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RetroWacktive: The 1940 Johnson Smith Catalog, Part II

March 2, 2011

Last week we took a look at the Johnson Smith Company’s dubious contributions to the brotherhood of man in its 1940 catalog. Happily, the company’s reputation rested less on these … colorful offerings than on its encyclopedic assortment of gags, gadgets, pranks, magic tricks, money-making schemes, and every sort of useless but entertaining whatzit you’d ever be willing to blow your allowance on. In its heyday the catalog was the key to a King Tut’s tomb of exploding, squirting, snapping, stinking, foaming, fake-farting riches. Generations later, it remains a brilliantly wacky time capsule of a world soon to be haunted by the chilling specter of the atom bomb, slow death by Buster Browns, and Eddie Haskell. It’s fun to imagine Ernest Hemingway falling for the Joke Whiskey Bottle (then using it to inflict injury on the perpetrator), Eleanor Roosevelt discovering FDR and his mistress shackled finger-to-finger in the Lover’s Link (“We’re just working on the Nude Deal, honest!”), or Mussolini presenting Hitler with a Jesse Owens Rocket Jockstrap (Ha! That one’s made up). Almost as endearing as the items themselves is the earnest, rat-a-tat prose of the anonymous writers, who tend to open their pitches with a dutiful overexplanation, then try to clinch the sale with a dollop of hyperbolic, completely interchangeable boilerplate. [Test your ear for Johnson Smith-ese with the special bonus feature at the end!] And now, to close the book on the catalog, enjoy this showcase of genuine anti-Depression laff-swag.

Name: “Popular Candy Bars”
Price: $1.20 per box of 24
Main draw: Candy! Duh.
Do they have my favorite?: Maybe, if your favorite happens to be Beich Whiz, Peterkin, Jumbo Block, Chicken Dinner, Denver Sandwich, Sundae, Mondae (Get it?),  Jolly Jack, Halloway Sucker, Nutty Fagan, or Tasty Yeast.
“Tasty Yeast?!”: I was expecting that reaction for “Nutty Fagan.”

Name: “World’s Smallest Wind Instrument”
Price: 15¢
How small is it?: “Keep it in your vest pocket.”
There’s a catch, right?: “Nothing else but a BEAN! And who can deny that it IS the smallest of ‘WIND’ instruments?”
It’s a fart joke?: Yes, but it’s also “a postive WOW in any parlor party.”
Isn’t 15¢ a lot for a bean?: Probably, since the estimated minimum wage in 1940 was around 40¢.
Did it smell?: Probably, like a bean.

Name: “Tear Gas Fountain Pen Pistol”
Price: $4.50
I don’t want to just stop my attacker, I also want to shame him. Is this for me?: “Science has developed a gas … effective in demoralizing attacks by robbers, morons, mad dogs, etc.”
Morons? How about imbeciles, cretins, dullards, and nimrods?: Presumably, these are all covered.
Sir, I am a lady*, and I would never use one of these: “Women especially would welcome a safe and sure means of protection…. Motorists, especially women, should carry a gas pistol concealed in the car, within easy reach…. Every housewife should keep it handy to keep out backdoor undesirables and for defense against second story men.”
“Backdoor undesirables?” Do you mean…: Never mind, see?

*Japecake is not actually a lady.

Name: “Comic Celluloid Buttons”
Price: 2 for 10¢
Make me want these. You have ten seconds. Go: “These buttons provide subjects for pleasant jokes and amusing conversation, and thus smooth the way to a more familiar acquaintance and cordial friendship. They are very wittily worded and quite unobjectionable.”
What passed for “very wittily worded” in 1940?: “Ain’t it awful, Mabel?”; “For the love of Mike be reasonable”; “Let George do it”; “Beg your pardon, but I’m a chicken”; “Slip it to me”; “Nobody does it like you”; “I want it every day”; “You can play with my pussy, but leave my dog alone”; “Go it easy, Mabel.”
Who is this Mabel?: I don’t know, but her pussy is evidently up for grabs.

Name: “Deer Foot Hunting Knife”
Price: $1.35
I need an edged weapon that’s practical and beautiful: “Genuine deer foot handle … makes it easy and comfortable to hold as well as improving the appearance. Good for sportsmen, hunters, etc.”
Sounds perfect, except I’m not a sportsman or a hunter: “Etc.”
Are there a lot of these around?: At least three others we know of.
Can I take this when I go to see Bambi?: Bambi doesn’t come out until 1942. But the audience at Pinocchio will probably love it.

Name: “Rubber Weiner” and “Rubber Nuts”
Price: 15¢, 25¢
Are they convincing?: “Resembles a weiner in every respect”; “They are perfect replicas of delectable nuts.”
You know, I really like a lot of nuts: “Packed five nuts to the decorated peep-top box.”
Can I put the weiner and nuts in my mouth?: “Try a few on your unsuspecting guests.”
Can the weiner and nuts be used together?: Why, I oughtta….

Name: “Live Baby Alligators”
Price: $1.50
Aren’t alligators dangerous?: “They are extremely gentle, friendly little fellows.”
Sounds boring: “Alligators will also really SING and LAUGH!”
Can they sing “Love Bites?”: Ha, that’s funny, I’m laughing. Like an alligator.

Name: “Magic Nose Flute”
Price: 10¢
I’m really tired of those inferior nose flutes that give out after a few decades. What makes this one “magic?”: “It is made entirely of metal, and with care should last a lifetime.”
Will this thing fly in Carnegie Hall?: “The most elaborate operatic air can be played … in a manner that might be enthusiastically applauded even on a concert platform.”
I’m an ornithologist. What can this do for me?: “It is just the thing for teaching a canary to whistle.”
Whistle? Don’t canaries sing?: You’re thinking of alligators.

Name: “Homohawk Moccasin Kit”
Price: 98¢
Hmm. “Homohawk.” Sounds … Indian-y. Is it?: Judge for yourself: “The moccasin, as most people are aware, is the distinctive shoe of the American Indian.”
The little bow. Is that “authentic?”: “You have a pair of swell moccasins that should compare favorably with what you might buy from the Indians themselves.”
I’m sold. So, is there an actual Homohawk tribe?: If by “actual” you mean “existing or having ever existed,” then, no.
Well, does “Homohawk” mean anything?: The Urban Dictionary provides the following definition: “The small but trendy mohawk that is common among homosexuals and metrosexuals, created using some sort of ‘product.’ ”
You mean?!…: Yes. Product.

SUPER EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS 1940 JOHNSON SMITH CATALOG QUIZ!
Match each item in the first group below with its original tagline in the second group.

a. Mexican Jumping Beans   
b. Red Snapper Joke
c. Wonder Glove Monkey
d. Pets and Animals Chromoscope Views
e. Swimming Doll
f. Glider Skates
g. Sticky Gum
h. Snake Matches
i. “Hootchy-Kootchy” the Burlesque Dancer
j. Squirt Blister

1. “Provides several minutes of fun”
2. “What more does a boy need to please him?”
3. “Invariably produces a riot of merriment”
4. “Notice the attention you arouse”
5. “One of our newest novelties that is selling like hot cakes”
6. “Always goes over big”
7. “Took Hollywood by storm”
8. “Makes you laugh until your collar button splits and your tongue hangs out”
9. “With [it] you should be a welcome guest at every social and convivial gathering”
10. “Resembles a painful blister”

ANSWERS: a-3; b-7; c-9; d-8; e-4; f-2; g-1; h-5; i-6; j-10

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