Repurposing and upcycling is all-around cool. Not only is it the most eco-friendly way to keep used items out of the landfills, but it can also be incredibly innovative. Just check out Nick Pourfard’s handcrafted guitars in the video above, made out of old skateboards. Every guitar Pourfard creates comes with a ton of history built right into it — memories of crashes and successes alike etched into the lines of each unique piece. Through his work, he transforms one familiar object into something entirely different.
But what about other products that have, through their transformations, taken on a whole new and greater purpose? We’re not talking about repurposing old objects — we’re talking about items and brands that were originally created to do one thing but, somewhere along the way, picked up an entirely new function. We’re talking about rubber turning into chewing gum, and wallpaper morphing into bubble wrap.
Read on for the crazy history behind seven familiar objects.
All James Wright was trying to do back in 1943 was come up with a superior synthetic rubber for the war effort. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what happened when he decided to drop boric acid into silicone oil. But…we’re sort of glad. Because what came out was way stretchier and bouncier than rubber. And even though the government deemed Wright’s discovery a failure, businessman Peter Hodgson saw its potential as a fun hit at parties. He gave it the snappy name “Silly Putty,” packaged it in plastic eggs, sold it at Easter, and the rest is history.
The coolest part about Silly Putty: people have taken it even further, inventing uses for it that range from stabilizing wobbly tables to holding tools in the zero gravity of outer space. That’s like a double repurposing!
If you’ve ever wondered how effective Listerine is at clearing out those nasty mouth bugs, consider this: it was originally created to be a surgical antiseptic. Named after Dr. Joseph Lister, who was the first to start experimenting with disinfecting hospital rooms prior to surgery after learning about Louis Pasteur’s theory of infection-causing germs, Listerine was formulated by Dr. Nicole Dyer Lawrence and Christian Bach in 1879. Though its original intent was for use as a surgical antiseptic, it was marketed for everything from cleaning floors to cleaning wounds to treating gonorrhea. Eventually, it caught the attention of dentists, and, after the company invented the word “halitosis” to replace “bad breath” in 1920, it took off in its as a mouthwash. No wonder the stuff is so strong.
Can you imagine a house covered in bubble wrap wallpaper? How much fun would that be, right? You come home after a tough day of work and take your anger out on the walls. Ah, we can dream. If only Al Fielding and Marc Chavannes’ invention back in 1957 had taken a different turn, that world might be a reality today.
To be fair, the pair of engineers didn’t exactly set out to create the perfectly poppable material that bubble wrap is. They were attempting to create a textured wallpaper, which led them to seal together two shower curtains to capture air bubbles. Wallpaper it was not, but that didn’t discourage them — they first tried marketing their new air-filled product as greenhouse insulation, and then, with the help of Sealed Air marketer Frederick R. Bowers, got into the brand new business of packaging IBM computers. From there, the uses for bubble wrap have grown and expanded. All’s well that ends well, though — Sealed Air still owns the trademarked brand Bubble Wrap, and sells around $400 million of the product each year.
Speaking of wallpaper, let’s talk about wallpaper cleaner. Because that’s what Play-Doh was originally intended to be. It was invented in 1933, after Cleo McVicker, owner of the failing soap company Kutol, told Kroger representatives that his company totally sold wallpaper cleaner, a product in high demand due to coal-heated houses and non-vinyl wallpaper that couldn’t be cleaned with water.
Kutol totally did not sell wallpaper cleaner, but McVicker was able to come up with a product under the gun (his penalty for not producing was around $90,000 in today’s dollars, so he very much had incentive to come through on the promise).
McVicker’s dough-like wallpaper cleaner did fairly well for itself, until gas and electric heat replaced coal, and vinyl wallpaper that could be cleaned with soap and water was invented. Sales quickly began to dwindle for Kutol, whose staple product for nearly a decade had been the wallpaper cleaner.
Luckily, Kay Zufall came along to save the day in 1954. Zufall, the sister-in-law of Joe McVicker (who himself was the nephew of Cleo McVicker’s brother Noah and was hired to replace Cleo after he died in a plane crash), ran a nursery school, and found herself in need of a cheap alternative to modeling clay for her children to make Christmas decorations with. She’d read about the possibility of using wallpaper cleaner for this purpose, and knew that Kutol wasn’t doing too well, so she went out and bought a whole bunch. It was a hit with the kids. She suggested the product’s pivot to her brother-in-law, who got on board, removing the detergent and adding dye. Thus was born “Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound,” or, as we all know and love it today, Play-Doh.
The Slinky is another one of those accidentally-created inventions — it was originally created in 1943 as a prototype for a spring that could keep sensitive equipment on ships steady at sea. Its inventor, mechanical engineer Richard James, realized he had something entirely different on his hands when he accidentally knocked his extra springy springs off a shelf and watched as they did their graceful Slinky walk down to the floor. James’ paired up with his wife, Betty, to develop his failed spring into a novelty toy, borrowing $500 to get the product off the ground.
Fun fact: the initial run of Slinkys did terrible at Philadelphia’s Gimbles Department Store…until someone thought up the bright idea of doing an in-store demonstration for customers. 400 Slinkys were gone within minutes, and the toy was officially a hot item for Christmas 1945.
So, here’s a funny story: the Post-It Note adhesive we all know and love was originally intended to be super strong, for use in building planes. Clearly, something went wrong. Created in 1968 by a 3M employee named Spencer Silver, the adhesive was pressure-sensitive and incredibly weak. It was called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres. 3M was not interested.
Until Art Fry came around. Fry was a product development engineer at 3M, and familiar with Silver’s adhesive — Silver, after all, had been trying unsuccessfully for several years to come up with a good use for his unique adhesive. One idea had been to coat a bulletin board in it for sticking papers without thumbtacks, but as bulletin boards aren’t exactly huge drivers of sales, the idea was canned. Fry, in addition to working as a chemical engineer at 3M, sang in his church choir, and struggled every Sunday with the bookmarks in his hymnal falling out as he sang. One “Eureka!” moment later, and Fry realized that the bulletin board idea had been exactly backward — and thus was born (okay, after nearly a decade of R&D and rejection) the Post-It Note as we know it today.
Mankind has been chewing on whatever they could get their teeth on for thousands of years, but modern chewing gum didn’t come around until the mid 1800’s, when Thomas Adams got his hands on a product called chicle — chewed by the Mayans to quench thirst and hunger — via exiled Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna wanted Adams’ help in developing the chicle into a rubber substitute so he could get rich and make a triumphant return to power, but, after multiple attempts on Adams’ part, that didn’t exactly pan out. Santa Anna abandoned the project.
Adams, though, realized that the chicle was good for something else — creating a better chewing gum. The stuff that was currently around was produced from boiled spruce resin and didn’t exactly taste great or chew well. Chicle gum, though, was a game-changer, and imported chicle served as the main ingredient in chewing gum until it was replaced with synthetic ingredients in the mid 1900’s.
We’ll leave this one open for you to explore on your own. Let’s just say its originally marketed purpose is very painful to think about, and we are definitely glad Lysol is now solidly used as a home disinfectant. Because… ouch.