Ah, The Johnson Smith Company Catalog — the Holy Bible for little boy pranksters, magicians, spies, collectors and monster lovers everywhere. The goofy novelties I’ve written about here at the blog could all be found among its fabled pages — even if they frequently lay outside the limits of what my boyhood allowance could buy. (Note the “Greedy Fingers Bank” top left in the third picture below, for example. This is the same wind-up toy that was occasionally advertised as the “Novelty Coffin Bank.”)
As the pages below show, you could buy anything from “X-Rays Specs” to smoke grenades to itching powder to Halloween masks to “Whoopee Cushions” to “Joy Buzzers.” There were dozens of dubious “how-to” books as well, for would-be practitioners of such arcane pursuits as Kung-Fu or hypnosis. And there were some risque items aimed clearly at adults — primarily decals and clothing. (Does anyone under 40 remember “iron-ons” for t-shirts? That was actually more of a 1970’s thing than a 1980’s thing.) The Halloween masks, especially, were the stuff of legend among me and my friends. But the “deluxe” masks cost $25, if memory serves, which was well outside my grade-school price range.
Goddam, but this catalog stimulated a kid’s imagination. When it arrived in my mailbox, it seemed like a magical, exotic tome from some parallel universe where everything was made up exclusively of monsters and ninjas and gadgets. Adding to its mystique was the fact that I never actually sent away for it — I wound up on the company’s mailing list around 1979 after buying something from the back of a comic book. I forget what that fateful inaugural purchase was. It might have been the “Sea Monkeys” that I wrote about two weeks ago, but I have a feeling it might have been stamps. (I fetishized stamp collecting for a lengthy period of my early childhood, and was elated by those 500-stamps-for-$5-type offers that you sometimes found in comics.)
The scans below were downloaded from Pinterest; it looks like the first two are from the 70’s and the third one is from the 80’s. But they’re both representative of any catalog that I received from 1979 through the early part of the next decade. The small pages were crowded with random ads, mostly in little black-and-white boxes. The pictures of the products were frequently just drawings, and often did not convey the real value of what you were buying. (Remember, this was a vendor that sold “X Ray Specs.”)
The Johnson Smith Company is still around, too. (They’ve been a thing since 1914 … I have no idea how the modern Internet marketplace either helps or hurts a company like this.) But you can find them online right here. I just ordered a catalog.