The Balloon Man

The following is an article from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.

It's hard to imagine birthday parties, celebrations, or political conventions without a rainbow of balloons. So considering that they're associated with joyous occasions, it's kind of ironic that if it weren't for poverty and sheer desperation, balloons would never have been invented.


Before the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression, Neil Tillotson thought he had a career that could last him a lifetime. In 1915 he dropped out of high school and began working for the Hood Rubber Company, a prosperous manufacturer of tires and and rubber footwear located in Watertown, Massachusetts. In little time, he worked his way into a position as a researcher.

After serving in World War I (he was assigned to a cavalry unit that spent the war years chasing Mexican outlaw Pancho Villa around Texas and northern Mexico), he returned home and reclaimed his position at Hood. With new products and research on artificial rubber, Hood's wartime boom promised to continue in the post-war years. In the 1920s, an industry newsletter reported that Hood had become the largest independent rubber footwear manufacturer in the country, capable of pumping out 75,000 pairs of shoes a day.

But then came the Depression. Struggling with cash flow issues and a lack of demand for its products, Hood Rubber went on hiatus for most of January 1931, locking its doors and laying off 1,200 employees. Along with everyone else, Tillotson found himself on an involuntary, unpaid vacation. To make matters worse, his brother and father-in-law had lost their jobs ...and moved in with Tillotson. Trapped in a house that had become uncomfortable overcrowded, and with cabin fever setting in, he feared that Hood would not reopen. Regardless, he knew that he couldn't afford to work for a company that reserved the right to lay him off periodically with little warning.


So Tillotson built a makeshift laboratory in his attic and set about trying to invent something that might let him start his own business. The problem was that the only thing Tillotson knew well was rubber, and making the vulcanized rubber invented by Charles Goodyear required expensive machinery, lots of raw materials, and workers.

Tillotson pinned his hoped on something new in the field: liquid latex. A few years earlier, German scientist Peter Schidrowitz had developed a thick liquid that could be painted onto almost anything and would air dry into a rubber skin. It didn't require heat, sulfur, or molding machines, just a paintbrush or a dipping bowl, which made it theoretically possible for Tillotson to start manufacturing something (he wasn't sure what yet) with a few molds and minimal up-front costs. But what could he make?


Back at Hood Rubber, Tillotson had been lucky: He'd been allocated a supply of liquid latex and assigned the job of finding uses for it, so he already knew something about what it could do.  He'd also had the opportunity to take home a quantity of liquid latex before the plant locked its doors.

His first idea was to create inexpensive inner tubes for automobile and bicycle tires. On paper, it seemed like it should work, but Tillotson quickly discovered that his latex skin wasn't as strong as molded rubber, and it wasn't durable enough for heavy-duty use. His first efforts were, quite literally, a blowout.

[caption id="attachment_42833" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Not Tillotson's actual cat balloon."][/caption]

Frustrated, Tillotson came up with another idea- one that he thought might be an amusing novelty. He cut a piece of cardboard into the shape of a cat's head (complete with little cat ears at the top) and dipped it into the gooey latex.. He had no idea what would happen, but it was a whimsical diversion from working on inner tubes. After the latex dried, he sprinkled it with talc to keep the rubber from sticking to itself, and then carefully rolled the thin skin off the cardboard. It seemed to be an intact cat-head shape. Gingerly, he put it to his lips and blew a small puff of air into the hole at the bottom. It seemed to be airtight, so he blew a little more and kept repeating until the latex was round and dangerously taut. It was a balloon with cat ears, something he'd never seen before.


Not that toy balloons were anything new. For a great kids' toy in the early 1800s, you couldn't do much better than blowing up a pig's bladder: It was thin, airtight, durable, and fun to toss around. Kids who wanted a different-sized balloon had plenty of choices available, from small balloons made of pig intestines or rabbit bladders to large balloons of cattle organs.

In 1824 British scientist Michael Faraday invented a rubber balloon by taking two pieces of rubber and sticking them together. It didn't require special adhesives because before Charles Goodyear invented vulcanization to fix the problem, rubber was sticky and malleable like a thick bubble gum. Faraday filled his balloons with hydrogen in order to conduct scientific experiments, but it didn't take long for the invention to become a popular plaything for his kids. Problems: The balloons couldn't be mass-produced, and they didn't last long.


Tillotson ha d something new, and he knew it. He tied off the balloon and painted a cat's face on the front. When he carried it downstairs to show the rest of the family, their reaction was enough to make him completely forget about inner tubes. He went to work with his scissors, creating more cat-head molds, and recruited his older brother and father-in-law to help hand dip dozens at a a time. After making and painting 2,000, he sold them all to a Boston novelty company, C. Decieco & Son, who filled them with helium to sell at a parade in nearby Lexington.

Desperately curious to see how the public would respond to his cat balloons, Tillotson headed to the parade site. Besides being reassured by the brisk sales of balloons, he witnessed something that convinced him that he had a hit product on his hands: A little girl pulled her balloon down and kissed the cat's face.

That was it. Tillotson withdrew his life savings and sank the entire $720 into latex, molds, and a building, and set up production. By the end of 1931, the Tillotson Rubber Company had popped out five million cat-faced balloons and, despite the worsening Depression, generated sales of $85,000 (the equivalent of $1.2 million today).

Other companies also began making balloons and plenty of other rubbery products. Tillotson's company went on to develop the first high-speed latex dipping machine, which helped with his second invention in the early 1960s: the one-size-fits-either-hand disposable latex medical glove.


Tillotson became fabulously wealthy, moved to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, and bought a hotel. There he earned his final claim to fame: For 40 years, until his death in 2001 at age 102, he was the nation's first voter in all presidential primaries and all presidential elections. He slid his paper ballot into Dixville Notch's ballot box at the stroke of midnight every Election Day, followed by the three dozen other registered voters in the tiny town. Dixville Notch became famous as the first place to vote and the first to report its results a few minutes later, resulting in a crush of reporters and television cameras at every election.

Tillotson always ended up in the network news reports. But did that give him the fame he deserved as the inventor of the modern balloon and the disposable surgical glove? No. In 2007 the New Hampshire Historical Society began selling a Neil Tillotson bobblehead ...depicting the staunch Republican dropping his ballot into the Dixville Notch ballot box. (Want one? At last report, they still have plenty on hand.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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