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RetroWacktive: The 1940 Johnson Smith Catalog, Part I

February 22, 2011

UPDATE: Read the second part of this feature here.

Few pleasures of adult life measure up to my ideal afternoon as an eight year old: a fistful of Slim Jims and stack of comic books. For me, though, the biggest draw was never Jughead’s hamburger mania, or even Richie Rich’s blingy adventures, spelled out on the cover with $’s and ¢’s in place of S’s and c’s. It was the back page—especially when it was reserved, as was often the case, for a small but tantalizing arsenal of pranks and novelties, each grosser and more hilarious than the last. “Funny Phony Dog Mess?” Check. Bloody-nail-through-finger gag? I’ll take two. You didn’t go to Korvette’s for your Poo-Poo Cushion needs, and you didn’t get a prescription for your X-Ray Specs from the Eyeglass Factory. You cut out that tiny order blank, filled it out, taped your coins to an index card, and sent it on its way. Four to six weeks later, if the fates smiled upon you, a tiny box of loot showed up in your parents’ mailbox. It was as simple as that. For the next week, or at least until your squeeze bottle of invisible ink ran out, you were assured a bump in status among your peers.

The undisputed king of joy-buzzer-by-mail purveyors was the Johnson Smith Company, founded in Chicago 1914, when “novelty” was used more or less literally. In 1935—the dawn of the company’s real glory days, which endured for the next four decades or so—Johnson Smith moved to Detroit, where it easily bested Ford and General Motors as the driving force of that city’s elementary-school economy. Though its raison d’être was gradually crippled by television, video games, and, ultimately, the World Wide Web, the company still soldiers on—since 1986, in Florida—as a go-to source for fake vomit. Of course, while a handful of classics from a gentler, funnier time survive, they’re now augmented by techno-wonders like farting bottle openers ($7.98) and “Happy Birthday”–playing musical G-strings ($10.98).

During Johnson Smith’s heyday there was no more exciting rite of passage than graduation from the company’s comic book sampler—the “gateway” gags—to the full-fledged catalog. The 1940 25th Anniversary Catalog (seen above, also available in a “De Luxe, Cloth Bound Library Edition” for 25¢) boasted a staggering 7,000 items. Seven decades on, even the most jaded online shopper can’t help but succumb to the sheer sensory overload of its 600 pages, like a kid in a candy store in the middle of an amusement park with a couple of Mountain Dews in his system. A smorgasbord of fake foodstuffs—is it possible to even read the earnest description of the “Rubber Weiner,” which “looks so real you are almost tempted to eat one,” with a straight face?—jostle for space with squirting objects of every description. The adventurous, and insane, could even order live alligators in nine size increments, up to a whopping, COPS-worthy 60 inches. (Indeed, the scope and variety of the catalog is so much like the endless vista in the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane that Japecake’s exploration will unfold in two installments, of which this is the first.)

The times being what they were, a number of Johnson Smith’s 1940 offerings are, to modern sensibilities, “problematic” at the very least. (Most might say downright reprehensible, for which there is little argument to the contrary.) While this was the year in which Hattie McDaniel made history by accepting the first Oscar ever awarded to an African-American performer, it was also a year that saw the lynchings of four black men (and one white man) in the United States, not to mention countless other racially motivated crimes. Even as Depression-weary America geared up for war, many of the same racial, ethnic, and other stereotypes that flourished in the nineteenth century maintained a stubborn grip on popular culture.

It’s a jarring but fascinating experience to page through the offerings and, among the pure anarchic fun of stretchable rubber checks and the malodorous “Auto Skunk,” to find certain items, nestled like sinister ticks, with names like “3 Wise N*ggers” (based on the kitschy “Hear No Evil, etc.” monkeys, but, well, you know). Naturally, like most companies that hoped to survive the turbulent times and tap into the increasingly vocal and affluent African-American market, Johnson Smith phased out patently racist material by the 1960s. (This was the same decade in which Crayola recast their “flesh” crayon as “peach.”) Ironically, a robust trade, powered largely by African-American collectors, now exists for such racially themed items, as curiosities and historical relics. Below, as an antidote to the rose-colored dribble glasses of nostalgia, Japecake presents a selection of gag-inducing gags that, thankfully, you won’t be finding in a comic book anytime soon.

Name: “Commode Ash Tray”
Price: 20¢
Description: “Brilliantly glazed colored china…. Shows colored boy sitting on edge of commode.”
Target audience: Anyone who wants to carry over the toilet theme from the bathroom to the living room.
Political incorrectness factor (1–10): A solid 8. Sheesh. Isn’t promoting smoking kind of … oh, right.

Name: “Hotcha Electric Lighter”
Price: $1.25
How it works: You plug in a figurine of a slightly bug-eyed black boy with his pants pulled down, and, as if by magic, you can light your cigarette on his butt.
Dazzling sales wordplay: “Hotcha feels that there are two sides to every question and if you turn him around you will find out why he is received with a warm welcome in thousands of homes.”
Redeeming quality: “There is no thumb-cramping or missing fire.”
Political incorrectness factor (1–10): A solid 8. Sheesh. Isn’t promoting smoking kind of … oh, right.

Name: “Live Chameleons”
Price: 25¢
What it promises: Live chamelons
What you get: Live chameleons
What’s the problem?: The wide-eyed, white-lipped, black pitchman (who also happens to be a pitch-black man), who enthuses, “If ah could change color like dat chameleon, I’d go lie down on a sheet!”
Chilling hypothetical scenario: What if he lay down on a paisley comforter?

Name: “Whistling Coon”
Price: 35¢
Description: “The illustration gives a good idea of the size and appearance of the funny little Whistling Coon…. Press the bulb and the Coon rolls his eyes, pokes out his tongue and whistles in a very life-like manner.”
Historical significance: This is the very object that inspired the now-ubiquitous usage “WTF.”
Present-day consequences: Huey P. Newton’s head just exploded. And he’s been dead since 1989.

Name: “Boo Boogy Mans: A Super Puzzle”
Price: 20¢
Huh?: “The puzzle is to save the missionaries from the cannibals without letting any of the missionaries get eaten during the process.”
Fun fact: The scene where Hannibal Lecter chuckles knowingly as he plays with one of these was ultimately cut from The Silence of the Lambs.
Are we not men?: A plural society is one thing, but a plural form like “boogy mans” is the kind of thing that earned you a whack with a nun’s ruler in 1940.

Name: “Complete Negro Make Up”
Price: 75¢
Anatomical correctness: “The outfit comprises a black stockingette mask that can be slipped over the head in a moment, odd eyes, buck teeth, and imitation plantation straw hat.”
How might this be useful in my daily life?: “With this outfit you can portray negro parts and create the most startling expressions.”
Missed sales-pitch opportunity, per the illustration: This Halloween, why not go as a horribly charred corpse?

Name: “The Jewish Nickle” [sic]
What am I supposed to do with this?: “Hand it to a friend, street car conductor or a storekeeper and watch his face as he examines it.”
I’m not sure the nose is large enough. Is the nose large enough?: “The figures printed on the Yiddish Nickel are plain and easily seen.”
Unintentional punchline: “3 for 10 cents, 1 dozen for 30 cents postpaid.”

Name: “Italian Dialect Joke Book”
How-a much do I pay?: 10¢
What’s-a in-a the book?: “A fine collection of Italian jokes, monologues, stories, etc.”
Period pieces: Presented on the same two-page spread as Irish Jokes, Hash House Jokes, Trolley Jokes, and Ford Jokes.
Why should I buy it?: How can you refuse such an offer?

Name: “The Famous Performing Coons”
Price: 10¢
Can you please describe the reactions of various age groups to these, using an example of dialect?: “These lively ‘Cullud Coons’ are exceedingly popular wherever introduced, both with young and old.”
Would you say that these are an accurate representation of the individuals they portray?: “Their movements are natural and almost ‘life-like.’ ”
[Suspiciously] Why is “life-like” in quotes? Are you trying to say they’re actually not life-like?: “They are made in several colors, and directions are sent with each pair.”
Several colors? Can I get these in white?: “Why not join in the fun?”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. SL Jones permalink
    February 23, 2011 2:23 pm

    Simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Great post. I can’t get over that ‘whistling coon’ – thank god times have changed!

    • February 23, 2011 2:34 pm

      Thank you. As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up, and this was only a sample. One of the most interesting things to me is that the presentations are so straightforward and unembarrassed; business as usual. And there’s also a certain irony in the fact that this was a Detroit-based company–right in the middle of one of the largest African-American populations in the country.

  2. SL Jones permalink
    February 23, 2011 3:19 pm

    Yes, you’re right. There is no sly innuendo or subtlety involved. It is obvious and blunt racism. I guess it just wasn’t taboo back then, so people could be as open as they wanted about their prejudice. I suppose there was essentially apartheid in America in the 1940’s, so even if the company was based in Detroit, the white people who owned it wouldn’t have mixed with African-Americans – even if they employed them.

    Is it me, or is writing about race like trying to waltz through a minefield blindfolded? I come out in a cold sweat merely not trying to offend anyone!

  3. infinite monkey theorem permalink
    June 15, 2011 3:43 pm

    …I’m speechless…not writing so well either! In the past yes, but not really SO long ago! WOW!!!

  4. June 15, 2011 3:54 pm

    Know what’s really surprising to me? Up here in New England, you actually see Confederate flags (bumper stickers, etc.) all over the place. Seriously. I mean, the Union won! Are these just Lost Cause refugees with a secret fetish for maple syrup and quaint, picturesque town squares?

  5. October 8, 2013 11:20 am

    Sorry, I’m ordering the Negro makeup kit today…

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