January 27, 2011, - 2:38 pm

Milton Levine: Ant-Farm Inventor, WWII Vet, Proud Jewish American

By Debbie Schlussel

I love stories like that of Milton Levine.  A great American entrepreneur who died January 16th at the age of 97, he not only invented the Ant Farm, but he proudly served in World War II.  Here’s part of his obituary in the Los Angeles Times:

Milton Levine, Zichrono LiVrachah [Blessed Be His Memory]

Milton Martin Levine was born Nov. 3, 1913, in Pittsburgh to Harry and Mary Levine, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father started a chain of dry cleaners.

In the Army during World War II, Milton led a platoon that built bridges in France and Germany. He met his future wife, Mauricette, when the French citizen was playing classical piano at a USO in Normandy.

After the war, Levine followed the advice of a newsletter that said the best businesses to go into were toys or bobby pins, both of which were in short supply, he later recalled. . . .

With his brother-in-law, Levine soon devised what was eventually named Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm, which was an instant hit in the fad-crazy 1950s. More than 20 million of the now-familiar green ant colonies were sold in Levine’s lifetime, according to the Westlake Village company that makes them. . . .

The ant farm became a classic partly because it “stoked the curiosity” of budding scientists and provided a fascinating educational experience, said Tim Walsh, a toy historian who last interviewed Levine in 2006 for the documentary “Toyland” (2010). . . .

More than once, Levine said of ants: “I found out their most amazing feat yet. They put three kids through college.”

Another obituary from today’s Wall Street Journal, which I know you’ll enjoy reading as much as I did:

Milton Levine liked to give his customers advice from the Bible: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.”

Mr. Levine, who died Jan. 16 at age 97, knew whereof he spoke. He introduced the Ant Farm to America in 1956.

A mail-order entrepreneur, Mr. Levine said he came to the revelation at a Fourth of July picnic that included the inevitable uninvited insect guests.

Mr. Levine developed the narrow green plastic case with barn and windmill that became a toy sensation of 1957-58, when two million were sold. . . .

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Mr. Levine was born in Pittsburgh. His father was a dry cleaner, and Mr. Levine’s main contact with ants came on visits to his uncle’s farm, where he gathered them into mini-terrariums he constructed in Mason jars.

After serving in the Army in World War II, he and his brother-in-law, E. Joseph Cossman, started a mail-order business selling toy soldiers through ads in comic books. Later, they sold novelties like shrunken heads and spud guns.

The Ant Farm was initially sold by mail and later through retailers nationwide. Each Ant Farm came with a coupon for a vial of ants that was mailed separately, since ants don’t have a long shelf life.

The ants themselves—red ants known as Pogonomyrmex californicus—were collected in the desert by workers armed with shovels and vacuums. At first they were paid a penny per ant, and the Christian Science Monitor reported in 1967 that the most productive of them made $3,000 weekly.

In 1965, Mr. Levine bought out Mr. Cossman, who went on to become a marketing consultant and author of “How I Made $1,000,000 in Mail Order-and You Can Too!.”

Mr. Levine renamed his company Uncle Milton Industries—he said it was “Uncle” Milton because people often asked him if he was in the ant business, where was the uncle?

In a 1970 book Mr. Levine wrote, “Uncle Milton’s Ant Facts and Fantasies,” he explained that “this writer is of the opinion that ants are truly socialist. After all, their life is truly a communal one.”

As the Cold War was winding down in 1989, Uncle Milton Industries sent representatives to Moscow to explore selling Ant Farms in the Soviet Union.

Uncle Milton Industries also offered products involving live butterflies and frogs, and other science-oriented toys.

Mr. Levine’s son, Steven Levine, took over the business in the 1980s. It was sold to a private-equity firm in 2010.

“I love ants,” Mr. Levine told Smithsonian magazine in 1989. “They’re the greatest things on Earth. I’ve got three kids, and ants put them all through college. I never even step on ants, I tell you. Never.”

Sounds like a wonderful man.

Sadly, there are fewer and fewer Americans like him making and inventing things. And kids are less and less interested in science, ants, insects, the outdoors, and anything that’s not texting and online.  I wonder, in the age of the net and video games galore, if a Milton Levine would have succeeded.  I’d bet he would have . . . with a website.

Milton Levine, Blessed Be His Memory.

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10 Responses

2-million sold and I had one too!

#1 Vato on January 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm

I never owned an Ant Farm, but I did have access to a number of classic toys of that era, including some science kits from long-gone names like Gilbert – most from the small, short-lived toy section of my parents’ store. And virtually all of it was Made in America.

Raymond in DC on January 27, 2011 at 5:27 pm

Great the guy who contributed to a rare rise in the numbered of ant infestations focused in children’s bedrooms. Debbie if your gonna throw up blog posts for every Jewish American WWII vet I better see a thorough biographical post of Ralph Baer in the next couple days.

Yep on January 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I read Cossman’s book years ago and don’t recall him giving any credit to Levine.

Allen on January 27, 2011 at 5:45 pm

$3000.00 a week! WOW! Out on my chunk of land silly me has been trying to figure out how to earn a profit from gophers. I see now that “Thars gold in them there ant hills”.

MONSTER on January 27, 2011 at 6:07 pm

First Jack Lalanne, and now Milton Levine. I am sorry to say that there are not many men of this caliber nowadays. The men of today need to have “issues” in order for you be a real human being in the eyes of the liberal.

I grew up with one of these ant farms and I must admit I was not too thrilled at first because I thought ants were boring. Not until my science teacher explained how the ant society mimics human society in a primitive way, that I started to really get interested in the ant farm. God rest his soul.

Mario on January 27, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Interesting and inspiring story. Thanks for sharing, and zichrono livracha.

tractorplaneguitar on January 28, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Nice story;it is a shame that we are losing so many from the greatest generation who knew what hard work and success meant and who could turn a child’s life around with science.

@freedom4usa on January 30, 2011 at 3:14 pm

When I was a kid growing up in Florida it was the red ants that always stung, sometimes very painfully. I wonder if he sent vials of stinging ants.

Has anyone invented the Aunt Farm, yet? Someplace to put your least favorite aunt, you know, the one who never brought you good presents when she visited (instead something boring and educational), and pulled your cheek until it hurt. You could watch the Aunts crawling around in tunnels of sand, until it got boring and you could move on to something else.

Still, a good story.

It’s amazing how entrepeneurial and risk-taking that generation of Jewish immigrants was.

BethesdaDog on February 1, 2011 at 3:19 am

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