Model Airplanes Are Decadent and Depraved: The Glue-Sniffing Epidemic of the 1960s

The general human obsession with inhalation for intoxication had deep roots, from the oracle at Delphi to Judaic biblical ritual. Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1776 by Joseph Priestly, and ether followed soon on its heels. Chloroform was discovered in 1831. As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, the development of paint thinners, varnishes, lighter fluid, polishes, and dry-cleaning supplies provided a variety of publicly available products with organic solvents that could be inhaled for some range of hallucinogenic or intoxicating effect. Model airplane glue was always one of those products, but it never appeared in any of the myriad declamations produced by those warning of the deleterious effects of such activities through the 1950s.

Then, as if from nowhere, the first reports of problematic behavior with model airplane glue appeared in 1959, when a series of children in western cities such as Tucson, Arizona, and Pueblo, Colorado were arrested for delinquency after it was discovered they had been huffing glue. The Denver Post picked up on the story and did its own exposé, leading other papers to crusade in much the same way. That story, in August 1959, either provided the initial shot across the bow for research into the subject or convinced children in the area to give it a try, because over the succeeding years, Colorado’s youth experienced a legitimate “epidemic.” Police raids in Denver turned up glue sniffers everywhere. Soon youth arrested for more serious crimes like robbery were blaming their behavior on glue.

The rapid development of the epidemic quickly spread throughout the country. Or, perhaps, the Colorado investigations led other states to start emphasizing analysis of such behavior. And they found it everywhere. Salt Lake City’s problem became national news in short order. New York’s epidemic began in 1961, with health officials and law enforcement officers publicly ringing their hands about instances of glue sniffing and the overwhelming availability of a product that was, essentially, designed to be in the hands of children. In 1963, the New York Times recorded the city’s first death, as a fourteen-year-old boy walked off his Brooklyn roof after inhaling model airplane glue. The city’s Board of Health responded by banning sales of the glue to anyone under eighteen.

But it didn’t help. In 1964, there were stabbings, more falls from buildings, drownings. They continued in 1965. The ordinances, the laws, the hand-wringing. Nothing could quarantine the epidemic. It spread throughout the country, throughout the world. In 1967, five deaths in Japan were blamed on lacquer sniffing. Stories in papers like the Times told of rooftop sex orgies fueled by glue-sniffing intoxication.

Throughout the decade, there would be more than one hundred deaths. There would be tens of thousands of arrests. The epidemic swept the country with a violent kinetic force, but it was very different from most of its counterparts. In most epidemics, knowledge of the disease helps quarantine its spread, but media coverage only seemed to create new victims of the glue-sniffing epidemic. Those infected were almost always willing participants, children seeking a cheap and easily available intoxication to escape the difficulties of their lives. Meanwhile, parents continued to wring their hands over the fact that the potentially deadly intoxicant was a product designed to be in the hands of those children. Model Airplanes Are Decadent and Depraved tells the story of the American glue-sniffing epidemic of the 1960s, from those first reports of use to the unsuccessful crusade for federal legislation in the early 1970s.

The hobby industry began putting an irritant in its model glue products in 1969, making them less desirable to sniff. But that wasn’t what stopped the epidemic. Children were sniffing glue before the “epidemic” started, and they continued to sniff it after the “epidemic” ended. Instead, the “epidemic” stopped when the public hysteria stopped, making it one of the most unique epidemics in American history.