World War II
The common lore says that fuzzy dice spring from a pilots' superstition in World War II. Before taking off for a sortie, pilots would put a pair of dice on their instrument panel, with seven pips showing, for good luck. Another grimmer variant on the story is the dice on the panel were a reminder that every flight was figuratively "a roll of the dice" as to whether the plane would return safely to base. Considering that by 1942, the United States was losing an average of 170 aircraft per day, pilots had a right to be cynical about their chances. Every flight was a gamble and only the lucky winners got to go home.
The Home Front
When the veterans came home from World War II, they found a country transformed. An entire generation of young people, men and women, had their comfortable, often rural, lives uprooted by the chaos of combat and wartime deprivation. Young people also had two things they didn't have before the war, freedom and spending money. Many translated their restlessness into "a need for speed" and the golden age of the street rod flourished.
A souped-up hot rod was a good outlet for the mechanical skills many veterans had picked up in the service and could replace the adrenalin rush many missed from their days in combat. An illegal street racing subculture sprang up in many cities.
Dicing With Death
Nobody knows which street racer hung the first pair of plastic dice over his rear view mirror, invoking the old pilots' superstition and cynicism. However, before long plastic dice became part of the look of the alternative culture, as much as rolling a pack of Lucky Strikes up in a t-shirt sleeve. Displaying the dice meant the driver was ready and willing to be "dicing with death" in the dangerous and unregulated world of street racing.
However, even super cool hot-rodders had to be practical. The cheesy plastic dice melted in the sunlight and were soon replaced with stuffed fuzzy dice. In the United Kingdom, they were called fluffy dice or furry dice.
As times changed and racing became an organized sport, the kitschy dice remained part of car culture into the 1980s. Drivers would pick colors that matched their custom cars and the dice became more of a symbol of individuality than defiance. However, by the end of the 1980s, more than one state had outlawed hanging any items from rear view mirrors and the fad had, in general, become cliche.
The practice had become so tame that a 1993 study found drivers with fuzzy dice on their mirrors were no more likely to take risks or become involved in accidents than the average driver. The era of dicing with death had passed.
However, as a new generation discovers retro fads and fashions, symbols like fuzzy dice are coming back into style. Look around the parking lot at the supermarket and it is likely a set will be dangling from a tricked-out pickup and an every day minivan. They are no longer symbols of rebellion and recklessness, but of nostalgia.