We all gotta eat. That’s a fact of life, and some people use it to justify some amazing ways to put food on the table. Thomas Dam had one of those amazing ways, and in theory it should have set him up to be a multimillionaire.
But Dam was unlucky in business, to say the least. Careless, too, and that combination cost him nearly all the money he should have made as the original inventor of the troll doll.
An Adorable Beginning
Dam was born in Denmark in 1915 in a small town, and his main characteristic was that he was an artistic child. He spent his time whittling wood and telling stories about the evil trolls that were said to lurk in the mountains beyond his town.
Fast forward to the 1940s, and we find Dam earning a modest living as a baker. But the advent of World War II sent his business south when the local flour factory shut town. When Dam wasn’t able to buy a gift for his daughter, he carved out his first troll doll, using the ugly face of the local butcher, to whom Dam owed some money.
The doll turned out to be popular with the other kids, so Dam figured he was on to something. After carving them initially, he added wild hair and started using ceramic molds to create rubber casts, and he even added strawberry extract to give the trolls a distinctive scent.
An Unfortunate Export Adventure
After selling 10,000 dolls per month in Denmark alone, Dam expanded his business, and in 1961 the American troll doll craze was officially on. Initially, Dam made a lot of money selling dolls. The dolls became a good luck charm, and they even made their way to the White House, where then-President John F. Kennedy was photographed with one.
That was when things took a dark turn. Imitation troll dolls were popping up everywhere, so Dam took action, filing for a US design copyright.
But the copyright was ruled invalid because it just contained the year, the copyright number and Dam’s country of origin, Denmark, without the name of his company. The troll dolls were ruled to be public domain, and Dam lost almost the entire market share.
More Bad Luck
Dam went back to Denmark, and the troll doll craze eventually died. Along came the 90s, though, and the trolls reappeared and became a thing. Once again, though, Dam missed out on another large fortune. The man who reintroduced the troll dolls, Russell Berrie, worked a sales rep for Dam’s original licensee, Royal Design.
Royal Design had gone under, but Berrie was about to rise to the top of the troll pyramid. He rebranded the dolls as Russ Trolls, then proceeded to make about $150 million from the dolls, and he went on to become the King of Trolls.
So where was Dam in all of this? He died from cancer in 1989, but his copyright was reinstated, and Dam’s creation and his story eventually turned into a movie called “Trolls”—what else?—starring Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick. The movie went on to gross $346 million worldwide.
It was a bittersweet, sort-of-happy ending to a cautionary tale about the twists and turns that come with being an entrepreneur, and troll dolls continue to live on as Dam’s odd creative legacy.