Herb Schaper was a big man with a little brainstorm in 1948.

A whittler of wooden fishing lures on his Robbinsdale porch, Schaper was doodling on scratch paper one night, attempting to devise a better bobber. That’s when he decided to transform the lure into a bug to which children could attach a head, antenna, legs, eyes and a curled tongue-like proboscis.

The child’s game Cootie soon exploded — filling a void for game-playing kids under 6 who couldn’t read yet. After Schaper sold his first two dozen toy bugs on commission to Dayton’s, sales topped 5,000 by the end of 1950.

Abandoning his wooden prototypes, Schaper became one of the first toymakers to embrace plastics. By 1952, sales of the endearing insects topped 1.2 million, and the W.H. Schaper Manufacturing Co. employed 125 people as Minneapolis’ only toy maker. He would move more than 25 million Cootie games before he sold the company for more than $5 million in 1971 and retired.

“Nobody could believe a thing like that could go so fast,” Schaper said in 1953. “It’s pretty simple. Everybody who sees it asks ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ We started with just $1,200. If this business proves anything, it proves that an idea can still succeed.”

William Herbert Schaper was born in Hennepin County in 1914. The 1920 census shows him living with his German-born grandfather, a railroad boiler inspector, and his father, a baker. He attended North High School in Minneapolis, where he dissected a frog in biology with a woman he’d marry decades later.

Listed as 6-foot-2, 289 pounds and jobless on his World War II draft card in 1940, Schaper had a ruptured eardrum that kept him out of the military. He’d worked as a Minneapolis mail carrier, an Alaska Highway builder and was manufacturing small commercial popcorn machines when he went into the toy business.

He tried opening a small toy store but found it too seasonal. Even when sales took off that first holiday season in 1949, he laid off his staff after the holidays — only to scuttle vacation plans and rehire everybody to meet the demand of Cootie orders pouring in from Chicago, Milwaukee and beyond.

Although he received a patent in 1952 for his “separable toy figure,” Schaper didn’t technically invent Cooties. World War I soldiers coined the term for the lice they picked off in the trenches. Earliest versions of the game appeared in 1915 when you tilted a box to trap weighted caplet “cooties.” In the 1920s and ’30s, paper and pencil versions found players rolling dice and drawing bug parts into place. Cootie was played on school blackboards. In 1939, Transogram required players to place cardboard insect pieces into a bug-shaped board.

Schaper probably knew about these earlier versions, according to author Tim Walsh’s 2005 book, “Timeless Toys.”

“Schaper took a popular paper game and updated it into the post-World War II world of plastics,” Walsh wrote, saying the Minnesotan’s innovation replaced the earlier versions and became “a permanent part of pop culture.”

Not all Schaper’s hunches proved as profitable. He had a chance to buy a word-based board game in 1953, but passed on investing in “Scrabble.” And while he created spinoff games such as Don’t Spill the Beans, Ants in the Pants, Don’t Break the Ice and Hound Dog, nothing captured the nation’s attention like his Cootie.

Keen on cashing in on his moment in time, Schaper not only embraced early plastics, but also early television. Sales bounced in the ’50s after he bought commercial time on “Captain Kangaroo.”

A giant, inflatable Cootie soared in the 1975 Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, and the little bugger became the mascot of the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C.

“It certainly seems surprising that a kind of gross little bug from World War I would lead to such a popular kids’ game,” said Alyssa Thiede, a curator at the Hennepin History Museum, which features an early Cootie game in a current display. She wonders whether any of the original wooden versions still exist.

At 42, Schaper married Frances Cussler, who had three children from a previous marriage. She became an executive at the toy company, a family-run operation until the late ’60s when it added outside investors to build a Plymouth plant. The business moved to Lakeville in 1976 — four years before Schaper died from a brain tumor at 66. He’s buried at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis.

“He was the greatest man in the world, the kindest human being I ever met,” his stepson, Bob Heiber, said in 1998 on Cootie’s 50th anniversary. “He never shoved opinions down your throat and he was sensitive to what others were thinking — people of all ages.”

Schaper’s widow, Frances, added: “Who could have known? Even after he carved that little bug, I don’t think Herb realized what he had.”

Forty years after he started his toy company, Schaper Manufacturing closed its Plymouth office and Lakeville plant in 1987. After several transactions, Milton Bradley secured the rights to Cootie and still sells it today.

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com.