The creation of a toy that would become an American classic was triggered in 1956 by a Fourth of July parade of ants at a Los Angeles picnic...

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LOS ANGELES — The creation of a toy that would become an American classic was triggered in 1956 by a Fourth of July parade of ants at a Los Angeles picnic.

While gazing at the industrious insects, novelty-toy entrepreneur Milton Levine was transported back to childhood and his uncle’s farm, where he collected ants in jars and watched them “cavort,” Mr. Levine told the Los Angeles Times in 2002.

“We should make an antarium,” he recalled announcing.

With his brother-in-law, Mr. Levine soon devised what was eventually named Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm, which was an instant hit in the fad-crazy 1950s. More than 20 million of the now-familiar green ant colonies were sold in Mr. Levine’s lifetime, according to the Westlake Village, Calif., company that makes them.

Mr. Levine, who was known as Uncle Milton, died of natural causes Jan. 16 at a Thousand Oaks, Calif., assisted-care facility, said his son, Steven. He was 97.

At first, the ant farm was sold through a mail-order business that Mr. Levine established in 1946 in Pittsburgh with his brother-in-law, E.J. Cossman, a gifted pitchman. The whimsical ant community was one more offbeat product from a company that marketed plastic shrunken heads to hang on rearview mirrors and spud guns that fired potato pellets.

The ant farm became a classic partly because it “stoked the curiosity” of budding scientists and provided a fascinating educational experience, said Tim Walsh, a toy historian who last interviewed Mr. Levine in 2006 for the documentary “Toyland” (2010).

Because ants won’t survive on the store shelf, they are obtained by mailing in a coupon that comes in the box, which added to the toy’s mystique, Walsh said.

“Part of the thrill of the ant farm was that you had to wait and check your mail every day” for the 25 or so ants to arrive in a vial, Walsh said.

The insects were gathered by ant rustlers who were paid a penny apiece for red harvester ants from the Mojave Desert.