Tag Archives: 1970s

Throwback Thursday: Olympic Prizes or Cash!

Here’s another ad that was a permanent fixture of comic books in the 1980’s.  I myself was never interested in joining the advertised “Olympic Sales Club;” nor did I want to “GO, GO, GO WITH CAPTAIN “O”!” [sic].

I found this ad pretty patronizing, with its generic champion hugging his demographically diverse charges in the upper left-hand corner.  What kind of superhero was “Captain O” supposed to be, anyway?  Was he the protector of the company?  The guardian of the kids who went door to door selling its wares? The hero of … salespeople generally?  To me, this was really just an example of adults pandering to kids as though they were idiots.

But ads like this fueled a lot of conversation among grade-school boys.  It really made it seem like you could earn some cool prizes for selling only a moderate amount of greeting cards or stationary.  (The radio-controlled cars and planes were what all the boys eyed most eagerly.)

And 80’s kids often prided ourselves on our sales skills.  Most of us had sold things door-to-door for school-related fundraisers — it was just a very common practice at the time, even if it seems needlessly dangerous to me as an adult.  When I was in second and third grade at Catholic school, we annually sold candy bars door-to-door.  If memory serves, we weren’t even required to do that for any particular fundraising purpose, like a school trip or a sports team.  I think it we were just turning a profit for the school, in addition to what our parents were paying them in tuition.

I also remember seeing ads in my older comics that recruited kids to sell “Grit,” which was some sort of periodical that was oddly billed as a “family newspaper.”  But I think that was primarily a 1970’s thing, and was just before my time.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Snaps!!

Does anyone else remember these from the 1980’s?  They went by a number of different names and brands — “Snaps,” “Snappers,” “Pop-Its” and “Bang-Snaps,” to name a few.  They were basically little tissue-paper tadpoles full of the same stuff that was in caps for your cap-gun.  (It was actually a trace amount of the impressive-sounding “silver fulminate high explosive.”  I remember reading that off the box as a kid and being very, very happy with it.)

They were perfectly harmless, though.  The Wikipedia entry for “Bang-snaps” has a rather admirable breakdown of their innocuous physics.

I and the other kids on my street loved them.  We considered them fireworks, albeit very tiny ones.  But they were legal in New York.  (Genuine fireworks were not.)  You could buy them at the drug store.  It was like some glorious oversight in the world of adults that unwittingly allowed us fun that we shouldn’t be having.

Come to think of it … I’m willing to bet that a lot of kids these days don’t even know what a cap-gun is.  Those were on their way out by the 80’s — I only remember having them as a tot at the tail end of the 1970’s.

 

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Throwback Thursday: The Johnson Smith Company Catalog!

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.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Sea Monkeys!!!”

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.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Brix Blox!

Yes, this was the cheap Lego knockoff from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I can still remember that giant white box of sturdy cardboard, and my confusion about what to do with the round pieces.  (Were they supposed to be wheels?)

You could buy Brix Blox at Sears.  (My family got a lot of things at Sears.  There was a standalone Sears department store two towns over where you could probably buy anything for your home except groceries or hardware.  I suppose that stores like that were the closest thing we had in the 80’s to “big box” stores like Walmart.)

These were originally called Loc Blocs by their Japanese manufacturer; Sears rebranded them.  They were absolutely generic and considerably larger, which meant there was no way they were compatible with Lego’s smaller standard pieces.  It didn’t matter to me.  I loved Brix Blox.  When I saw Lego sets at other kids’ houses, they always looked weird and small and fancy.

It still befuddles me as an adult that Legos have such a loyal, nostalgic fan base — complete with the Lego movies and videogames.  The brand’s popularity was just an 80’s phenomenon that I was never a part of.  I will never understand, for example, the need for the “The Lego Batman Movie,” even though it has been explained to me.  To each his own, I guess.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Trapper Keepers

I’m a little confused about Wikipedia saying that Mead’s Trapper Keepers were popular from the 1970’s through the 1990’s; I remember them strictly as an early 80’s phenomenon.  (Maybe by the time I reached junior high school, the kids in my age group simply outgrew them.)

What an exercise in style over substance.  I know that these are fondly remembered; they’re a favorite item on many 80’s nostalgia sites.  Trapper Keepers and their folders (were those the “trappers?”) were flimsy.  They didn’t hold much paper — especially with those junky little plastic binder rings.  You could do a lot better with a cheap, no-frills metal binder.  (Yeah, I was a nerdy enough kid to notice these things.)  I asked my mother to buy these for me only once during grade school, and then never again.

 

 

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Throwback Thursday: More 1970’s plastic boats!

Here’s another obscure group of toys from the 1970’s — these were produced by Gay Toys, Inc.  (Warning: if you Google “Gay Toys,” you’re going to pull up products that are entirely unrelated to plastic boats.)  Anyway, you know these are truly vintage items when various eBay sellers list them as “dime store” toys.

I actually remember receiving these as a tot.  My Aunt Maureen bought them for me during a particularly long trip in what I called “the Blue Car” as a small child.  (This was the same Plymouth Duster that would later become my first car in high school — I guess it was pretty new at the time.  Its turn-signal mechanism made a mechanical clicking sound when it was used … as a child, I thought the car just clicked whenever it slowed or stopped.)

 

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