Remembering the inventor of our favorite retro fad: The pet rock

Today, we’re remembering Gary Dahl—inventor, salesman, marketer and author—who tragically passed away last week on March 23 at 78. You’d probably know him as the inventor of the Pet Rock.

One night back in the mid-70s, Dahl was enjoying a drink in a bar in northern California, where he joked about how his pet requires no work, since it’s just a pet rock. Everyone cracked up, and the idea for the Pet Rock was born. It may seem like a silly idea, but it was a joke that really resonated with the public.

“At the time, the Vietnam War was winding down; Watergate has just started up,” Dahl told the Toledo Blade back in 1999 when asked about the success of his venture. “There was a whole lot of bad news going on. . . . It wasn’t a real good time for the national psyche. I think the Pet Rock was just a good giggle. Everybody needed a good laugh, and the media ate it up.”

At the time of his bar talk, he was having a hard time financially as a freelance copywriter . . . but the Pet Rock made him a millionaire overnight, and that’s not even a hyperbole, really. For $3.95, consumers could buy an egg-shaped rock in a cardboard carrying case (with holes, so it could breathe, obvs), “tenderly nestled on a bed of excelsior” according to the New York Times. It also came with a booklet, entitled “The Care And Training Of Your Pet Rock Manual,” by none other than Gary Dahl himself. And the manual was hilarious.

For example, Step One:

“Your new rock is a very sensitive pet and may be slightly traumatized from all the handling and shipping required in bringing the two of you together. While you may look in on your pet from time to time, it is essential that you leave your rock in its box for a few days. It is advised that you set the box in an area of your home that is to become your Pet Rock’s ‘special place’. Some Pet Rock owners have found that the ticking of an alarm clock placed near the box has a soothing effect; especially at night.”

The manual also taught the owner how to help their new pet go to the bathroom and learn tricks.

According to the New York Times, Pet Rocks were first available for purchase around Christmas-time in 1975, and they were soon after “featured on ‘The Tonight Show’ and in a blizzard of newspaper articles. In a matter of months, some 1.5 million rocks were sold.” Talk about good salesmanship.

Unfortunately, this fad went the way all fads do, and soon faded away into the background. However, the Pet Rock did not mark the end of Dahl’s career. Among other ventures, he won the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest in 2000 for his “deliberately dreadful prose,” according to the New York Times, and he also penned “Advertising for Dummies” in 2001.

You can still buy the Pet Rock, by the way . . . but it will never be the same as it was 40 years ago, when Gary Dahl’s joke lifted the hearts of a heavy America. We will always be grateful for his ability to make the country laugh when it seemed as though nothing else could. Rest in peace, Gary.

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