If you grew up during a particular era in the United States, you’ve likely encountered a particular piece of child-friendly jewelry that was, for a brief period, a must-have on the playground: the slap bracelet—a bracelet made of a thin strip of metal housed in a colorful cloth covering which could be straightened out, and then made to curl up as if by magic when slapped on a wrist. But who invented the slap bracelet, an item that was ubiquitous in the early ‘90s? Is there an individual with whom we can credit the simple yet effective toy?
It turns out there is. His name is Stuart Anders—although after he invented the Slap Wrap, as he called it, several others became instrumental in both its rise and its fall. Here’s the story of the slap bracelet, from its humble beginnings to its current state.
A Flash of Brilliance
In 1983, Stuart Anders had just graduated from college with a shiny new degree in education. At the time, though, teaching jobs were few and far between, so he had returned to his hometown of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and taken up a job substitute teaching and coaching track and football. The idea for what would eventually become the Slap Wrap struck him while he was visiting his mother, with whom he used to sew. One day, as he was sorting through the drawers and supplies she kept at her sewing table, he started playing with a self-rolling tape measure—a variety of tape measure made of a long, metal strip that can, as Molly Messick described it on an episode of the podcast StartUp originally broadcast in 2017, “roll up on itself or snap straight.”
Something clicked for Anders as he repeatedly straightened out the measuring tape and snapped it to roll it back up again: “There was one of those ‘ah ha’ moments where I just went—oh wow, what a cool bracelet if someone would just put a piece of fabric on it,” he told Messick on StartUp. Of course, he didn’t have the means or resources to fully produce such a product at the time, but he hung onto the idea and the prototype, which he kept wrapped around the steering wheel of his car.
Getting Things off the Ground
Anders left Sun Prairie, briefly joined the National Guard, moved to Florida, and eventually, began utilizing his sewing skills by making and selling workout apparel and swimsuits. It was while he was working in this capacity that, by chance, he met toy industry veteran Phil Bart. After Anders showed him the prototype he had kept attached to his steering wheel all this time, the two teamed up, with Bart serving as Anders’ agent in order to bring Slap Wraps to the market.
Bart and Anders ended up cutting a deal with the Main Street Toy Company, a recently launched toy company run by Eugene Murtha who, like Bart, was a veteran of the industry. Bart and Anders signed a licensing agreement with Murtha’s company in January of 1990 which gave the Main Street Toy Company the exclusive right to sell and either manufacture or have manufactured what were now officially known as Slap Wraps. Meanwhile, Bart and Anders would receive royalties.
Slap Wraps debuted to great fanfare in February of 1990 at the North American International Toy Fair—the massive toy industry trade show which has been held annually in New York since 1903. KB Toys, then a giant within the retail market, placed an order for 250,000 bracelets soon after their debut. In March, another agreement was struck between Bart, Anders, and Murtha for Bart to take over manufacturing the bracelets, the hope being that they could be brought to market by April.
Trouble in Paradise
But here is where things started to get messy. For one thing, the original Slap Wraps were beaten to market by knock-offs. Due to the complexities involved in manufacturing the bracelets, they weren’t ready to go by April as everyone had originally hoped they would be; instead, it took until August of 1990 to get them out. What’s more, something of a debacle had likely occurred as a result of how things went down at the International Toy Fair back in February: Anders and Bart had made sample Slap Wraps for Murtha and the Main Street Toy Company to make available at the fair; however, since they didn’t have the ability to fully manufacture them at the time, they made them by hand—and, crucially, they hadn’t patented the design. Consequently, it was later determined that others who had gotten ahold of the Toy Fair Slap Wrap samples had begun to make their own versions of the bracelets. This, combined with the delay in manufacturing, resulted in the knock-offs appearing in stores before the original Slap Wraps were even shipped out.
The relationship between the Main Street Toy Company and Bart and Anders began to break down at this point, even as the popularity of slap bracelets rose rapidly. At the same time, the knock-offs, which tended to be made out of thinner pieces of steel and lower-quality fabric than the real Slap Wraps were, had given rise to safety concerns: They injured several children, who cut themselves on the sharp, exposed steel edges. Additionally, teachers found the bracelets to be disruptive in the classroom; as one school principal put it in an interview with the Pennsylvania newspaper The Morning Call in November of 1990, “The teachers have been having a lot of problems with kids constantly playing around with them and doing things they shouldn’t be doing, like hitting each other. It was becoming a real problem.” Subsequently, many schools began banning the bracelets.
The End of an Era & the Lasting Legacy
While all of this was going on, disagreements between Murtha and Bart mounted, leading to a lengthy legal battle, arbitration, and, by 1991, the dissolution of the partnership. And of course, slap bracelets, whether Slap Wraps or otherwise, ultimately ended up being a fad—and, as is the case with most fads, interest in them burned out almost as quickly as it had originally flared into life. Soon, the demand for the product faded, and slap bracelets became a relic of the early ‘90s: fondly remembered, but no longer a must-have toy.
However, the legacy of the Slap Wrap has lived on: As recently as the 2010s, slap bracelet-like technology has been floated as the way of the future. In 2013, interest began swirling around a patent Apple had filed that seemed like a cross between an Apple Watch and a slap bracelet; then, in 2015, news that the commuter fare card used in Beijing was being upgraded to a smart bracelet was met with the hope that the “card” would function as a slap bracelet.
Stuart Anders still holds the trademark for Slap Wrap, by the way; he was able to regain control of it in 2008 and renewed it again in 2018. Will we see it enter production again in the future? Well, that remains to be seen (although it’s worth noting that non-Slap Wrap slap bracelets still continue to be manufactured and sold today)—but at least we still have our memories of the original item. Nothing beats a walk down memory lane!