Uncle Milton Uncle Milton Giant Ant Farm Story

Submitted by Dmitri Davydov on Fri, 2011-01-28 11:31.
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Uncle Milton Uncle Milton Giant Ant Farm

Milton Levine liked to give his customers advice from the Bible: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise."

Mr. Levine, who died Jan. 16 at age 97, knew whereof he spoke. He introduced the Ant Farm to America in 1956.

A mail-order entrepreneur, Mr. Levine said he came to the revelation at a Fourth of July picnic that included the inevitable uninvited insect guests.

Mr. Levine developed the narrow green plastic case with barn and windmill that became a toy sensation of 1957-58, when two million were sold.

Mr. Levine made no claims to have invented the formicarium, as homes for ants are formally called. A patent on one was issued in 1937 to a Dartmouth professor who made and sold "Ant Palaces" from a workshop in Hanover, Vt.

But Mr. Levine, who knew a lot about ants despite lacking formal training, insisted the formicarium was older still. "They're about as old as glass itself," he told The Wall Street Journal in 1958.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Mr. Levine was born in Pittsburgh. His father was a dry cleaner, and Mr. Levine's main contact with ants came on visits to his uncle's farm, where he gathered them into mini-terrariums he constructed in Mason jars.

After serving in the Army in World War II, he and his brother-in-law, E. Joseph Cossman, started a mail-order business selling toy soldiers through ads in comic books. Later, they sold novelties like shrunken heads and spud guns.

The Ant Farm was initially sold by mail and later through retailers nationwide. Each Ant Farm came with a coupon for a vial of ants that was mailed separately, since ants don't have a long shelf life.

The ants themselves—red ants known as Pogonomyrmex californicus—were collected in the desert by workers armed with shovels and vacuums. At first they were paid a penny per ant, and the Christian Science Monitor reported in 1967 that the most productive of them made $3,000 weekly.

In 1965, Mr. Levine bought out Mr. Cossman, who went on to become a marketing consultant and author of "How I Made A Million In Mail Order."

Mr. Levine renamed his company Uncle Milton Industries—he said it was "Uncle" Milton because people often asked him if he was in the ant business, where was the uncle?

In a 1970 book Mr. Levine wrote, "Ant Facts and Fantasies," he explained that "this writer is of the opinion that ants are truly socialist. After all, their life is truly a communal one."

As the Cold War was winding down in 1989, Uncle Milton Industries sent representatives to Moscow to explore selling Ant Farms in the Soviet Union.

Uncle Milton Industries also offered products involving live butterflies and frogs, and other science-oriented toys.

Mr. Levine's son, Steven Levine, took over the business in the 1980s. It was sold to a private-equity firm in 2010.

"I love ants," Mr. Levine told Smithsonian magazine in 1989. "They're the greatest things on Earth. I've got three kids, and ants put them all through college. I never even step on ants, I tell you. Never."

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[Via - WSJ]

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