Promo University

History of Stress Balls

Alyssa Mertes

Published: July 23rd, 2020

The first fidget objects were used in China as early as 206 BC. However, it wasn't until the 1980s when stress balls were sold commercially, becoming popular items for relieving workplace anxiety and as promotional giveaways for businesses.

Stress balls are squishy, squeezy, and easily one of the most eye-catching promotional products out there. With options as varied as standard round stress relievers, to ones shaped like stars, even Abraham Lincoln busts, there's no going wrong with these fun giveaway items! They are useful to have around the office on a bad day and easy to customize with your logo or advertising message.

Hour Glass

The History of Stress Balls Timeline:

It all started with walnuts in China, but today stress balls are available in a variety of shapes and colors. Journey through time to learn the fascinating history of stress relievers.

  • 960 BC - 1279

    Stones Source:

    The Song Dynasty became the ruling power in China, trading in walnuts for balls carved from stone and metal. These early stress relievers were also used to stay focused in battle.

  • 1368 - 1644

    Baoding Balls Source:

    Baoding Balls were produced during the Ming Dynasty in China. This was the first time objects were mass-produced and sold specifically to practice medication and relieve stress.

  • 1937

    Dr. Otto Bayer Source:

    Dr. Otto Bayer developed polyurethane as a replacement for rubber. It soon became a popular material for everything from furniture to apparel, eventually being used in stress balls about 50 years later.

  • 1969

    Nerf Source:

    Nerf created soft, indoor balls made from polyurethane. While they weren't marketed as stress relievers, the toy's success paved the way for even more polyurethane balls to be manufactured.

  • 1988

    Panic Pete toy Source:

    Alex Carswell created the first commercial stress balls in New York. Following his success, many other 80s stress relievers came onto the market such as the popular Panic Pete toy featured here.

  • 1990s

    Blue stress balls Source:

    Stress balls started to become more than just novelty items, instead becoming valuable advertising giveaways. The design became simple and round as these objects were meant to manage workplace stress.

  • 1994

    Alpi dolphin Source:

    Alpi International changed the game with custom-shaped stress relievers. The innovative molds allow for more versatility in the design, meaning stress balls can be shaped as anything and everything!

  • 2016

    Interactive stress ball Source:

    Simone Schramm developed an interactive stress ball for her thesis at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam in Germany. The aptly-named Stress Ball becomes more textured depending on your anxiety levels.

  • 2018

    Orbeez all Source:

    Stress balls filled with Orbeez became a huge hit on social media. These jelly-like beads expand in water, making for a fun, colorful twist on traditional stress relievers.

Walnut vector

Stress Ball Battles in China

Many people trace the early days of stress balls to China, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. The Han Dynasty, one of the largest and most powerful empires in history, used walnuts to train warriors for combat by squeezing them during moments of high anxiety. It was said these salty snacks improved focus and manual dexterity during battles. Plus, they were tasty to eat!

Walnut vector

Turns out walnuts must not have been very good training partners. The Hans fell at the Battle of Red Cliffs, leaving room for new rulers to take over in China. Many other dynasties came and went until eventually the Songs took over in 960 AD. This influential empire upgraded the traditional walnut training by instead using balls carved from stone or metal. At the time, iron production was double that of England and the Songs had material to use for extraneous purposes.

It wasn't until the Ming Dynasty came to power in 1368 AD, however, when stress balls reached their full potential. In the city of Baoding, the aptly named Baoding balls were mass-produced and made of iron, jade, or solid stone. Rather than squeezing, the Chinese would roll the balls around in their hands, creating a soothing sound. Each ball was decorated with a design that encouraged relaxation, harmony, health, and other positive vibes. These objects went beyond the Hans and Songs by reportedly doubling as both weapons and meditative objects. Warriors could grip the balls and throw them at their enemies causing significant damage. At least they still had the encouraging image painted on the outside!

Coming to America

Stress balls may have never evolved from walnuts and stones if it wasn't for World War II. The need for materials to use for weaponry and equipment became great, which inspired researchers to use the polyurethane developed by Dr. Otto Bayer in 1937 as a substitute for natural rubber. This material was used to make everything from sealants that protected metal machine parts from corrosion to clothing that was resistant to mustard gas.

Otto bayer Source:

From there, polyurethane took on a life of its own. Only a year later, the DuPont Corporation began using the foam for commercial purposes in insulation, bedding, furniture, and packaging. Around the same time, Hans Selye had adopted the term "stress" as a psychological concept. With growing tensions from the wars, and more and more Americans entering the workforce, Bayer's polyurethane became an important material in a world of overwhelmed people. Meanwhile, Selye's idea of stress gave a word to the way people were feeling.

It would still take another 50 years for commercial stress relievers to be created, mainly because money was tight following the war. Stress balls weren't yet a worthy investment, but the rise of polyurethane helped stress balls eventually find their way to every desk across the country.


Stress balls, or more appropriately anti-stress balls, can help relieve tension one squeeze at a time. They're also a great way to divert your attention quickly.

Aubre Andrus, author of Stress Less: How to Achieve Inner Calm & Relaxation

Nerf vector

Nerf or Nothing

Before stress balls made their way to shelves, a small toy company found success with their polyurethane balls. The story goes Reyn Guyer (the same man behind Twister) was inspired to market sports toys made from polyurethane after one of his team members was playing at work and bouncing foam "rocks" from a caveman game over a net. Guyer took his product to Milton Bradley who passed on the idea, instead bringing his toy to the Parker Brothers.

Nerf vector

By 1969, Nerf became a successful brand and completely took over toy stores. The first polyurethane footballs were the best-selling product of the decade with over 4 million sold! Due to this success, Nerf started creating even more products for their brand. Today, you'll see their foam sports balls in toy aisles across the country.

Perhaps the biggest way Nerf contributes to the history of stress balls is by being the first to use polyurethane for an unconventional purpose. Before then, the material had been primarily used for practical reasons and war efforts. Nerf balls proved that everyday people would buy polyurethane objects with a bit of personality.


Stress relievers are fun to play with. There are so many options available, which means they can be directly connected to a company's name, promotional themes, or products and services.

Yuhling Lu, Vice President at Ariel Premium Supply, Inc.

The Modern Stress Ball

Nerf created a product that kids loved. However, adults wanted the grown-up version to bring to work, which inspired the first commercial stress balls on the market in the 80s. This was also the first time companies used these objects as advertising materials by printing their logo, name, and contact information on the outside.

Newspaper clipping Source: The Palm Beach Post - April 15, 1989

The world was beginning to see that stress was a common problem and they would need coping mechanisms. Both parents were entering the workforce and anxiety disorders were getting diagnosed. California TV writer, Alex Carswell, felt that frustration himself. One day while at work, he got so frustrated that he whipped a magic marker across the room and broke a picture of his mom and dog. It was in this moment that Carswell paused and thought about creating a product designed to help someone vent frustration without hurting the things and people around them.

Alex carswell Source: Arizona Republic - March 27, 1989

Carswell's simply named "Stressball" was made of polyurethane and contained a microchip that activated a glass shattering sound when thrown. This provided the same relief of actually breaking something without having to buy new things for your office or home. Dakin Inc. (who eventually merged into Applause Toys) marketed these stress balls, debuting the prototype at the International Toy Fair in New York. By 1988, stress balls were being sold by retailers across the country.

Alex carswell Source: Arizona Republic - March 27, 1989

At $24.95 each, the Stressball wasn't nearly as affordable as today's version, which can start as low as under $1. It also had mixed reviews across the board. Sports Illustrated described it as "nothing more than a lowly descendant of fast food containers and baseballs." Meanwhile, NFL wide receiver Michael Irvin loved using his during stressful games and the National Exercise for Life Institute placed the Stressball on their top ten healthy gift guide list. Ultimately, Carswell's version disappeared from public view, but stress balls still made an impact in the marketplace.


We don't all get the big, sunny corner office, the super ergonomic chair, or four weeks of vacation at work. A focused activity helps take your mind off the problems of your day as well as minimizes any negative thinking that may arise.

Dr. Joseph Shrand, author of Manage Your Stress: Overcoming Your Stress in the Modern World

Stress Balls of All Shapes

As great as the Stressball was, it didn't have the customization options we want in our promotional stress relievers. Many companies were starting to turn to these items as trade show giveaways and were looking for a personal touch. They wanted something more than just basic stress balls featuring their logo.

Dolphin alpi section Source:

In 1994, Alpi International created the first stress relievers in shapes other than round. Founder Francesco Indrio was inspired to create versions that went beyond what was on the market at the time. No one was offering objects in unique shapes as they were difficult to make. Certain details, like legs on an animal, would stick out and easily tear off the final product. The world of marketing was looking for a better system to create these stress relievers.

Alpi's designers went on to start a factory dedicated to molding polyurethane into distinct shapes. They also brought on a successful California artist named Lori Croft to design their stress relievers. After experimenting with different formulas and techniques, the first shaped stress ball was released, an adorable dolphin. Following this finned friend came a menagerie of other creatures including a seal, cow, and pig.

Just like that promotional stress balls went to new heights! Companies could now buy stress balls in any shape imaginable, rather than just the standard round options that had previously existed. Soon enough, other distributors like Ariel Premium and Prime were getting in on the action, offering shaped stress relievers to their customers. Today, Alpi International distributes roughly 10 million of their custom options a year! You can order any shape imaginable from tropical fish to superheroes thanks to Indrio's innovative idea.


Nobody likes limitations and shaped stress balls give a company so many more options. They last a long time so your message stays around longer.

Francesco Indrio, founder of Alpi International

Stressed Out at Work

The World Health Organization estimates that stressed out employees will cost U.S. businesses about $300 billion per year. Stress balls are meant to distract from tense workplace situations, as well as offer a physical release. In fact, they've been proven to help prevent common ailments including arthritis, rheumatism, and poor blood circulation.

Aside from their health benefits, stress balls are also a great way for businesses to promote their services. With so many options available, you can print your company logo or name on any stress ball shape imaginable. This makes for a much more memorable advertising giveaway than brochures or business cards.

At the end of the day, operating a business is stressful work for both upper management and regular employees. Cheap, foam stress balls are an easy way to brighten the workplace and improve focus.

Promos in Action:

Learning Illumination Center, a non-profit that works with student athletes, loves advertising their services with custom sports stress balls. The organization has used these giveaways for years to encourage student athletes to remember the importance of education. They come along to every workshop, seminar, and informational meeting.

The end result is products that catch the crowd's attention and make them want to learn more. Parents approach Learning Illumination Center at various school events and ask about their services. Meanwhile, the students have fun tossing their sports stress balls to each other. It's also worth noting that stress balls have been proven to be effective in building an athlete's grip strength and focus. It's really the perfect promo!

Learning illumination center
Learning illumination center

We're dealing with kids that are hyperactive and these are fun for them. Promotional stress balls are great because they're takeaways with our name on them. It's a positive thing people can hold on to.

Karen Parker, Founder of Learning Illumination Center

Stats For Success

Stats 1 icon

In 2016, searches for "stress balls" were up 45% on Google.

Stats 2 icon

According to the American Psychological Association, 58% of people describe work as a very significant source of stress in their lives.

Stats 3 icon

A 2014 study found that squeezing a stress ball for 14 minutes improves blood pressure in people with hypertension.

Stats 4 icon

A study found that sixth graders who used stress balls in class were less distracted.

The Bottom Line

While stress balls are no longer used to train warriors, they still help us deal with our daily battles. From fighting through rush hour traffic to staying sane when we try a recipe for the first time, custom stress relievers make every day a little less frustrating. Let's face it, there's no better defense out there from unwanted stress and tension!

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.


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