I'll never forget the day in my childhood when my father drew me aside, brought me to his dresser and showed me his pet rock. He was very proud of it. The rock was in a box, resting in comfortable nest of straw, and his new pet had come with a 36-page training manual. "There are all sorts of tricks a pet rock can do," my father said. "Like, sit, and play dead. And with a little push, it can roll."
My dad has always had a corny sense of humor, and so when Gary Dahl, then 37, began selling the pet rock in 1975, my father was a natural customer. So were a lot of people. During the summer of 1975, the pet rock became a sensation, with Dahl selling 6,000 of them a day, observed The St. Petersburg Times in 1976. The rocks were selling in stores for $4, half of which went to Dahl.
He became something of a media sensation, even winding up as a guest of Johnny Carson's on The Tonight Show.Everyone was in on the joke. As The St. Petersburg Times article mentioned, in December of 1975, a Time magazine reader wrote in, sounding very much like an animal lover might feel if they saw a rise of sales of dogs from pet stores instead of shelters. "It saddens me," the letter writer lamented, "that there are Americans who would buy a pet rock from a prestigious store just for one-upsmanship. A true pet lover would take in any rock and give it a good home."
In January of 1976, a church group in Los Angeles offered to bury pet rocks that had died, which spawned numerous copy-cat offers--one woman in Detroit created her own pet rock cemetery, where she kindly offered to bury the pet rocks for free. That year even saw several pet rock shows, where awards were given for the most handsome rock, the best dressed and so on.
But by 1977, the fad had passed and Dahl was sued by two partners who had helped finance the project (there's a joke here somewhere). They felt that they hadn't been paid enough, and a judge agreed. Dahl had to pay them six figures.
And then Dahl tried other gimmick gifts like the Original Sand Breeding Kit, which included a book about growing "your own desert wasteland." He sold 150,000 at $7 each, according to The New York Times, but was left with an inventory of 350,000 kits when interest dried up.
Back in 1999, I was fortunate enough to interview Gary Dahl for Entrepreneur magazine. We spoke over the phone, so I didn't get to meet him in person, but it was still a neat little thrill to meet the man behind the rock, a guy who was responsible for one of my more surreal childhood memories. And I can't be alone with this memory. By the time the fad ended in early 1976, 1.5 million pet rocks had been sold.
Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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