Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Out of the rock business
Remembering the absolute, must-have gift of 1975, and the guy responsible for it.
The year was… well, we are informed only that it was sometime in the “mid-’70s.”
Although I think it was probably August or September 1975, based on the timing of later events.
A man named Gary Dahl was hanging out in a Northern California bar. The drinkers’ talk turned to pets, and Dahl shared that he had the easiest, best pet of all time: a rock.
With such a feat of “bibulous inspiration,” as the New York Times described it, Dahl came up with what would become an icon of the decade: the Pet Rock (price: $3.95, which would be about $22.12 today.
The genius was in the packaging. Each Pet Rock came in a cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes, tenderly nestled on a bed of excelsior. …
“If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers,” the [accompanying] manual read. “The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you remove it.”
Pet Rocks hit the marketplace in time for Christmas 1975. … In a matter of months, some 1.5 million rocks were sold.
Dahl became a millionaire almost overnight. For a while, he was held up in America as the greatest entrepreneur of all time.
He projected the trend might last another year or so before it tapered off.
"Then I'll be out of the rock business and into some other insane scheme," he told a reporter around Christmas that year. "Or lying on a beach someplace, not caring about it."
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were tinkering in a garage, Bill Gates was setting up shop in New Mexico. Dahl was the one being featured on The Tonight Show and in Time magazine.
It was a real rags to riches thing, too. This was a guy who said his normal occupation (“freelance copywriter”), was just a euphemism for being unemployed.
A mineral that went viral
By the end of the Christmas shopping season in 1975, it was all over. Dahl tried a few other similar products, but he never saw this kind of success again.
He tried to sell an “Original Sand Breeding Kit,” for example, which promised to let you “grow your own desert wasteland.” But his later successes never came close to the Pet Rock.
As the Times summarized:
Though the rock made him wealthy, it also made him wary, for he was besieged ever after by hordes of would-be inventors, seeking his advice on the next big thing.
“There’s a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living,” Mr. Dahl told The Associated Press in 1988. “Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn’t have been simpler if I hadn’t done it.”
Still, find me another product that achieves nearly a 1 percent market penetration of the entire United States in just five months. It was like a mineral that went viral, long before social media.
And if you’re looking for an early idea for a holiday gift for 2022, hey: why not go a little retro and try a Pet Rock? It comes complete with a fun manual, and a heck of a story.
(Reminder, while we’re running on “low power mode,” we’ll be skipping the “7 other things” we normally run. But I invite you to share links to things you think your fellow readers would appreciate or enjoy in the comments.)