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What is the History of Stress Balls? The Evolution of Squishy Toys

Alyssa Mertes

Published: June 22nd, 2021

Adulting can seriously be the worst. Between bills, crowded grocery stores, weird vibes at work, and waiting on hold when the internet goes out, there's a lot that can make us stressed on any given day. Luckily in those moments when we're feeling at wit's end, we always have stress balls to squeeze!

Where did these squishy toys come from? Why were they even created? Hop into the DeLorean, get the flux capacitor ready, and let's go back to the 80's to learn more about the invention of stress balls.

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

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

Hour Glass

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. This timeline shows the fascinating evolution of squishy stress toys!

  • 960 BC - 1279

    Stones

    The Song Dynasty took over from the Hans to become the ruling power in China. They also valued fidget objects for battles, only trading in walnuts for stones or iron balls.

  • 1368 - 1644

    Baoding Balls Source: ballmanufactory.com

    The Ming Dynasty took the idea of fidget objects to the next level with Baoding Balls. These stress relievers were mass produced and sold by vendors specifically for the purpose of meditation. Prior to this point, people in China would use natural objects like walnuts and stones to deal with stress.

  • 1937

    Dr. Otto Bayer Source: etmm-online.com

    Dr. Otto Bayer invented polyurethane as a replacement for rubber. It was a popular material for World War II and soon was used in everything, from furniture to apparel. In about 50 years, polyurethane would also be used to make the first official stress balls in the United States.

  • 1969

    Nerf Source: walkerart.org

    The Parker Brothers, a toy company in the U.S., started selling polyurethane indoor sports balls called "Nerf balls." The success of these toys proved that there was a market for squishy objects. Today, Nerf is a property of Hasbro and is worth close to $2 billion!

  • 1988

    Panic Pete toy Source: amazon.com

    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

    Stress balls became more than just novelty items. Promotional products companies used screen printing to add company logos to the front of these squishy toys. From that point on, stress relievers were used as fun giveaways at events like trade shows and fundraisers.

  • 1994

    Alpi dolphin Source: alpi.net

    Promotional products suppliers started experimenting with stress balls in different shapes. Today, you can buy custom stress toys that are shaped like dolphins, ballerinas, ice cream, superheroes, and so much more. The sky is the limit!

  • 2016

    Interactive stress ball Source: fastcodesign.com

    A student named Simone Schramm developed an interactive stress ball for her thesis at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam in Germany. The aptly-named "Stress Ball" pictured here becomes more or less textured based on your anxiety levels.

  • 2018

    Orbeez all Source: caymancode.com

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

  • 2020

    Interactive stress ball Source: http://www.happyiu.com

    According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 70% of U.S. adults felt significant stress about the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic. IU Toys brought levity to the situation with stress balls shaped like the virus.

Walnut vector

What Are Stress Balls?

Walnut vector

Stress balls are flexible, squishy toys that are used to relieve anxiety, help with meditation, and ease any muscle tension in the hands and wrists. People also like to use these toys to improve concentration at school and work.

Stress balls are fun tchotchkes for your desk or shelf, but you're probably wondering if they actually work Good news! A variety of studies have found that squeezing a stress ball can help with focus, dexterity, blood pressure, arthritis, sleep, and of course, stress.

When Were Stress Balls Invented?

Early stress relievers were invented hundreds of years ago in ancient China. Warriors in the Han Dynasty, one of the largest and most powerful empires in history, squeezed walnuts during moments of high anxiety in battle.


Stress balls graphic

After the Hans fell at the Battle of Red Cliffs, the Song Dynasty took over in 960 AD. This influential empire still used fidget objects to increase focus and anxiety in battle, only replacing the walnuts with smooth stones or iron balls.

Perhaps the most influential ancestor of the modern stress toy, however, were Baoding Balls. These balls were made from iron, jade, or solid stone and were mass produced in Baoding, China. Rather than squeezing, they would be rolled around in the hands, creating a soothing feeling and sound. Each ball was decorated with a custom design that was meant to encourage relaxation, harmony, health, and positive vibes.

Walnuts, stones, and Baoding Balls showed the value in fidget objects. They would be a big inspiration when it came to the stress balls of the future.

When Was Polyurethane Invented?

Stress balls graphic https://www.environmentalleader.com

Dr. Otto Bayer of the DuPont Corporation created polyurethane as a substitute for natural rubber in 1937. This flexible material was a big deal during World War II as it was used to make uniforms that were resistant to mustard gas as well as sealants that protected metal weaponry and machines from corrosion.

Polyurethane took on a life of its own following the war. It was used in everything from insulation and packaging to bedding and furniture. By the 1980's, the squishy material was also found in the first commercial stress relievers.

Stress balls graphic https://www.environmentalleader.com
Did you know?

Hans Selye adopted the term "stress" as a psychological concept in 1936, around the same time polyurethane was invented. Before then, people didn't really have a word for their anxious feelings..

When Was Polyurethane Used for Toys?

Orange nerf ball https://dealers.antiquesnavigator.com

Polyurethane was first used to make toys in 1969. Reyn Guyer, the guy who invented Twister, used the material to create squishy sports balls. He took this idea to Milton Bradley who then passed it on to the Parker Brothers.

An entire company was built around these novelty foam sports toys. It was called "Nerf," and people couldn't get enough of this new brand. In fact, 4 million Nerf polyurethane footballs alone sold in the 1970's. The success inspired the Parker Brothers to create even more products including foam basketballs, baseballs, and even high-flying rockets!

Nerf proved that everyday people would buy polyurethane toys. Without the brand paving this road, stress balls may have never found an audience!

Orange nerf ball https://dealers.antiquesnavigator.com

Who Invented Stress Balls?

Orange nerf ball Source: The Palm Beach Post - April 15, 1989

One day at work, a TV writer in California named Alex Carswell 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 he was inspired to invent the first commercial stress balls. They were advertised and sold in retail stores by 1988.

Orange nerf ball Source: The Palm Beach Post - April 15, 1989
Orange nerf ball Source: The Palm Beach Post - April 15, 1989

Carswell's Stressball" was made of polyurethane and contained a microchip that activated the sound of glass shattering when it was thrown. Dakin Inc. (who eventually merged into Applause Toys) showcased these new stress balls at the International Toy Fair in New York.

Orange nerf ball Source: The Palm Beach Post - April 15, 1989

The Story Behind the First Stress Ball

The first stress ball created by Alex Carswell wasn't an immediate success. This can be blamed on all of the following:

Icon expensive

Expensive Price

The Stressball was sold at $24.95 each, which is a far cry from the stress toys today that can be purchased for under $1.

icon poor reviews

Poor Reviews

Sports Illustrated called the Stressball "nothing more than a lowly descendant of fast food containers and baseballs."

icon bad marketing

Bad Marketing

Many people felt overworked, but the Stressball was advertised specifically to down-on-their-luck stockbrokers. This made it seem like only yuppies who were dealing with the pressure of losing fortunes would want one of these toys.

icon microchip speaker

Used a Microchip and Speaker

A ton of Stressballs were thrown out when they no longer made the sound of breaking glass. This is because it was impossible to replace the microchip and speaker.

icon not squishy

Not Squishy

Even though the Stressball was made from polyurethane, it wasn't as soft as the stress toys we squeeze today.

Still, it wasn't all bad news when it came to the Stressball. NFL wide receiver Michael Irvin used one when he was feeling nervous about a game. Meanwhile, the National Exercise for Life Institute placed the Stressball on their top ten healthy gift guide list in 1988.

Regardless of the mixed feelings, we wouldn't have so many amazing stress balls without Alex Carswell's prototype. We don't even need the sound of breaking glass to feel that much-needed relief!

When Did Shaped Stress Balls Come Out?

Stress balls were simple round balls in the 80's, but that all changed thanks to two promotional products suppliers: 1) Ariel Premium Supply, and 2) ALPI International. These companies created stress balls that were shaped as animals, people, cars, trees, flowers, boats, food, and anything else you can possibly imagine!

Ariel tradeshow booth

Ariel Premium Supply

Founder: Yuhling Lu
Year: 1993
Location: St. Louis, Missouri

There's a reason Ariel Premium Supply has made the list of "top 40" promotional products suppliers for the past 5 years. They're well-known for their wide variety of hand-painted shaped stress relievers, from chickens to guitars to even the Eiffel Tower! Ariel started selling stress balls as a way for founder Yuhling Lu to pay his college tuition. Now they've expanded their product line to include not only stress toys, but also drinkware, safety items, and bags.

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Fun Fact: Ariel Premium Supply sold over 9,000,000 stress balls in 2020 alone.

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Stress relievers are fun to play with. There are so many options available, which means they can be directly connected to a brand or theme.

Yuhling Lu, Chief Executive Officer at Ariel Premium Supply

Alpi staff

ALPI International

Founder: Francisco Indrio
Year: 1994
Location: San Francisco, California

Francisco Indrio started a factory dedicated to creating custom stress ball molds in 1994. These molds came in a variety of shapes, and he even brought on a successful artist named Lara Croft to lead the project and make the molds from scratch. Croft's very first design was for a dolphin shaped stress ball. Now ALPI International has licensing deals with big names like Disney and Coca-Cola.

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Fun Fact: ALPI International distributes about 10 million custom shaped stress balls every year!

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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

Are There Any Stress Ball Lawsuits?

Smiley, Emoticon, Anger, Angry, Anxiety, Emotions

Unfortunately, stress balls have been the subject of many lawsuits over the years. One such case came in Ridgefield, Washington. The town's mayor accidentally hit a resident in the head during an event. This resident filed a claim seeking $500,000 in damages. The defendant had to have six surgeries to correct the damage done to her left eye.

This isn't the only time stress balls were misused in the workplace. Jackson National Life Insurance paid over $20 million in a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit. The company was blamed for purposefully throwing stress balls at employees.

The key takeaway here is to not cause harm with your stress balls! After all, they're meant to provide relief, reduce anxiety, and put you in a good mood.

Smiley, Emoticon, Anger, Angry, Anxiety, Emotions

Why Are Stress Balls Important?

Woman Sitting in Front of Macbook

The World Health Organization estimates that stressed out employees will cost U.S. businesses about $300 billion per year. Stress balls are meant to offer a physical release from tense situations and feelings, giving you a chance to relax and not get overwhelmed by the workload.

Aside from helping with anxiety, stress balls have been bestselling promotional products for years. Companies big and small bring them along as giveaways for trade shows, or hand them out as corporate gifts around the holidays.

Stress toys are cute and put you in a better mood. They may not be the most necessary items in the world, but they're still a fun reflection of your personality or interests.

Woman Sitting in Front of Macbook

Stats For Success

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 1 icon

Google searches for anxiety were 11% higher than usual in 2020.

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

The Bottom Line

Stress balls may not be used by warriors anymore, but they still help us fight our daily battles. Whether you buy custom stress balls in bulk as gifts or make a homemade stress ball at home, these fidget toys can help us get through our worst days.

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.

References

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Cardon, M. (2015). Is Stress Worth It? Stress-Related Health and Wealth Trade-Offs for Entrepreneurs. The International Association of Applied Psychology.

Stalvey, S. (Summer 2006). Using Stress Balls to Focus the Attention of Sixth-Grade Learners. The Journal of At-Risk Issues. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ853381.pdf

Jaffe, A. (2017, June 5). Quit Worrying, Fidget Toys Have Been Around Forever. Retrieved from, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/fidget-spinners-toys-history

American Chemistry Council. (2018). Introduction to Polyurethanes: History. Retrieved from, https://polyurethane.americanchemistry.com/Introduction-to-Polyurethanes/History/

Berenstein, N. (2018, March 13). The History of Stress Balls. Retrieved from, https://woollymag.com/comfort/history-stress-balls.html

Kennard, J. (2018). A Brief History of the Term Stress. Retrieved from, https://www.healthcentral.com/article/a-brief-history-of-the-term-stress

Trex, E. (2011, January 20). A Brief History of Nerf (or Nothin'). Retrieved from, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/26916/brief-history-nerf-or-nothin

Chetwynd, J. (2011). The Secret History of Balls: The Stories Behind the Things We Love to Catch, Whack, Throw, Kick, Bounce, and Bat. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

McIntosh, D, Horowitz, J. (2017). Stress: The Psychology of Managing Pressure. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

American Psychological Association (APA). (May 2020). Stress in America 2020. Retrieved from, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report

Paperstone. (2018, February 7). The Story of the Stress Ball. Retrieved from, https://www.paperstone.co.uk/News/2018/stress_ball

Higgins-Dunn, N. (2020, August 24). Google Searches For Anxiety Soar to Record High at Beginning of Coronavirus Pandemic, Study Finds. Retrieved from, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/24/google-searches-for-anxiety-soar-to-record-at-start-of-coronavirus-pandemic-study.html

Klara, R. (2017, April 25). Nerf's Billion-Dollar Toy Empire Surprisingly Started with a Foam-Rubber Rock. Retrieved from, https://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/nerfs-billion-dollar-toy-empire-surprisingly-started-with-a-foam-rubber-rock/

Katz, D. (2012, July 11). 'Stress Ball' Injury Victim Sues for $500K. Retrieved from, https://blogs.findlaw.com/injured/2012/07/stress-ball-injury-victim-sues-for-500k.html

Mariano Morales Law. Damages Sought in Washington State 'Stress Ball' Personal Injury Lawsuit. Retrieved from, https://www.marianomoraleslaw.com/blog/damages-sought-washington-state-stress-ball-personal-injury-lawsuit/

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2020, January 9). Jackson National Life Insurance to Pay $20.5 Million to Settle EEOC Lawsuit. Retrieved from, https://www.eeoc.gov/newsroom/jackson-national-life-insurance-pay-205-million-settle-eeoc-lawsuit