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In the course of writing a piece about the history of fridge magnets, I became obsessed with finding one man: William Zimmerman, the supposed inventor of the fridge magnet, at least if you go by Internet sources.
Various sources claim he patented the first decorative fridge magnet....but I couldn't find the patent (and I looked everywhere). Nor could I find any credible source anywhere that linked Zimmerman to fridge magnets. I began to suspect the Internet had invented him.
I looked at the Wikipedia "fridge magnet" entry again. On November 21st, 2006, an anonymous Wikipedia user added Zimmerman's name to the entry, along with some information about his record brush and the amusement parks he supposedly owned.

This, I discovered, was all true. William Zimmerman really did hold a 1948 patent for a magnetic "phonograph pickup arm" (but not for decorative fridge magnets). patents.google.com/patent/US26702…
By 1949, he was advertising his patented record-brush in Billboard Magazine: it would later be purchased by RCA, leaving him with a chunk of money he'd use to help buy the parks. books.google.com/books?id=5h8EA…
I even found a 1950 St Louis Star-Tribune article about the then-30 something Zimmerman, who is described as a "husky and handsome inventor." Zimmerman, per the story, was left with a permanent disability after a childhood accident:he tried all manner of hustles as a young adult.
He found himself with a failing San Diego radio repair shop, then hit on an idea (using Chinese goat hair) for a better record brush. In 1948 he formed the Zim Products Co, and eventually ran it out of his St Louis home.
In 1958, Zimmerman used his proceedings from the record brush to purchase two theme parks in St Louis: Holiday Hill and Chain of Rocks. He'd run these parks until 1978.
Here's a 1960s video of Holiday Hill, which is inexplicably set to Madonna, but you get the idea.
OK, so I'd established William H. Zimmerman of St Louis was a real guy and not a collective Internet delusion. But I still couldn't connect him to magnets. Until I found a Facebook group for people who remembered going to Holiday Hill back in the day. facebook.com/groups/Holiday…
Here's a photo posted by one member of the Facebook group of "Bill" Zimmerman in his days as an amusement park owner, wearing one of those very of a time-and-place grey business suits. I could definitely place him as the same guy in the photographs from the 1950s story.
People liked Bill. He was a nice guy, a good boss, someone who cared about your day in the park during a sweaty Missouri summer. And thanks to some of his family members, I finally had confirmation that he DID THINGS WITH FRIDGE MAGNETS.
A smoking gun: Zimmerman magnets and commentary from a family member. William Zimmerman apparently scored the first contract to make Disney magnets. And his "Magic Magnets" were - interestingly enough - a sort of weird 1970s proto-meme.
Zimmerman's 1970s Magic Magnets were charmingly weird, a hodge-podge of whatever cultural junk appeared to pop into his mind (and presumably those of his colleagues or family) at any given time. They're little peeks into a memetic, pre-Internet world.
Zimmerman presumably hoped that he'd spark a magnet-collecting craze, one in which ruddy children across America would wholesomely swap magnets in the shape of zebras and mugs of beer with one another. Sadly, his magnets were not the POGS of the 1970s.
I could find no records of the existence of the Magic Magnets company beyond FB posts in the Holiday Hill group, but they're still floating around the Internet. You can even buy them on Ebay.

The Magic Magnets company appears to have shuttered before the 1980s. Sadly, William H Zimmerman's theme parks did too. I found this brutally sad 1978 news story about the closure of the Chain of Rocks park, in which a quiet Zimmerman watches his dream get auctioned off.
"This is sad, but when the merry-go-round burned - that's what broke everyone's heart. Hand-carved out of bass wood, those horses were. Made in 1924, and each of those horses would have been worth $3,000 today," Zimmerman said.

(god, a burning carousel - the bleakness)
The path goes cold there. I couldn't find an obituary for William Zimmerman. I couldn't find any more concrete sources for his creation of "Magic Magnets" than the Facebook group. Certainly not enough to satisfy the fact-beasts of Wikipedia. All I can prove is that he was real.
So, did William Zimmerman invent the decorative fridge magnet? TBH, probably not. I suspect the very first fridge magnets may be these decorative fruit-shaped magnets from Asia: I have to wonder if some unfortunately forgotten guy in Hong Kong first came up with the idea.
But of course, like many inventions: it's silly to seek ONE GUY (it's always a guy) who came up with the BRILLIANT IDEA THAT SHOOK THE WORLD (or let us stick shit to our fridges more effectively). Great Man theory is bullshit in political science and so it is with fridge magnets.
And yet so many are subject to it. I remain horrified the SAGE Encyclopedia of Food Issues repeats the William Zimmerman story - I doubt the writer tried to source it (as I did, over the course of like a month and a half), because turns out it's hard. books.google.com/books?id=e31ZD…
There's really multiple GREAT MEN of fridge magnets who can be named - for example, Sam Hardcastle made the first truly flat magnets and probably the first souvenir magnets (and is way easier to confirm than William Zimmerman). ideaman-inc.com/history-of-the…
The fridge magnet did not just spring into existence, but it was created into the form we know it as today by many many people, including lots of people who are even less documented in the historical record than William Zimmerman. A group effort: right time, right place.
Someone sticks a now-cheap ferrite magnet to the back of a plastic teacup at some point in the 1960s: we fast-forward to 2019 and fridge magnets are the world's most ubiquitous souvenir. We have grown so accustomed to them that we barely even see them.
Which leads me back to Zimmerman. 1. It is sad, really quite terribly sad, that the Internet both remembers him and does not remember him. Unofficially, he Invented the Magnet because in 2006 someone on Wikipedia said he did, and blogs and even books repeat it without checking.
And yet, officially, he barely exists. I can find no reputable sources linking him to the history of the fridge magnet. All I have is a 2011 Facebook post from his nephew. Without his nephew's post, I would probably have assumed the magnet connection was more Internet nonsense.
What a strange, slightly scary thing to consider: a person who did many interesting things, like William Zimmerman, who many people appeared to remember with fondness, has almost entirely fallen out of official memory on the Internet. It is unsettling to contemplate.
Which also leads me back to why, exactly, I spent the past month hunting the trail of William Zimmerman, magnet and record entrepreneur, across the Internet. I still have yet to pinpoint exactly why I spend so much of my time *finding* both live and dead people online, but...
I do think it's linked to memory, or the fear of being forgotten. The history of fridge magnets is silly and small but also a real story, an at-least somewhat interesting one, and Zimmerman's bit in it was almost lost completely/maybe still might be due to Internet invisibility.
In this piece I'm writing, I'm still trying to figure out how to link this section I've summarized about the history of magnets with the second part, about how souvenir magnets function as an analogue for our memories. Magnets-as-memory.

Well anyway, Bill, I (now) remember you.
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