Yeah, you know the drill. “Sea Monkeys” were a complete ripoff, because they were nothing like the charming humanoids featured in the ad below, which most of found towards the back of our comic books in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They were some variation of “brine shrimp” — tiny crustaceans that looked more like bugs than little nuclear families of smiling mer-men.
I was a little less disappointed than most kids upon receiving my “Sea Monkeys,” and adding water to discover the barely visible creepy-crawlies. I’d developed an obsessive fascination with all of the oddities advertised in comic books — not to mention those in the fabled Johnson-Smith Company catalog — and my father had patiently endeavored to teach me about false advertising. (He debunked the legendary “X-Ray Specs” for me, for example, and explained to me that the term “genuine replica” meant that a coin was fake.)
Although he warned me beforehand, Sea Monkeys were something he thought I should also see firsthand, as a learning experience. So I sent away for them. (My father might have given me the money; I can’t remember.) And they were indeed underwhelming, after the kit arrived at my household weeks later. Rural Long Island had plenty of ponds — I could have just snatched up a bunch of water bugs and brought them home and called them “Sea Monkeys” with equal plausibility. (I brought home some tadpoles once to discover a #$%^ing terrifying species of water spiders or something had hitchhiked along in the jar. I arrived at that discovery at night in my room — it was one of those things I didn’t tell my mother about.)
The story of Sea Monkeys gets a hundred times stranger when you read up about their bizarre creator — the dubious “inventor” Harold Braunhut. He appears to have been some kind of cross between P. T. Barnum and “Jurassic Park’s” John Hammond, along with … maybe a little Richard Spencer?
Braunhut “invented” the infamously nonfunctional “X-Ray Specs” that I mentioned above, for example, along with novelty pet kits like “Crazy Crabs” (they were simple hermit crabs) and “Invisible Goldfish.” (The latter were less substantive than the “pet rock” of the 1970’s; Braunhut simply sold you an empty fishbowl and fish food.) He raced motorcycles under the name, “The Green Hornet,” according to his Wikipedia entry, and he turned his home into a wildlife conservation. And he’d gotten the idea for marketing “Sea Monkeys” from the popularity of ant farms. (I suppose that makes a strange kind of sense.) Seriously, the guy’s life was full of weirdness.
He was also a neo-nazi. And that was especially odd, because … he himself was Jewish. He even legally changed his name at one point to the more Germanic-sounding Harold von Braunhut to fool his unlikely Aryan pals. (There are a few interesting articles out there about the man; here’s a great one by Evan Hughes over at The Awl.)
I really want to believe that Braunhut’s (well-documented) involvement with white supremacy groups was one of his many cons. Surely he was simply trying to swindle them somehow. He had, after all, sold weapons to the Ku Klux Klan. Couldn’t he simply be hobnobbing with the Nazis as an undercover inventor trying trick them out of their money? Why would the marketer of “Invisible Goldfish” be above such a thing?
I’m not sure why I am unconsciously going to such great lengths to exonerate the inventor of “Sea Monkeys.” After all, he ripped me off when I was nine. Yet here we are.