You had to live in the country to appreciate Johnson Smith Company. You had to be a kid in a time when there were no TV and no suburban shopping malls and maybe not even any suburbs.
There was nothing quite so disappointing as the lonk walk out to the mailbox every day for six weeks and finding only ordinary mail - and nothing in the whole wide world so delicious as the day you finally got the package, always somehow smaller than you had expected, stuffed into the dark recesses of the box, ready to be torn open before you even got back to the house.
Johnson Smith was no mere mail-order house. What we bought, for as little as 5 cents, was fantasies.
And they came true, up to a point.
"Boys! Build This ELECTRIC MOTOR. All Parts Necassary for only 10 cents . . . Just follow a few simple instructions, it only takes a few moments, and you'll have your motor all ready to run. And OH BOY! Isn't it speedy. And all it needs to run is a No. 6 dry battery, of which there are usually several in any house where there are boys . . . Performs many novel and interesting experiments, etc. . . ."
(My dream, indulged on summer mornings while poring over the 768-page soft-cover catalogue in bed, was to put a motor in the model plane I had just finished and watch it roar up over the barn, above the elms, and then I could mount my Baby Brownie camera in there, with a string to pull the shutter.)
Well of course we didn't have a dry cell battery and I had to get my mother to drive down to Allen's Hardware for one, and when I built the motor it was about an inch long and wouldn't have got a butterfly off the ground. Besides, the battery was tall as a tumbler and weighed two pounds.
But none of this mattered the minute I got the motor together, adjusted a wire or two, touched the rotor - and saw it actually spin. Actually work. Something I had made. I was so excited I kept it whirring till breakfast time. In my heart I had known that the airplane idea was nothing but a daydream. But this! This was really happening!
A few years later I bought a tiny crystal radio for 25 cents (that was the deluxe model: the simpler cat's whisker cost a dime), and the only catch was that it required 100 feet of copper wire antenna.
I dispatched my mother to Allen's again for 50 feet of insulated wire and spent an entire day stripping the cover from the two strands. It took another morning to string the bare wire under the eaves and across to the chicken house.
That night, long after we had all been pulled away from the regular radio in the living room and sent to bed, I put on my headphones (found in a dump: some neighbors had discarded their crystal set), twisted the little knobs on my Johnson Smith radio and almost jumped out of my skin. There it was, WIBX in Utica, 12 miles away. Later I found stations as far off as Montreal, all in French (it was where I got my terrible French accent), and one clear night, Kansas City.
That was the radio on which I used to listen to something called the Grouch Club at 6 a.m. Its musical signature was the opening of a particularly lugubrious Shostakovitch prelude which intrigued me so much I bought the record of it, the flip side of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. Thus I discovered classical music.
And all for 25 cents.
It wasn't just the astonishing wealth of items that the Johnson Smith catalogue described in tiny print, it was the vision of a strange, dark, raunchy America, glimpses of a grown-up life that had no resemblance at all to our pleasant rural anticipations.
There were lots of guns, from the Vest Pocket Young America model, "very popular with cyclists" ($7.50), to the Automatic Break-Open Target Revolver, which "develops poise, accuracy, alertness, confidence and skill, does not overtax the muscles and does not require training." Besides, "a holdup man may threaten, a mad dog at large . . . riots may break out, pillagers break into your home, war may come . . ."
There were tear-gas fountain pens, brass knuckles, switchblades, spring steel "police clubs," not to mention jujitsu courses and home exercisers. For us kids there was the Royal Water Pistol. "The Tramp's Terror: the Cyclist's Safeguard. Painful But Harmless" (because you loaded it with ammonia).
You could buy badges identifying you as a Bootleg Inspector, Shimmy inspector, Hootch Inspector or announcing that "You Can't Vamp Me," "I Could Jazz All Night," "Oh Honey Give Me Some" and other mysteries.
There were exploding cigars, exploding matches, stink bombs, squirting pencils, a vast array of parlor tricks including cards you could read from the back ("an endless amount of amusement"), joy buzzers, whoopee cushions and joke sore thumbs, ears, noses, feet, black eyes and missing teeth.
Surely no single item stirred dreams of glory as much as the 10-cent Ventrillo, a small reed device you hid at the roof of your mouth to become a ventriloquist.
Boys! Boys! Boys! THROW YOUR VOICE . . . into a trunk, under the bed, under a table, back of the door, into a desk at school, or anywhere. You get lots of fun fooling the teacher, policeman, pedlers . . ." The drawing shows a boy causing his Milquetoast father to sem to tell a cop, "Get outta my way, Fathead, before I punch your nose."
In the small print you read that the Ventrillo "is used in connection" with the ventriloquism for imitating bird calls and was not actually a shortcut to that arcane art. But who could care about a detail like that?
Those drawings were printed on the memories of millions of American boys, the crude engravings so over-worked through the decades that they became mere black blots, but still instantly identifiable to a connoisseur.
Some apparently were lifted from a German novelty catalogue, as in the picture for the Wailing Cry, a cousin of the Whoopee Cushion: The victim is shouting "Himmel!" and his friend is saying, "Max, you are sitting on Tabby." The humor throughout is Teutonic.
Oh, the wonders of Johnson Smith. Can you imagine a player roll harmonica ($2.50) with extra rolls ranging from "Annie Laurie" to "Somewhere a Voice Is Calling"? How about the famous Seebackroscope, or Pocket Detective ("If you fear your best girl is flirting with the other fellow, place the Seebackroscope to your eye . . ."? Or the 9-in-1 Opera Glass Novelty, which becomes a folding opera glass, telescope, pocket compass, mirror, reading glass, magnifying glass, stereoscope, microscope and laryngoscope? Or the Magic Nose Flute (capable of the most charming modulations")?
And the books: "Mystery of Love-Making Solved"; "Every Boy His Own Toy-Maker"; and "How to Pitch Curves" for 25 cents, featuring the wisdom of Christy Mathewson, Joe Wood, Nap Rucker, Ed Walsh and Walter Johnson, "the mainstay of the Washington team."
Most fascinating by far were the exposes: "From Dance Hall to White Slavery," "From Ball Room to Hell," by an ex-dancing master. "Thousands of young girls trapped every year . . . terrible and startling stories of actual things just as they happened, in plain unvarnished statements" and including such chapter headings as "The Tragedy of the Wall Flower, The Tragedy of the Factory Girl, The Tragedy of the Girl From the Country, The Tragedy of Stefa, the little Immigrant . . . Taken From Actual Life, Greatest Crime in the World's History . . ."
What did it mean? What was the greatest crime? What was this "insatiable maw into which new blood must be poured, more young innocents devoured?" We never quite had the nerve to send for the books, but how we studied those descriptions.
Almost as interesting was the Book of Great Secrets, One Thousand Ways of Getting RICH! (25 cents) which told how to make everything from hair restorer to candy to horse liniment. And the personality books: "How to Read People's Minds" or the big one, "Personal Magnetism," for all of $2.50, which promised "Age-Old Secrets of Supreme Mental and Magnetic Power, Used by Great Men and Women for Centuries. Now Revealed to the Public . . . The Magnetic Life! The Abundant Life! Power in Business. Charm in Society . . . Sex Magnetism . . ."
A kid could do a lot with that. It was almost as good as hypnotism. (The illustration for the hypnotism books was one of the rare photographs in the catalogue and featured a fierce-looking man in a wing collar darting lightning flashes at a stoned woman in a low evening gown. With puberty just around the corner, this picture could start a rather elaborate chain of thought.)
Alfred Johnson Smith founded the firm in 1914 in Chicago and with his two sons ran it until his death in 1948. One son, Paul, is still active in the business, but the current president is Paul Hoenle, who regrets that postal rules forbid the mailing of sneezing and itching powder, BB guns, sling-shots, smoke bombs and other volatile items.
"We wonder what is happening to us," he writes. "Buried under laws, regulations, commissions, agencies, we find that even our catalogue copy begins to suffer from lack of imagination . . ."
Well, the catalogue is not what it was, of course. What is? It has 88 pages, some with color photos, and almost none of the quaint old illustrations. A number of laugh-getters from the '20s remain, like imitation vomit, Awful taste Gum, funny toilet paper and the pop-up necktie ("greatest comedy gag of the century!"), but today the emphasis is on yoga and karate handbooks, CB dictionaries, Star Trek masks and radio controlled model cars.
Prices have gone modern too: In 1929 you could get a pocket adding machine and magic writing pad for $1.50 - you worked it with a stylus like an abacus. Today the pocket secretary calculator, chronometer, personal alarm and stopwatch costs $49.95.
Johnson Smith may sell up-to-date items, but it has never lost sight of its basic audience, the people who grew up with that horrible, vulgar, scandalous, mendacious, marvelous old catalogue, burned by mothers from coast to coast: You still can buy a reprint of the 1929 Old Time Catalogue Book - "uproarious novelty items of the wild and wacky '20s, '30s and '40s, every description so entertainingly written and uniquely illustrated that you'll see why Johnson Smith has been the world's leading supplier of novelties since 1914 . . ." Price: 65 cents.