worse, some people in the industry just didn’t get it: One retailer even thought the filaments were defects and began cutting them off.
But in the end, those reactions didn’t matter much. The Koosh ball hit shelves in 1987, and by 1988, the ball—which a PR person for OddzOn described as a “cross between a porcupine and a bowl of Jell-O”—was a Christmastime bestseller. The next year, it was in 14,000 toy stores across the country and available in 20 countries around the world. Stillinger and Button were creating more versions of their popular ball, which would eventually be available in three varieties: Regular, fuzzy (which had twice as many filaments as the regular), and Mondo, which was the size of a grapefruit.
In 1990, Stillinger said that he and Button were “surprised by the extent of [Koosh’s] success,” which was accomplished without spending money on consumer dotifi.com. Koosh balls benefited from placement next to registers—where customers couldn’t resist picking them up—and word of mouth. Soon, it was appearing in a Kansas community college’s physics class and in physical therapy sessions. There was even a fan club that would mail Koosh product suggestions to OddzOn.
7. THE TOY HAD ITS OWN BOOK …
Published in 1989, The Official Koosh Book featured 33 “Kooshy Activities,” including a form of tag called “Koosh Attack” and games like “Lakroosh,” “Hopskoosh,” and “Kooshy Kooshy Koo.”
8. … AND A SHORT-LIVED COMIC BOOK SERIES.
Koosh Kins—a comic book about six living Kooshes (Grinby, Boingo, GeeGee, Slats, T.K. and Scopes) produced by Archie Comics—debuted in 1991. The series ran for just a few issues and was, of course, accompanied by a toy line of Koosh balls with faces and hands.
9. THERE WAS A LOT OF SECRECY SURROUNDING KOOSH.
Or at least where it was made: According to a 1990 newspaper article, OddzOn Products was so wary of competitors stealing its secrets that it kept the exact location of its Silicon Valley manufacturing plant a secret.
10. RUTH BADER GINSBURG WEIGHED IN ON KOOSH COPYRIGHT.
When the U.S. Copyright Office declined to copyright the Koosh ball in 1988, OddzOn sued, calling the decision “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” By 1991, the case had reached future Supreme Court Justice and Notorious RBG Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In her decision, Ginsburg noted that “OddzOn sought copyright registration for the KOOSH ball to block importation of less expensive ‘knockoffs,” but that the Court couldn’t make a decision about the ball’s copyright:
“We again emphasize that we decide simply and only that the refusal of the Copyright Office to register the KOOSH ball, in the circumstances here presented, does not constitute an abuse of discretion. We do not decide on the copyrightability of the item, and we intimate no opinion on the decision we would reach if the matter came before us in an infringement action.”
Why couldn’t the court make a decision about copyright? The issue was whether or not the functionality of the ball was inseparable from the utilitarian aspect of it. In U.S. law, and as Ginsberg noted in her ruling, it’s only possible to copyright things that “can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” The Copyright Office felt that the Koosh ball’s looks and functionality were inseparable from the function—and, therefore, uncopyrightable.
11. STILLINGER AND BUTTON SOLD THE COMPANY IN 1994.
When the duo decided to sell OddzOn in 1994 to the New Jersey Company Russ Berrie and Co., they had sold 50 million Koosh balls and were making an estimated $30 million a year; the Koosh line consisted of 50 products, including key chains, finned footballs, and lawn darts. Hasbro purchased the company in 1997.
12. A WOMAN SUED AFTER GETTING HIT IN THE FACE WITH A KOOSH BALL ON ROSIE O’DONNELL’S TALK SHOW.
In 2001, 69-year-old Lucille DeBellis went to a taping of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. She was sitting in the studio audience when, according to the details of her lawsuit (as reported in the The New York Post), she was “suddenly and without warning struck in the face with a hard object”—a Koosh ball, which O’Donnell and her staff often shot out in the audience with the help of a Koosh-throwing device known as the Fling Shot.
Two years later, DeBellis filed a $3 million lawsuit against the producers of the show, claiming that “The Cuzball [sic] struck plaintiff squarely in the mouth, causing her to suffer pain and swelling, as well as bleeding in her gums.” The effects of the hit were long lasting, according to the lawsuit:
“[B]ecause of her physical discomfort and embarrassment with regard to her appearance, [DeBellis] was forced to spend the duration of the 2001 Christmas season in her home and turned down many opportunities to attend holiday parties and various social events … [It] adversely affected [her] relationship with her boyfriend.”
DeBellis settled with Warner Bros. and Time Warner Cable in 2004.
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