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The History of Stress Balls (and Why They’re So Popular)

The bad news is that stress is universal. No matter where you are or what you do, you’re going to feel at least a little bit of tension at some point in your life. The good news is that there’s relief! It can come in many forms, from a half hour of meditation to a double chocolate chip brownie, as well as our favorite form of stress relief, the stress ball.

Just like many other common promo items, such as Frisbees and pens, the stress ball has a long, established history – and the stress toys of yesterday look pretty different from many of the ones you can find today.

The Early History of Stress Balls

Many people trace the concept of a stress ball back to China, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Even then, people knew that taking care of their hands could help them manage stress. The objects they used, however, weren’t balls, but nuts. Please stop giggling. Some sources suggest that combat training during the Han Dynasty (26-220 AD) involved using one’s fingers to rotate and maneuver walnuts, which improved focus and manual dexterity.

Stress Balls and Ancient HistoryWalnuts perhaps weren’t too comfortable to roll around in the hand, so during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), people moved on to hand exercises using balls made of stone and metal. However, it wasn’t until the time of the Ming Dynasty, which began in 1368 AD, that the items we know today as Baoding balls started getting mass produced.

Baoding balls go by several other names, including meridian balls and Chinese medicine balls. In the city of Baoding, in China’s Hebei province, they were known as iron balls, given that they were made of, you know, iron. Unlike the balls that were made on a massive scale in Baoding in the 14th century, the Baoding balls you’ll find on the desks of office executives today usually are made of chrome and often contain tiny chimes.

They still fulfill a similar function, though. Well, not the warrior training part, although by exercising the hand’s muscles, they do improve strength and coordination. But Baoding balls are also thought to put weight on certain pressure points on the hand, the results being that blood circulates better, nerves get stimulated, and energy becomes more likely to flow.

Additionally, like other stress balls we use today, Baoding balls are recommended to relieve symptoms of arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other injuries. To think that all of that could come from playing with walnuts!

Stress Balls in Modern History

But how did we get from walnuts and Baoding balls to stress relievers shaped like broccoli florets? Well, developments in the realm of industry and manufacturing have a lot to do with it.

Throughout the first part of the twentieth century, the need for materials during World Wars I and II drove a lot of innovation. Researchers used the work of Dr. Otto Bayer to develop polyurethane as a substitute for natural rubber during World War II. Once they had polyurethane, oh, did they use it to make nearly everything, from sealants that protected metal machine parts from corrosion to clothing (!) that was resistant to mustard gas.

There wasn’t as much of a need for mustard-gas resistant apparel once the war was done. By 1948, the DuPont Corporation had begun making polyurethane foam available for other commercial applications, first touting it for insulation. Since then, polyurethane and other industrial foams have been used in bedding, furniture, packaging, you name it.

Oh, and of course some people discovered the fun you can have with foam products.

Stress Balls and Foam ToysYou’ve heard of Nerf footballs and other Nerf toys, right? Did you know that NERF actually stands for “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam”? In 1969, Parker Brothers debuted the original Nerf Ball. Billed as “the world’s first indoor ball” (and invented by Reyn Guyer, the person also responsible for the game Twister), the soft, safe, four-inch polyurethane foam ball proved so successful that Parker Brothers went on to release the first Nerf football in 1972.

The idea of a squishy foam ball that people could have fun with proved quite inspirational to a man named Alex Carswell. After a stressful phone conversation one day that resulted in a pen getting thrown and a picture frame breaking, Carswell realized what a good idea it would be to have a product that could relieve stress without causing property damage.

Carswell released his invention, the Stressball, in 1988. Unlike most stress relievers we see today, the original Stressball contained electronic gadgetry that caused it to make the sound of glass breaking upon impact. Like its modern-day descendants, however, it was made of polyurethane foam that was fun to squeeze (and way safer than a pen to throw).

What makes squeezing a stress ball so good for relieving tension? Although some research suggests that using stress balls won’t directly decrease your heart rate or blood pressure, healthcare professionals state that it will help with something called progressive muscular tension. By forcing your muscles to tense with a squeeze of a stress toy, and then relaxing, you become more aware of the differences in the way you feel, and that helps the relaxed feeling gradually take over!

The Stress Ball of Today

Modern stress balls are made most often out of closed-cell polyurethane foam. To create the foam, its components (which start out in liquid form) are injected into a mold. The resulting chemical reaction between the components creates carbon dioxide bubbles as a byproduct. The trapped bubbles are what makes the foam so light and airy. The foam is then molded into many shapes and sizes, all varied in style – like these cute shapes, for example.

Stress Balls of TodaySome stress balls are filled with liquid or gel for a softer, soothing texture. And then there are homemade stress balls. Did you ever fill rubber or thick latex balloons with cornstarch, flour, or sand while you were in kindergarten? Those are examples of do-it-yourself stress relievers. Of course, they’re a little harder to stamp with your logo and produce in bulk quantities than your average polyurethane stress toy.

There’s a lot of variety to be found in the world of stress balls. There are even differences among the types we sell on our website, such as varied flexibility and varied density. All of them can be used as part of a marketing strategy, however; many customers not only find stress relievers useful for themselves but also enjoy giving them as practical gifts.

So as you can see, these nifty must-have promo items are fun, practical, and beneficial to everyday life. They’re great outlets for stress, anger and negativity, and they’re small enough to take anywhere. Always remember, the humble stress ball isn’t just a silly desk decoration: it’s stress management sensibility – and an item with a lot of history.

Do you own a stress ball? What’s your favorite shape or color? Do you use them to relieve tension at work?



Bubba

Bubba is the Quality Logo Products mascot. He may have started out as "just a stress ball," but he's come a long way since the company's launch in 2003. Bubba has been immortalized in numerous vector artwork designs for internal and external promotions, and you can see him change outfits on the Quality Logo Products homepage whenever a holiday rolls around. Oh, and he thinks pants are for the birds. You can connect with Bubba on

Comments

  1. Joseph Giorgi

    Love the rundown of stress ball history, Sam!

    There’s no denying the practicality and affordability of custom squeeze toys, but it’s nice to be reminded of their intended medicinal value as well. After all, they’re called stress “relievers” for a reason.

    Great post! 🙂

    • Cybernetic SAM

      Thank you! I hope they maintain that effect for you since you have to spend your days looking at them, stress ball after stress ball hope they don’t actually become STRESSful balls! 🙂

  2. Rachel

    I had never really thought about the history of stress balls before; I never knew that they’ve been around. at least in some form, since the 1300s! Wow. Those Baoding Balls look pretty cool too! Thanks for the history lesson 🙂

    • Cybernetic SAM

      You’re very welcome! I think we can just basically mark everything that exists and its origin to China, I swear EVERYTHING has a history there, for example 2 American icons: did you know that apples and tumble weeds actually originated in China!? Sorry, Just some more useless knowledge for your brain bucket!

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I had no idea that stress balls had been around since the 14th century! I also had no idea that polyurethane foam was actually a byproduct of a reaction. The things you learn at the QLP blog!

    Great post, Sam! Thanks for researching this!

    • Cybernetic SAM

      No kidding! Thanks! I just figured since they are such a hot commodity and such a standard for everyday life it is just nice to know the history!

  4. Amy Swanson

    This entire blog was very neat-o actually, Sam 😉 I had always just assumed (yeah, yeah I know what assuming means hahaha) that stress relievers had only been around since DuPont or NASA invented the material for some other project. Go figure!

    I’ve got quite a collection of stress relievers on my desk, 7 to be exact. Wow. That’s kinda sad actually hahaha. I do use them periodically throughout the day to give my fingers and forearms some rest from typing. I know I’d be lost without them.

    Great post, Sam!

    • Cybernetic SAM

      Thanks, Amy! 7…HA! Try 18, which is what I have but I can’t help it — some of them are just so darn cute you can’t help but have them around!

  5. Jenna Markowski

    This is quite an interesting post, Sam! I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen a pair of those Baoding Balls before, but I had no idea that that’s where the idea for stress balls originated from! I’ve got quite the motley crew of stress balls on my desk that I use sometimes during the day to relieve those nasty finger cramps from typing all day, but I mainly love them because they are so cute! 🙂

    • Cybernetic SAM

      I know what you mean — from a cute little panda that adorns my bamboo plant to the cute sperm stress ball that guards my phone, I love each and every crazy stress ball I find!

  6. Alex Brodsky

    Great post Sam!

    I recommend people with really high stress levels AVOID using the stress balls filled with liquid/gels. A few too many times I have been covered in the sticky goo when I squeezed a little too tightly and they’d burst.

    You would have thought I would learn after the first occurrence, but it was more like 5 or 6 times before I got the message.

    • Cybernetic SAM

      I know, I have a bunch of those and they are my favorite but I feel like I am playing with a Jack-in-the-Box. I am just waiting for the day it explodes all over me!

  7. Stantz

    I still can’t believe some of the wacky shapes that are offered in stress balls!

    • Cybernetic SAM

      I know they are really awesome so many ways to say you care about stress elimination!

  8. Amanda

    Great post idea Sam!! My cousin had some of those Chinese stress balls, and I loved playing with them! It’s a little tricky at first, but their fun, and the chimes inside sound so soothing! I love the squishy stress balls too. They are so colorful and cute!! =)

    • Cybernetic SAM

      Thanks Amanda! Yeah I had a set too that I used to try and master but never did I think they were the wrong size. I am totally with you about the squishy stressballs, I love the gel filled ones, but they are dangerous as they often explode!

  9. BK

    Hey there
    I am looking for some fun sayings to use with my Stress balls.
    Don’t Stress….
    If I am giving them away but want clients and prospects to order from my site online … Something catchy.
    BK

  10. Ron Young

    I have a stress ball that has leaked a very thick clear liquid on my desk. I cannot find anything to remove the glue like liquid. I have tried Goo Gone with no success. Any ideas?
    Thanks

  11. Amiee

    How would one go about aging the baoding ball. I have a set that was given to us by my 90 year old grandpa and I dont know how to tell the age.

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