originally published May 5, 2012
There comes a point in sifting through a potential subject when I reach a three-tined fork in my research road. The path easiest taken is always another click of the Random button, a hyperdrive to some other remote corner of the Wikiverse. Or, if there’s enough material, I strap in and see where the ride takes me. Then there’s tine #3: the category leap. If a topic is scant, then maybe it has companions that can draw the piece together.
Today I’m hoping to avoid that. I’m going to see if perhaps the middle tine can ride me through an entire kilograph. But I fear there’s only so much one can say about refrigerator magnets.
If the internet is to be believed (and in my experience, it should always be believed), a guy named William Zimmerman was sitting around in his kitchen in the early 1970s, when he became overwhelmed by sadness and malaise over the blank, uninspiring canvas of his refrigerator door.
The early 70s? Could it be that those hallowed purveyors of my most cherished childhood artworks were invented just a few years before the artwork itself had been created? The answer is maybe. Not a lot of information online about this.
We do know that the first fridge magnets were cylinders or rectangles, typically colorful (everything was colorful in the early 70s) and functional. At one point, someone decided to mix ferric oxide – derived from iron and used as a cosmetics pigment as well as a jewelry polish – with a plastic binding agent in order to create flexible magnets. Run them through a larger magnet to demagnetize them, then you can slap on some brilliant saying to impress your kitchen friends.
The trick to making the fridge magnet supremely awesome is called the Halbach Array. I’m going to be much more excited to visit my fridge for a late night snack of butter and croutons tonight, knowing that I’ll be bypassing a number of Halbach Arrays to get to it. I’ll be totally Buck Rogersing it through my kitchen tonight.
Actually, the Halbach Array is just a way to arrange a bunch of little magnets together in order to make one side of the finished product super magnety, while leaving the other one with almost no magnetic powers. I could try to describe it, but I’d run the risk of boring myself and you, the reader, so instead I’ll just show you a diagram and move on.
Those classic colorful letter magnets have been around since the 1960s, which effectively negates the other sites around the interwebs which claim that fridge magnets were invented by some guy in St. Louis in the 70s. Since Wikipedia doesn’t cite a specific inventor or time of invention, I’m going to assume there’s a cover-up of some kind, that fridge magnets were invented by the US military – perhaps during the Eisenhower administration – as some sort of weapon. I’m not entirely sure how they’d work as a weapon, but it makes the story more interesting.
Fridge magnets have had their moment in the flickering spotlight of fad-ism. In the 1990s we saw the invention of ‘Magnetic Poetry’, which plays on the idea of those clunky plastic letters we all used to use as kids to spell dirty words to shock our mothers, but instead assigns each flat little magnet its own word. There are theme packages of magnetic poetry still available, from office-themed, Yiddish words, Shakespearean words, and of course the highest form of the genre.
A fridge magnet store – and yes, there is such a thing – is a dangerous experience. I visited one in the basement of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (right across the mall from Fat Tuesday’s booze-filled slushies – the greatest retail establishment in the known universe), and every square inch of wall pretty much looked like this:
Perhaps you’ve visited a friend or relative’s house and checked out the assortment of plastic giggles on their fridge and thought, “Yeah, that magnet would be funny for about two minutes.” Well, when you’re standing in Star Magnet (that’s the name of the store), you are hairline-deep in the first two minutes of a thousand manufactured witticisms. Each of them seem hilarious, and OH MY GOD! IT’S STEWIE GRIFFIN SAYING THAT LINE FROM MY FAVORITE EPISODE!
This is the kind of wallet peril one faces, especially after a hearty flagon of some frozen alcoholic beverage. People have purchased second refrigerators just to accommodate all the magnets they needed to buy because the damn kitten was so cute. Just ask the poor soul married to Louise J. Greenfarb.
Louise lives in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of (here’s a shocker) Las Vegas. A 1997 profile on Louise from the Las Vegas-Review Journal calls her an ‘inveterate saver’, which sounds like a really nice way to say ‘hoarder’. Louise started collecting over 30 years ago (which would now be over 45 years ago) when her kids were toddlers. She admits to keeping all her old credit cards and coupons. I hope Louise doesn’t have cats.
From vending machines at grocery stores to mail-away cereal toys, Louise’s collection started to grow. Her kids probably started to feel neglected when there was no room for their artwork on the fridge because there were too many art-hanging implements hogging the real estate. She turned her obsession into dollars by consulting for a South Korean magnet manufacturer. Were one prone to punnery, one could call Louise a magnet magnate. But I won’t.
“I’ve never met a magnet collector who didn’t have a magnetic personality,” Louise says. Wow.
In 1997 Louise entered into the Guinness Book Of World Records with her collection of 19,300 magnets. That has since been updated to 29,000 in 2002, and apparently well over 30,000 since then. By comparison, the largest collection of fridge magnets in Europe in 1999 belonged to Tony Lloyd, a teacher in Wales who owned over 2000. You can sit on that many fridge magnets in and around any one of Louise J. Greenfarb’s couch cushions.
I’m no memomagnetist (that’s apparently the word for a magnet enthusiast), but I like the few we have. A pair of Jake & Elwood Blues magnets and a bunch of School House Rock characters are enough to hold up the few things that we, the parents of older children, deem necessary to display.
But secretly, I would be thrilled if our fridge looked like this: