• April 2011

Did You Have a Pet Rock?

By Jane and Michael Stern, Authors
Encyclopedia of POP Culture

If you owned a Pet Rock back in the 1970s, you are one of millions who were captivated by the fun fad.

How did the mania get started? It happened one night in April 1975 when California advertising man Gary Dahl was having drinks with his buddies. The conversation turned to pets.

As a lark, Mr. Dahl informed his friends that he considered pet dogs, cats, birds, and fish all a pain in the neck. They made a mess; they misbehaved; they cost too much money. He, on the other hand, had a pet rock, and it was an ideal pet — easy and cheap, and it had a great personality.

His buddies started to riff with the off-the-wall idea, and pretty soon they were al tossing around the notion of a pet rock and all the things it was good for.

Dahl spent the next two weeks writing the Pet Rock Training Manual.

This step-by-step guide to having a happy relationship with your geological pet included instructions for how to make it roll over and play dead, and how to house-train it: “Place it on some old newspapers. The rock will never know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction.”

To accompany the manual, Dahl decided to actually create a pet rock. He went to a builder’s supply store in San Jose and found the most expensive rock in the place — a Rosarito Beach stone, which was a uniform size, rounded gray pebble that sold for a penny.

He packed the stone in excelsior in a gift box shaped like a pet carrying case, accompanied by the instruction book.

The Pet Rock was introduced at the August gift show in San Francisco.

Dahl knew the gift market would be much easier to break into than the cutthroat toy market. Neiman-Marcus ordered 500. Gary Dahl sent out homemade news releases accompanied by a picture that showed him surrounded by boxes of his Pet Rocks.

Newsweek did a half-page story about the nutty notion, and by the end of October, Gary Dahl was shipping 10,000 Pet Rocks every day. He appeared on “The Tonight Show,” twice.

By Christmas, when two and a half tons of rocks had been sold, three-fourths of all the daily newspapers in America had run Pet Rock stories, often including Gary Dahl’s tongue-in-cheek revelations about how each rock was individually tested for obedience at Rosarito Beach in Baja, Mexico, before being selected and boxed.

A million rocks sold for $3.95 apiece in just a few months, and Gary Dahl — who had decided from the beginning to make at least one dollar from every rock — had become an instant millionaire.

Copycat rocks flooded the market.

One, in fact, was marketed as “the Original Pet Rock,” and dozens of quick-buck entrepreneurs joined the action selling such ancillary fun as Pet Rock Obedience Lessons and Pet Rock Burial-at-Sea Services.

Immediately after Christmas 1975, Dahl himself relabeled leftover Pet Rocks as Valentine’s Day gifts for loved ones in need of a low-maintenance pet, but the Pet Rock quickly became last year’s fad.

Dahl quit his advertising job and formed Rock Bottom Productions.

Two years later, he was interviewed by Don Kracke, the inventor of Rickie Trickie Sticky bathroom appliqués, for Mr. Kracke’s book How to Turn You Idea Into a Million Dollars. Dahl confided to Kracke, “I’ve got four more ideas. Wait until you see ‘em!” We have been unable to determine if any of the four ideas have seen the light of day.

Whatever his fortunes after the Pet Rock, Dahl has become one of the great motivational figures for inventors.

To Don Kracke and to other inventors — like Ken Hakuta, author of “How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars,” and Robert L. Shook, author of “Why Didn’t I Think of That!” — the story of the Pet Rock is a never-ending source of inspiration to create new crazes that sweep the nation and make millions for the geniuses who thought of them.

To most non-inventive people who remember it, the Pet Rock — like Deely Bobber head antennae and the Hula Hoop — has become one of the mind-boggling examples of inexplicable marketplace mania.

But Ken Hakuta does have an explanation for the periodic success of what he calls “useless dumb jokes” like the Pet Rock. It gave people a few moments of absolutely meaningless pleasure in a troubled world — no small accomplishment.

“If there were more fads,” Hakuta observed, “there would probably be a lot fewer psychiatrists. … Instead of paying for $100-an-hour therapy sessions, you could just get yourself a couple of Wacky Wallwalkers (a rubber toy that sticks and wiggles on a wall, which earned Hakuta $20 million) and a Slinky and lock yourself up in a room for a couple of hours. When you came out, you’d be fine.”


About Jane and Michael Stern

Jane Stern and Michael Stern, both born in 1946, are American writers who specialize in books about travel, food, and popular culture. They are best known for their “Roadfood” books, website, and magazine columns, in which they seek out restaurants serving American regional specialties. They were married for 38 years, and though they divorced and Michael has remarried, they continue to collaborate.

The first Roadfood book was published in 1977; the most recent seventh edition was released in 2008. The Sterns appear weekly on Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s American Public Media radio program, “The Splendid Table”; they are frequent guests on CBS’ morning show; and they maintain the website Roadfood.com. They also wrote a monthly column for Gourmet magazine for many years.

In 1992 they were awarded a James Beard Foundation Award and have also received the James Beard Perrier-Jouet Award for lifetime achievement.

The Sterns have written more than 30 books on American popular culture, including “Elvis World” (1987), “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste” (1990), and “Encyclopedia of POP Culture” (1992). They are also book reviewers for The New York Times Book Review.

In 2003, Jane Stern published “Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT,” discussing how she overcame clinical depression by training and working as an Emergency Medical Technician in Connecticut. In 2005 it was made into a television movie, “Ambulance Girl,” starring Kathy Bates. In 2006, the Sterns wrote a memoir, “Two for the Road: Our Love Affair With American Food.”

Although they divorced in 2009, the couple continues to work together writing food reviews and more on their website, www.roadfood.com.

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