In 1948, Herbert W. Schaper was a mailman in Minneapolis and a fisherman who made his own lures. One day, he added six legs to a lure that he had whittled and called it a “Cootie.” Starting out with a basement factory in his home and $1200 in 1949, he transformed the fishing lure into the Cootie game that reached $1.5 million in sales by 1953.
World War I soldiers used the word “cootie” to refer to the lice that infested them. They may have influenced the early creation of games called Cootie, which were usually played with paper and pencil. Schaper created simple games that younger children could play even if they could not read or write. With them in mind, he used children in his neighborhood to test the games during their development.
Playing the Cootie game is fairly straightforward. The player rolls a die, with each die number corresponding to one of six colorful, plastic body parts of the insect. When rolling the die, a player must get the body first and then the head followed by, in any order, two antennae, two eyes, one proboscis (a mouth-like part), and six legs. The first player to fully assemble the Cootie wins. Prior to Cootie, similar games were usually played on a board.
The first production line to prepare a Cootie body for the game was simple. Workers sat in a circle and held glue pans in their laps. They dipped each part of the Cootie into the glue and held it until dry, then drilled holes into the body to insert the legs and eyes. In this way, they produced forty thousand games in the first year.
The Cootie games were first sold by Dayton’s Department Store. The two dozen games that Schaper initially convinced the store to take sold out within a few days. By Christmas, the store had sold over 5,000 games. Eventually, Schaper Manufacturing became known as the “Cootie Company.”
By 1952, Schaper located his first production plant and offices at 1800 Olson Memorial Highway in Golden Valley. Three years later, when equipment was added to replace some manual functions, over 1,200,000 Cooties were sold. By then, Cootie was one of the first games to be made in a plastic mold—a significant innovation.
By 1951, Schaper had developed seven games — Sparetime Bowling, Pickins, Scare Crow, Stadium Checkers, Skunk, Tickle Bee, and Cootie. Despite his ability to predict a game’s success, Schaper made a costly mistake in 1953 when he turned down the opportunity to buy the game Scrabble, which became a classic American board game. He did, however, take advantage of the new medium of television to successfully advertise his products in addition to newspapers and magazines.
By 1953, the company had 125 employees, and in 1957 the company expanded its headquarters in Golden Valley. The building held the administration and offices for Thunderbird Plastics, which manufactured the game’s plastic pieces, and Highlander Sales (the sales department).
In 1961, the company became publicly owned when stock was sold to the public. Sales increased to nearly $6 million by 1968. In 1969, the Schaper games Ants in the Pants and Don’t Break the Ice were two of the toy industry’s biggest sellers. In 1971, the company was sold for $5.4 million in stock and became a division of Kusan, Inc., a plastics manufacturer in Nashville, Tennessee.
By 1978, sales of Schaper games reached $40 million and there were more than forty toys and games manufactured under the Schaper brand. The company had production and warehouse/distribution facilities in Lakeville, Plymouth, and Edina. At peak times, there were 774 employees with a weekly toy production of 125,000. That year, a 2,500-pound Cootie float appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, accompanied by clowns carrying a birthday cake and singing “Happy Birthday” to the Cootie on its thirtieth birthday. In 1986, the plant in Lakeville closed when Schaper Toys was sold to Tyco Toys, a company based in New Jersey.
In 2003, the Toy Industry Association released a list of toys of the 100 “most memorable and creative” toys of the past century. The entry for 1948 included the Cootie game along with the Slinky and Scrabble (which were not Schaper products).
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.