Monday, April 11, 2011

Johnson Smith & Company Catalog No. 148 (1938)


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As promised, another McCoy scan for y'all today, and, boy, howdy, is it a load of fun. I've shared this another place or two without much response, but I think there are a whole lot of people out there that will get a big kick out of this cool novelty catalog. At 581 pages, it's a big file (not to mention a big scanning project, thanks McCoy!). You can get it at sendspace here.

I can hardly imagine the glee a child (or impish adult) experienced thumbing this great selection of novelties. Alfred Johnson Smith was born in England in 1885 but moved to Brisbane, Australia, at the age of 2, and as a young man he began a small mail-order service selling rubber stamps through magazines and circulars. In his early 20s he moves to Sydney and expands his business to include a whole range of imported novelties. In 1914, he comes to Chicago to make his mark in America and starts afresh here be selling whoopee cushions from the trunk of his car and begins his American publishing career with a 64 page catalog. By 1922, Smith's catalog expands to 400 pages, and he employs 150 people. In 1923 the catalog is 576 pages long with a print run of 100,000. This large catalog would continue to be produced until wartime pressures in 1941 put an end to the period of the classic catalog, so this 1938 example McCoy has scanned is a late example. Comic aficionados probably recognize the company name from ads that have run in comics through the years (including on the inside covers of the first issue of Superman - here's the inside back cover as reprinted in DC's Limited Collector's Edition 61):



And, indeed, the company still sells novelties today. You can visit their websites and see their family of catalogs here. A wiki with a fuller timeline on the history of the company is here.

In my hometown, we had a toy store that had a nice selection of novelty items, and I dropped many a dollar in there for items similar to the ones within this catalog, I'd have loved to come across a big catalog like this There's a little of everything in here, and I'll try to put up a nice selection of samples. The organization of the catalog is actually very efficient, and like items are grouped together in a very sensible manner. The first pages include some cartoon sorts of drawings, and this one sort of hops out at you:


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It's hard to tell what's going on here with the racial humor, but maybe there is at least a smidgeon of pathos involved. There's no point in whitewashing the past, though, as some items in the catalog are flat out offensive to the modern reader. It may be hard not to giggle at an item like this one:



But some of the other items are cringe-inducing.



The realm of humor is a very complex area in understanding race, admittedly. Race humor at its best seems to be a bridge towards understanding each other or cutting through the bullshit with satire (Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, etc.), but it can also a vestige of backwards attitudes. My own experiences clearly demonstrate that there are those that will propagate backwards ideas in racial jokes that they'd never just come right out and say. Speaking of this tradition of race jokes, there's some ads in the catalog for a line of novelty books that seem to spread the ball around as far as targets of racial humor go:

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I'm pretty sure these are books from the Wehman Bros' Handy Series, odd, itty bitty books of jokes for a dime. I've got some examples (not all the books are racial humor, there are also books of magic, monologues, society jokes, etc.) I'll post when I get around to scanning them. But enough on the racial unpleasantness - I guess I post this stuff just because it jumps out at me.

Beyond the chameleons, there's other critters for sale. The monkey in a cup is always one of my favorite comics ads

I guess this is how the myth (?) of alligators in the sewers of NY started, eh?


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Turtles and frogs as childhood pets I've heard of, but here's one you can get with your name painted on the shell...


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or the old standard, ants!


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And speaking of standards, how about the variety of novelty that you share with friends? Some of the items in here will never go out of style.


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Rubber food, nyuk nyuk. Want a banana?


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I recall putting an exploding charge in the end of one of my ma's cigarettes once. Once.


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In the age of the fear of terrorism, I'm not sure if this one is such a good idea...


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How many different ways can you use the surprise snake gag? Hmm...



But in addition to animals and gags, there are so many other items in this catalog. I'll briefly try to lay out the spectrum.

There's a wide variety of instruments and "learn to play" booklets and tools. While some of the instruments within are strictly junk, there are some that look playable enough. Many of the blues greats got their first instruments out of Sears catalogs and the like, one of the only ways to get an affordable instrument shipped out into the middle of Mississippi.


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Two harmonicas in one! 8 inches long??


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Kazoomania, possibly the most annoying instrument ever created


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Hillbilly music! The sweet potato?!


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And not just the instruments themselves, there's also a wide variety of instructional material. You too can learn piano - in just 30 minutes!


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I'm running out of typing time tonight, but trust me there's something in here for everyone. There's a variety of costumes and disguises


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and smoking accessories - lighters, pipes, rolling implements, ash trays, smoke smoke smoke


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and bows, knives, and guns for the kiddies! The guns are air guns and blank guns. In the back of the pulps you could get the real deal for super cheap. Hard to beat the classic daisy in a first bb gun.


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Jewelry


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Information on communing with the dead o.O


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C'mon. the whole family can do it.


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Cameras of all stripes, even spy models.


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You, too, can be an artist


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There are also watches, belts, billfolds, pens, typewriters, printing implements, adding machines, accountant's tools, stamps, key chains, hosiery, custom badges, licenses, and certificates, exercise equipment, photographic accessories, projectors, 16mm films, binoculars and surveillance equipment, telescopes, microscopes, shavers and razors, cash registers and safes, puzzles and games, lamps, perfumes and incense, cards and fortune telling items, magic tricks, books of many, many stripes, sheet music, any so many other items it boggles the mind. Damn, I'd love to of had this sort of thing as a kid...Thanks to McCoy for scanning it for me now! One of the fun things about the hobby is when something you haven't thought of scanning shows up - I love it.

One last image - the back cover - great colors!


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7 comments:

greg said...

that's some pretty extraordinary stuff: the good luck ring and the negro kit especially.

Mark said...

So many childhood fantasies were conjured up by these Johnson Smith ads on the back of comic books when I was young.
Thanks for your time & effort in scanning this - I recently acquired an original 1929 (#135)catalog and you're right, some of the ads make you cringe with their insensitivity.

Johnson Smith said...

Unfortunately, the scanned full files are no longer available at either link. Would you have anywhere else we could download them from?

- Webmaster @ the current, still very active Johnson Smith Company

darwination said...

Certainly! Thank you for pointing out the dead links. I've put it back up again here:

http://hotfile.com/dl/143550213/c8f07b3/Johnson_Smith__Company_Catalog_No._148_(1938).cbr.html

This is my first time dealing with this file host. On the rare occasion I shared a larger file, I had been using the now notorious Megaupload, and now all their links are belly up. Hopefully this service is convenient for downloaders like MU was.


If anyone runs across dead links like these were, please feel free to point it out in comments or email me @ darwination48@gmail.com and I will happily make a new link.

Bob Tuttle said...

I was a fan of Johnson Smith and when I lived in Detroit 1939-1940, I went to their location on Jefferson Avenue to see all those wonderous items. I went in to a long hall with a counter at the end and that was Johnson Smith. No displays at all. You just odered from the catalog.

Mike said...

Hotfile has been taken down, can you please repost to a different site? Thanks!

darwination said...

Link replaced!