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Saturday, 01 March 2014 16:51

The History of Ant Farms

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Scientists claim ants can carry more than 50 times their body weight. Milton Levine knows ants can carry far more than that – like the success of his business, Uncle Milton Industries, for 50 years. In 2006, while my father celebrates his 93rd birthday, his famous product the Ant Farm, celebrates its 50th “ant-iversary” of bringing happiness – and bugs – into the homes of people across the country.

How did such an unlikely idea as putting live ants into millions of homes – and charging for it – become such a success? To answer that, we’ll have to go back to Pittsburgh, 1946.

On return from duty (Milt was sergeant of an engineering platoon that built bridges for Patton’s invading army through Germany), Milt and his brother-in-law Joe Cossman saw a baby boom on the horizon, so they decided to start a mail-order novelty company. Their first products included animal balloons, plastic shrunken heads and dwarf tree kits. Remember the “100 soldiers for a dollar” advertised on backs of comic books? That was Milt and Joe’s item. So were plastic rear view mirror shrunken heads and potato shooting “Spud Guns.”

In 1952, the company moved to the West Coast, setting up offices in a converted two-story house on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. They were still churning out zany mail-order items when Milt hit on an idea. It was in 1956, during a Fourth of July family barbeque at Joe’s San Fernando Valley home, that Milt noticed a bunch of ants scurrying about between the cracks around the pool deck. He recalled his days as a kid watching ants for hours while on visits to his uncle’s farm just outside Pittsburgh. Munching on an over-charred burger, he asked Joe, “Why don’t we come out with some kind of observation toy so kids can watch ants at home?” This is how the idea for Uncle Milton Ant Farms got started.

They immediately got to work on it. They tested the idea by putting a small ad in the Los Angeles Times mail order section for a home ant habitat. What they were offering was essentially an off-the-shelf clear plastic box, a bag of sand and a vial of live ants. A few days later they were swamped with orders.

They realized that they had a potential hit but they also had a problem: where to find that many ants? So they placed another ad in the Los Angeles Times – this time in the classified section looking for “ant pickers” and offering a penny per ant. This wasn’t exactly a standard job category in the classifieds, but surprisingly they received a number of calls from applicants, most of whom turned out to be a little peculiar. Luckily, Milt and Joe found one worthy candidate in Kenneth Gidney. Kenneth and his family went on to provide a steady supply of live ants to the company for thirty years.

Once Milt and Joe saw the demand to be real, they created a clear injection-molded plastic habitat with a green art-deco frame and stand. They wanted to add a “fun” context in which to watch ants - they didn’t want their product looking like some kind of laboratory apparatus. They settled on a farm theme and came up with the name, “Ant Farm.” (Yes, “Ant Farm” is a registered trademark.)

They had an engraver make tooling for the above/below-ground divider, an ant-sized farm scene complete with barn, silo, windmill, farmhouse and barnyard animals in highly detailed relief. And they replaced the sand with clean white volcanic gravel.

To be sure, Milt and Joe didn’t invent the ant habitat – there had been hand-made glass and wood-framed “formicaria” around for years, mostly found in classrooms and museums. But, they were first to develop the idea in mass-produced form and actually provide live ants to consumers.

Buying the Farm
After selling the Ant Farms via mail order for six months with much success, Milt and Joe started to attract interest from retailers who wanted to get in on the success of the Ant Farms by selling them in stores. However, there was a problem. How would the ants survive inside a package that could potentially sit inside a warehouse for months? The solution was as simple as their slogan that is still used today, “You Take the Farm, We Mail the Ants.”

The retail version of the Ant Farm included the same farm-themed habitat but with a “stock certificate” inside so the purchaser could send it in to obtain a supply of live ants to stock the farm. The stock certificate also relieved the consumer of the chore of collecting ants themselves.

Soon Ant Farms were being sold everywhere, including toy stores, department stores, hardware stores, pet stores and, of course, mail order catalogs. In 1966, Milt bought out Joe’s interest and renamed the company Uncle Milton Industries.

Half Century of Success Built on Ants

Today, more than 20 million Ant Farms have been sold around the world. The product has become a treasured part of American culture, having been recognized as one of the Top 100 Toys of the Century by the Toy Industry Association as well as garnering considerable media attention through the years.

To commemorate the Ant Farm’s 50th “ant-iversary,” two new Ant Farm habitats are being developed for 2006. Uncle Milton is introducing a collectible Limited Edition Vintage Ant Farm® that consists of a gold classic Ant Farm packaged in the original 1950s-era box. The company is also introducing a futuristic gel version called the Ant Farm® Gel Colony™.

Even today, Uncle Milton Industries remains a family-owned enterprise. I joined the business in 1978 and took over as president in 1989. The company is proud of its rich heritage and remains committed to bringing creative and innovative toys to kids and parents around the world. Some of today’s popular offerings from Uncle Milton Industries are Star Theater®, 3-D Adventure Projector™, R/C Snake™, Shadow Magic™, Planet Frog®, Hermit Crab Cove™, Jet Hawks® Air Powered Gliders, T-Rex Battle™, and P-Brains™, as well as classic Ant Farm®, Giant Ant Farm®, Ant Farm Village® and Extreme Ant Farm®.

Back in 1956, Milt probably never thought selling ants would put his three kids through college, and Joe probably never thought he would write a best seller about how to make a million dollars in mail order, but sometimes all it takes to find the big idea is to pay attention to the small stuff… like ants!

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