The Johnson Smith Company, based in Florida, has been supplying kids with the essentially useless and the uselessly essential far longer than anyone reading this has been alive. Famed for their more-than-annual and more-than-immense mail order catalog, the novelty distributor's many offerings included such perennials as fake vomit, whoopee cushions, trick gum, and even a healthy dose of plastic shrunken heads. If you've ever ordered any of that kinda stuff from an old comic book, there's a good chance you sent one of your mother's checks to Johnson Smith.
They're still around today, probably best known for their Things You Never Knew Existed catalogs, which are themed the same as yesteryear's but lack some of the original items' charm. In my youth, countless hours were spent wading through their list of goodies, proceeded by even more countless hours of waiting by the mailbox for my package of crap to finally arrive. To be honest, I was pretty obsessed with the place. I built up a system where I made sure packages were always on the way -- as soon as one arrived, I'd place another order. I couldn't get through the day without the anticipation of more Johnson Smith shenanigans, and don't doubt that my life could've been much better off if I had put a modicum of the effort spent on this pranks and magic company into my schoolwork. Don't take that as regret - no silly degrees or educational prestige were ever gonna let me use a joybuzzer on my grandmother.
(click to enlarge)
Shown above is one of the more typical ads placed in comics and kiddy magazines. Usually a full page, the crowded black-and-white sheet of low-priced fun offered a bonanza of total crap. There was no method to the company's madness - each ad provided a cornucopia of items, ranging in widely varied themes and topics. If you needed to play a trick on someone, they had you covered. If you wanted to dress in a gorilla suit and tinker with motorized bathtub submarine toys, Johnson Smith was your savior. Very few of the items sold were 'normal,' but that was the half the fun of it.
While ads like the one shown above are probably the best known, my personal favorites were the smaller 'sidebars' that sold off a bevy of cheap novelties for either 88 or 50 cents each, depending on the competition's prices at the time. Those ads were absolute gold to kids, since the prices were actually cheaper than the listed retail in Johnson Smith's own catalogs. In my circle of friends, it got to the point where we were stealing each other's magazines just on the hunch that a 50-cent Johnson Smith ad might be hiding in the back. It was pretty sick, now that I think about it. Friends shouldn't be fighting over and stealing from each other just to be the first kid on the block with rubber dog shit. I chalk our behavior up to NY's former problems with asbestos in the public school system. Not my fault I acted so crazy over super-powered magnets and unbloomed Venus Fly Traps. Not my fault.
Almost every item sold by Johnson Smith was cheap beyond compare, and I don't mean that in a money sense. There's a reason this place wasn't famous for retail stores -- nobody who saw this crap in person would ever pay money for it. This isn't really a big complaint, though. The thrill was mostly in the anticipation. Kids so rarely got boxes in the mail with their name on them, so J-S was providing a great service regardless of how easily broken their items were. You can't believe how much quicker the day goes by when you know you stand a chance to receive fake mustard bottles that spit out yellow strings in the mail.
Today, we pay tribute to the company that taught us the intricacies of rabbits' feet and sticky goo that made smoke appear from our fingertips. Let's reexamine the ad shown above, item by item. It'll be fun, I promise. Generally, most of this stuff is still sold today, and the schematics haven't changed much over the years. If any of what you're about to see piques your interest, don't cry. You can still get it. Fads change, but rubber dog shit is forever.
Article continued below advertisement:
Visit our sponsors to support the site!
Speaking of dog shit, there it is! 'Oops! Yes, they really sold fake rubber crap, and yes, it was really called 'Oops!' You might consider the 49-cent price a bargain, but really, how much could you charge people for something that's almost literally shit? The best part? This version wasn't even marketed as 'dog mess,' but actual, honest-to-God human CRAP. The suggestion was that you place the rubber feces atop a toilet seat, tricking someone into thinking you had bad aim. It's humor like this that made Frasier so popular.
The thing I never understood about rubber shit is this: what are you supposed to do with it when you're finished with the prank? I mean, it's not the kind of thing you leave out on an open shelf. Even fake shit isn't the most pleasant thing to see on a daily basis, and the last thing anyone wants to be known as is 'the guy who collects phony shit.' The ad claims that the item 'causes unbelievable commotion,' which wasn't really a universal truth. I tried this one on my father as a kid, and all I got out of it was a rather mundane 'hey...why is there shit on the toilet seat?'
X-Ray Specs were certainly one of Johnson Smith's most popular items, seemingly for good reason. Who wouldn't shell out a buck fifty for the ability to see titties through titty-covering polyester? Notice how the ad kind of skirts around the truth -- of course, the glasses did absolutely nothing aside from making it incredibly hard to see. Oh wait, they did one other thing, too -- made everyone who wore 'em look like a complete and total retard. For me, this was a double failure. Not only couldn't I see bones through a person's skin, but I had to look like a moron while finding that out. Worse yet - since I was so young and so royally stupid, I actually believed that the glasses looked great on me. That's bad enough, but I wore them all the time, everywhere. Fortunately, the plastic used in their creation seemed to disintegrate within a few weeks, ending my fashion faux pas. I remained stylish until the infamous Hypercolor T-shirt craze of the early 90s.
If you were feeling lucky, a dollar could've bought you one of Johnson Smith's legendary Surprise Packages. Now, imagine what ran through a kid's head when he knew he had a 'surprise package' on the way. Obviously, this was the company's way to unload their real poor sellers. Considering that they were so faithful in their promotion of fake shit and candles shaped like Howdy Doody, you can just imagine how bad the surprise package's contents were.
Over the years, I bought these things many times. It'd be worth the money on some occasions, but you usually ended up with something like 'The Ultimate Safety Clip Activity Book' or a plastic light bulb with five marbles trapped inside. If you upped the ante and purchased their deluxe surprise package, the wares didn't change much. You were still getting crap, just in a bigger box.
If the aforementioned rubber shit wasn't enough for you, check this out. Called the 'Gruesome Twosome,' it was an assault on all things holy for 99 cents. Yes, you'd get the sinister combination of rubber shit and fake vomit. Wait, excuse me -- 'fake wretched vomit.' If there's one thing I've noticed from all the years spent ordering from these companies, it's a serious range in the quality of fake vomit. Sometimes, it'll be perfect -- rubbery, almost-slimy, filled with tiny fake corn chunks and peppered with an orange intestinal dust. Other times, you got this hard sheet of yellow plastic that looked more like a dried egg than anything one would upchuck. Now let's be realistic here -- if you're buying fake vomit, it needs to look like vomit. It's not the kind of thing you purchase for the associated social status or because your bedroom is too sparsely decorated. If the fake vomit didn't look right, the whole process was pointless and disappointing. It's still pretty pointless even if the vomit looks right, but at least it ain't disappointing.
SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! SSSSS! There's a special message hidden deep within this hall of hisses you've just read. It's impossible to decode, but trust me, it's freakin hilarious.
The Air Car hovercraft toy was a bit pricier than most of the offerings, but it was also one of the best. Still, I have to admit that it sounded a lot cooler in the ad than it actually was in-person -- basically a battery-operated toy ship that 'bounced' off air to create the illusion of flight. This illusion was greatly hampered by the fact that it very rarely lifted even half a centimeter off the ground, instead relying on the idea that you'll swear it's flying because the ad said it flew. Regardless, it still looked like a winner - if you were the type who liked making your friends jealous with impressive-looking toys, the Air Car was right up your alley.
It ran on two 'D' batteries, which nowadays would cost you almost the same amount as the Air Car's original retail of 5.50. I'm not sure what my point is; it just sounded interesting in my head. Now that I've written it out, it's not the most noteworthy thing I could've mentioned. I'd backspace and start over, but the ring finger on my right hand hurts, and that's the only finger I allow myself to backspace with. If you can't handle that, go somewhere else. I'm a rebel.
All I'm going to say about the Spy Pen Radio is that the last line in the ad blurb is the most important by far. Anyone who's ever owned one of these knows why.
The Cordless Electric Fan's big selling point was that it has NO WIRES. I've purchased this one, and let me tell you, that 'strong breeze' is only strong if your body is made up entirely of plastic bags. This represents the type of item mail order junkies buy when they've literally bought 95% of the catalog's other stock. I was in this boat, and the fan did little to cool my fury. It also did little to cool my room, and ended up breaking into several pieces when I attempted to turn it off without using my usual dainty touch.
If you've never had the chance to read through one of the 1,001 Things Free books, DO IT. Honestly, this thing was my bible. Oodles of yellow pages filled with offers for free samples, booklets, brochures, doodads, and anything else cheap enough to be given away free of charge. It was absolutely jam-packed -- it took weeks to get through it all, and you'd pick up a great knowledge of postal acronyms along the way. I think I was the only eight-year-old in school who knew was a 'SASE' was, strictly by necessity since it was the only way for me to get a free booklet about collecting sea shells from the Shell gasoline corporation. Really. Some of the offers were better than others, but you'd find some great junk if you were really willing to get into it. I'm pretty sure they still print these today, and I couldn't recommend it more. The ad itself is marvelous in its temptation -- no mail order junkie could resist that drawing of a mailbox stuffed with free packages. There's been many challengers to the throne over the years, but no other 'free samples book' packed a wallop quite like 1,001 Things Free. If you ever happen across a copy, make sure you've got preprinted address labels to avoid hand cramps. Easily one of Johnson Smith's top drawer offerings.
The Vibrating Shocker, or Joybuzzer, is as iconic as it gets when it comes to Johnson Smith. I've had several of these over the years, though none ever really worked too well. Through watching hours upon hours of cartoons and slapstick comedies, I'd always imagined the joybuzzer to be capable of literally shocking whomever I shook hands with. In reality, it's kind of a wind-up toy that rests in your palm. When another person hits the switch while greeting you, the buzzer would either shake violently for three seconds or do absolutely nothing at all.
You might be wondering where the whole 'Johnson Smith tribute' comes into play, since I'm not exactly lending testimonials to most of these items. Like I said, it's all in the anticipation. I've always been a mail order nut -- it's something I became obsessed with in the womb and it's something I still carry with me today. For people with those kinds of mental mishaps, Johnson Smith was the ultimate drug. Anything you ordered from 'em arrived with a brand new catalog, so you could continue feeding the sickness with little effort.
Ah, Joke Gum. Remember all the varieties Pee-Wee picked up at the magic shop in his Big Adventure flick? Yeah, so did I, and I firmly believed that Smith's 'joke gum' could do the same tricks. How wrong I was. The 'red hot' gum was no spicier than any kind of cinnamon candy, and even the garlic gum wasn't overly offensive. To tell you the truth, I liked the candy. This wasn't the desired effect, but oh well -- at least I got something to chew out of the deal.
The Bag Full of Laughs was a hugely popular novelty years back. 'Laughing bags' were popping up all over the place in all sorts of forms, and for whatever reason, people were buying 'em by the truckload. A silky sack played host to a battery-operated plastic box that emitted laughing sounds when shook, letting you create the illusion that things were much funnier than they actually were. Who wouldn't pay five bucks for their own personal laugh track?
Ah, the Squirt Toilet Seat, a high class prank that squirted water directly up the ass of your victim. After filling the plastic bulb with water, you'd stick it under the toilet seat and point the release hose in the general direction of where asses will eventually take residence. When your foil sits down, BAM! Water in the ass. I wouldn't recommend using this on someone with a limited sense of humor. Come to think of it, I'm not really sure what kind of person could take a thing like this in stride. I mean, taking a shit is a fairly private affair. Nobody wants the process complicated by pranks and magic, especially when the pranks and magic boast the end result of shooting cold water up assholes. Still, for 1.19, how could you not take the chance?
As a final note, I always found the crude drawing of the lady's ass in the picture above provocative. I think it's because the only other ass I'd seen at great lengths by that point was our old dog's. Dog asses are never as provocative.
Okay, Johnson Smith has forever been obsessed with magnets. You wouldn't believe the amount of magnets sold in their catalogs - the ratio had to be at least two magnets per page. I've got nothing against magnets, especially when they can 'lift 100 pounds.' The ad suggests that you use the super-magnets on a treasure hunt, though I'm not entirely sure how they'd be any help. For five bucks, it was comparatively pricey. If you were kinda on the fence, you could've always gone for the lower-power magnet with a 50-pound lift for 2.95. Or you could get both, tie them together, and create the ultimate force in magnetism. I don't know what benefits you'd reap from doing that, but the rewards should be great.
The 1,001 Insults Book was about as funny as you'd imagine it to be, assuming you're a realist who knows that running off numbers in a phone book would provide more hilarity than an 89-cent insult book. I thought the jokes were terrible even in my preteens, and to give you an example, here's one I remember reading:
She was a test tube baby. The experiment failed.
There were approximately 400 variations on the above insult within the book's flimsy pages, so I guess test tube baby jokes were chic in eras long forgotten. Admittedly, it's possible that there was some real gold in there, but I couldn't read it since the 'book' was just photocopied paper, roughly stapled together, with such light ink that half the words were invisible.
Here's one of my favorites - the Secret Book Safe. I'm sure most of you have seen these over the years -- regular books with a big hole carved into the pages, allowing you to hide your valuables inconspicuously. Unfortunately, Johnson Smith's version was a 5" hard plastic book that looked absolutely nothing like a real book, defeating the purpose. The 'safe' itself was made of the thinnest sheet of plastic you'll ever find, enabling even the smallest hands to crack right through it by applying any level of pressure. As a final slap in the face, the fake book was titled 'BOOK' on the front cover and side panel. I guess you were meant to hide things in there that were only debatably valuable.
Saving the best for last, here's the Venus Fly Trap. I've ordered these things from Johnson Smith dozens of times, and they rarely disappointed. Yes, they were real Venus Fly Traps -- green plant beasts that'd eat flies, ants, and even chicken if you cut it into small enough pieces. Usually, you'd receive a clear envelope with a drip of soil and one of the plant bulbs. This was risky, since it bestowed kids with the responsibility of raising healthy plants -- something we weren't quite ready to handle. Other times, the Traps would come almost fully formed, ready to take on the insect world with their biting claspers and carnivorously evil leaves.
Something about these plants' genetic makeup made them extremely easy to care for -- even after the 6-8 weeks in the postal system, they still arrived intact and ready to murder. The ad claims that they'd grow up to twelve inches, which was a generous estimation. Mine never got that big, but they were still the best plants I've ever killed.
Johnson Smith is still alive and kickin' today. Click here to visit their site. They've listed most of their classics on the Internet, but don't cheat yourself -- skip right to their 'catalog request' page and see what I've been talking about. You probably won't order much, but it's still one of the best reads on the planet. If you do plan to buy something, here's an important list of term definitions you should know first:
1) Item is called 'lifelike' - looks absolutely nothing like the real thing.
2) Item said to have 'magic powers' - item has no magic powers.
3) Item described as 'amazing' - item not amazing at all.
4) Item has features that 'really work' - features really don't work.
5) Item is 'almost a foot tall' - item is between 3-9 inches.
6) Item is in 'limited quantity' - 450,000 or less.
7) Item is 'amazing' - a guy with testicles growing out of his eyes who eats everyone he meets is pretty amazing, too. Terms are always relative.
I still love the place, though. It's the total one-stop-shop for everything stupid. Where else can you buy 10-gallon foam hats and magnets powerful enough to lift fifteen tons of steel?