Uncovering the History of the Pool Noodle : Meet the Inventor

As I was loading our foam noodles into the car for a trip to the pool a couple weeks ago, I wondered who invented these foam toys that seem to breed on their own. Someone had to have invented these, right?

Later that night, I tracked down the inventor. It was not easy. Last week, however, I talked with him and found this invention was far from a guaranteed success.

Over thirty years ago, Steve Hartman was a young aspiring engineer entrepreneur. He and his dad started their own company in Ontario, Canada called Industrial Thermal Polymers. With a used tandem extrusion machine they made backer rods. These far from glamorous foam rods are used to fill joints before caulking for the construction industry.

Like growing gremlins, these grey foam rods soon found their way to his home and eventually his pool. Steve noticed his nieces and nephews loved playing with them. So in the mid-1980s, Steve developed some color versions and tried to market them in Canada as a water toy.

Retailers balked; “What can you do with them and why would anyone buy them?” They sold only trickle until their big break came when Canadian Tire, Canada’s Wal-Mart, placed a large order in 1987. While the Canadians were soon enjoying the open-ended wonder of pool noodles, they were still missing in action in the U.S. until a few big orders arrived in the early 1990s. The rest is as they say, history.

Today, their noodle is North America’s top selling water toy. Their factory in Brampton, Ontario produces an estimated 70% of all pool noodles in North America. Who says China makes everything? In fact, they recently sent an order of pool noodles to China. How about that?

Here are some production facts:

  • They typically start making them in November to be ready for orders in early spring for the Southern US.
  • Typically finish production each year in July.
  • This past year they produced between 700 and 800 truckloads of pool noodles
  • This equates to about 6 million individual pool noodles.

Thank you Canada.

So, in essence it took six years before this idea became an enduring fad. Six years to realize every pool needed a breeding stock of foam noodles. Sometimes if one ignores the critics, good things can happen.

While Steve has little bit of regret he did not patent the noodle, maybe not as much as Samsung has now, he says he is often surprised by how popular they still are. In our household they serve as lazy adult barges or can double as light-saber in times of crisis by young pool padawans.

What have you used a pool noodle for?

16 Comments

  1. When slit lengthwise in one place they make great bumpers on the handle arms of my lawn mower so car doors are not banged into the lawn mower.

  2. I like to fill them with water and blow into them so the water squirts out at people.

  3. These are just swell! Every year my family buys 150 noodles, and we invite the whole neighborhood to our backyard. We live on a stream, so it’s just perfect for some Summer fun. We make rafts, blow bubbles and joust among some of the other noodling activities mentioned in the article. I have always wondered about the background to such a great source of fun, and this article was fantastic. Splendid read indeed!

  4. My grandfather was part of the company who invented the noodle c:

  5. We use them for several things: cut a foot long with a slice and use them on tent strings so no one trips, same size use on the end of picnic table bench and also front of a canoe on both sides for leg rest. Now I just seen where someone used them on a trampoline for each spring.

  6. They are an absolute must for people doing physical therapy in a swimming pool. Allows you to float and do weight-free exercises.

  7. Greetings!

    Great article! It’s always fascinating to hear how things that have become ubiquitous to our lives get their start!

    But I do have a few quibbles with your article…first all, saying someone is from Ontario, Canada is like saying they are from California, USA….it’s a big piece of land, and there are lots of cities (Like Toronto, Canada’s largest city), towns and hamlets…surely he came from one of these cities, towns or hamlets…

    Canadian Tire is *not* like like Walmart…in fact, the US (where I lived part of my life) has no equivalent of Canadian Tire…it’s a cross between Autozone, Home Hardware, and Dicks Sporting Goods. One would go to Canadian Tire (in business since 1922!) to buy a fuel pump for your car, pipe for home plumbing, replacement door knob, a microwave oven, a gun, and hockey sticks! Many has garages where you can get your car fixed too. They also have discount coupons, called Canadian Tire Money, that are printed by the same company that print’s Canada’s paper money. In fact, Canadian Tire is considered a national institution, as Canadian as Apple Pie is to Americans! And, I guess, inspires us to write a lot about them. 🙂

    • I appreciate the comments. Thanks. I am going to make a point to visit Canadian Tire when I visit Canada next. 🙂

    • The US used to have ‘Western Auto’ stores, which carried the kind of merchandise you describe (minus the microwaves and hockey sticks). They had a sewing machine brand (‘Wizard’). In many little towns, it was the place to buy things like garden hoses, bicycles, lawnmowers…the list goes on and on.

  8. Robert,
    I gave a great idea for a use for these water noodles. I am an insurance agent. I have read up on liscensing. But by no means an expert.
    I would be glad to share if you already have some contact with these folks. Highly marketable to manufacturers and individual end users.

  9. ITP actually produced Noodles under license contract with Nomaco, Inc. of Zebulon, NC, USA, who invented the product in collaboration with their distributor Kidpower. Nomaco is the same company that made arrows for nerf, and invented the Nomacorc synthetic wine closure, among other products.

    • Mike is completely right. I was with Kidpower in the 90’s and there was no Canadian company involved. Not sure where the author got his information. Kidpower also manufactured Luminator light-up footballs/sportballs, Ribbon Dancer, Little Bear and other toys for kids. The Funnoodle was the #1 selling toy every summer I was with the company and pretty much every ‘twist’ on ways to use one (net floats/basketball goals, etc.) was invented in house at Kidpower by the marketing/sales departments following the lead of a new product genius named Tommy. We came up with putting wire in the noodle so it would stay in place, made the noodle hollow at one point and even used it to make gym mats at one point. Sadly, Kidpower was sold off and closed its doors just before the Y2K scare. (Interesting fact: Mark Button, the co-founder of Koosh, was on our board.)

  10. Cut into 15″ pcs , stuff with some catnip, and cover with cloth. Cats love them!!!! They can scratch to their hearts content!

Comments are closed.