Crawford: Why were we obsessed with rubber bands?

Colin Crawford, Columnist

I was cleaning out a junk drawer in my childhood bedroom when I found something surprising: a clear plastic bag filled with teal rubber bands, all about 1/4 inch in diameter, with the brand name, “Rainbow Loom” clearly marked in the top-left corner. 

This bag of teal was a relic from a time when it seemed, at least to me, like rubber bands were taking over the world. Rainbow Loom was incredibly popular in 2014, and to my young mind it felt like everybody at school was sporting a different rubber band creation each day. With the rubber bands, a small hook tool and a plastic loom, kids could craft keychains, bracelets and more. I remember watching dozens of videos on YouTube of different creators innovating different designs and styles of bracelets. 

But the fad seems to have faded. Though the loom still boasts more than 16,000 reviews on Amazon, it is no longer widely available on the Learning Express website — the place that gave Rainbow Loom its start. What happened?

To understand the loom’s demise, we have to recognize these trends in children’s toys from the 2000s to the mid-2010s — material culture and rubber bands. 

Though extraordinarily popular in its own right, Rainbow Loom was not the first rubber band toy to become a status symbol among children — that honor goes to Silly Bandz.

Colorful, shaped rubber bands covered the wrists and forearms of children in the 2000s. These toys retained their shape, even after being stretched out, and covered the arms of many elementary schoolers. A powerful asset, a significant number of Silly Bandz could increase someone’s popularity. Kids also used the bracelets as currency, trading different colors and shapes among themselves. 

It may seem like children had some unexplainable obsession with rubber bands, but in reality this obsession was manufactured by the material culture of the U.S. at the time. 

The 2000s were a period of excess, but the Great Recession made it harder to finance maintenance of this materialism. In a time when many were struggling to stay in their homes, a wrist covered in rubber was still affordable.

Kids are mirrors and reflect the behavior of those around them. Children in the 2000s saw the period’s materialism and replicated it in their own way. Instead of Juicy Couture tracksuits and Tiffany & Co. bracelets, we had rubber bands that were relatively cheap and therefore accessible to a multitude of people. It is this ubiquity that I believe caused Silly Bandz to skyrocket in sales and eventually led to the creation of Rainbow Loom. 

The environmental impact of the rubber bands probably also contributed to the decrease in popularity of both Silly Bandz and Rainbow Loom. Though rubber is itself not incredibly environmentally harmful, its production can be, and the products can be extremely dangerous to animals if the bands aren’t disposed of properly.

But by far the rise of digital technology has been most detrimental to the once-dominant success of rubber band products. Rainbow Loom and Silly Bandz may be relics of the past, but their successors could arguably be worse. 

In the past, technology like cellphones and tablets were marketed towards adults and teens, but as personal electronic devices have become more common, the age at which people first use them has plummeted. There is no popular Rainbow Loom or Silly Bandz-equivalent in existence today because of the increase in technology use among kids. Arts and crafts simply aren’t as popular as they once were, and even a pandemic-fueled surge in at-home activities did not encourage a resurgence of the Rainbow Loom.

Media companies like Cocomelon and video games like Fortnite have decimated any need for physical toys. Kids today have no need for a rubber band bracelet to show off at school, especially if they have a Nintendo Switch in their backpack. 

The term “iPad kids” is often used to refer to children who use technology for significant amounts of time, but it is not an incorrect categorization. As the oft-repeated saying goes, the only industries that refer to consumers as “users” are drugs and technology. 

Rubber bands had a considerable impact on the childhood of many Generation Z kids in the U.S., but the reason for their prevalence can be tied to the financial downturn of the late 2000s. Rainbow Loom used to rule the world — but technological innovation and an infatuation with screens have made its popularity significantly decline. 

Colin Crawford is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.