If you read last month about the death of businessman Milton Levine (1913-2011), you might not recognize the name at first. But those of us “of a certain age” remember well when ant farms were quite the craze in elementary and junior high school. Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm® was the target of keen interest, and most teachers willingly went along, allowing kids to bring them to school for “show and tell.”
From the vantage point of 50+ years, it’s also safe to claim that the Ant Farm was arguably one of the first toys that captured the imagination of boys and girls alike. It’s unlikely you’ll ever meet someone who owned one of these Ant Farms who doesn’t have vivid memories of the experience … and who wouldn’t also tell you how much their friends and fellow students were interested.
The “Uncle Milton” of Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm was Milton Levine, a business entrepreneur who died last month at age 97. It was he and his brother-in-law who introduced the wildly successful toy to the American market in the mid-1950s.
Levine was a mail-order merchant, having already built a successful business selling items like plastic toy soldiers, spud guns and toy shrunken heads via “back-of-the-book” advertising in comic books and children’s magazines. But it was his decision to design a durable plastic formicarium (the fancy Latin term for homes for ants) that propelled Levine into the mail order major leagues.
As he would later recall, the idea of merchandising an ant farm came to Levine from remembering his boyhood exploits constructing crude terrariums in Mason jars while visiting his uncle’s farm in Western Pennsylvania. He liked to quote the Bible as inspiration, too – specifically the verse: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.” (Proverbs 6:6)
Levine’s ant farm creation sold an eyebrow-raising two million units in 1957-58 alone. As sales boomed, the product began to be stocked in retail stores as well. Those who purchased ant farms sent in a coupon packaged with their product to receive a vial of 25 pogonomyrmex californicus ants – a species found in the southwestern desert regions of Arizona and New Mexico.
Levine’s company paid workers a penny per ant to harvest the ants in the desert; shovels and vacuums were the tools of choice in these endeavors, with some workers reportedly making ~$3,000 weekly in what has to be one of the most unusual U.S. farm labor jobs ever.
Whenever he spoke about the success of his creation, Levine expressed surprise: “Most novelties, if they last one season, it’s a lot,” he remarked in 1991. “If they last two seasons, it’s a phenomenon. To last 35 years is unheard of.”
And in fact, the Ant Farm is still doing quite well, more than 50 years after its introduction. The latest cumulative estimates of unit sales are upwards of 20 million. In a time when today’s popular toy is in tomorrow’s junk pile, that’s quite an accomplishment.
So as we salute the memory of Milton Levine, we can marvel at the fact that his signature product has outlasted even his own very long life. It’s an impressive legacy by any measure.