Remembering JOHNSON SMITH & COMPANY
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
My mother had an expression that she used habitually, I don’t know why it came to mind just now. The saying was intended to demean. “Small things amuse small minds.” she’d say. Looking back now, I agree. Small things, mere trifles really, most certainly, amused my small mind, and me, and kept us entertained. Even as a kid, I possessed an acquisitive trait. A simple trip to the dime store became a treasure hunt for me. And, lo and behold, I’d always find something, some triviality that pleased my eye aesthetically, and bring it home with me. I still have some of these small treasures, objects of affection that caught my attention, when I was ten years old, and went into my box of special things.
The box, itself, was a beige leatherette overnight case that my mother threw away, and I adopted and decorated with hand painted images of Al Capp’s Shmoo. I took it with me when we traveled, as if, the non-utilitarian trifles it contained were so essential that I could not leave, or live, without them, and were too valuable to remain at home alone. It is gone now. When I went to France, my mother, out of spite, threw her overnight case away, a second time, this time for keeps, with many of my fondest memories inside.
Miraculously, a few of the small treasures it once held remain. I found an old cigar box full of them the other day. Riffling through its contents, I realize that each object I retained had a tiny bit of Magic in it, a touch of the exotic, even the erotic. All these precious tiny objects hinted that, beyond the borders of the humdrum world of my ordinary childhood, the Universe might, hopefully, contain more wonders than my young eyes had yet seen.
A favorite among them was, and is, this beautiful Magnetic Circus. It cost just a dime in the dime store. And, unlike the transitory toys of today, it was always there, always available in the five and ten cent store, year after year.
And I remember the lesson that it taught me: Once removed from the card, the tiny tin objects lost much of their enchantment. It was the total package, the placement and the colors and the surreal contrast of shapes and sizes, not the fact that the small pieces were magnetic that made them so attractive. The real Magic lay in the way the diverse elements were displayed. And when I discovered that once the metal staples were pried open, and “Ringo the Hoop,” “Pinto the Pony” and “Stupo the Clown” were set free, I could never put them back again. I made sure I got another, and kept it all together. And I put it in my box of special things. Because of that, it has remained intact, to this day. Even the tiny metal rod is still in place, just as it was packaged, not attached to anything, but clinging tenaciously to the magnet, for over sixty years. Intact, as well, is my early realization that, sometimes, the way things are displayed is “everything.”
Exploring farther, I discover an ancient postcard with the provocative words “Greetings from Cony Island," spelled out in letters so exciting that they make one’s heart beat faster. God knows, where I acquired this! The reverse side bears a penny stamp, and a postmark, indicating that it was mailed to “Miss Anna Russell” on 14th Street in NYC, from Brooklyn, NY, on Aug. 11, 1909.
And, as I pick it up, I see beneath it, more remnants, of my childhood, a tiny peep show that squirts a stream of water in the viewer’s eye, my old Joy Buzzer, still able to Buzz, and a curious novelty, a small flat circular container made of celluloid. It is no larger than a silver dollar and contains a scene, in which a tiny boy, like baby Moses, is discovered, among the bulrushes by a river. And, when the device is filled with a small amount of water, and squeezed, the tiny figure, also made of celluloid, pees into the stream.
And, Oh my God! Here’s “Hotsy Totsy” in her original “Fanny Dance”. This precious tiny flip book offers an innocent and delightfully animated peek into how I imagined the adult world would be. As one flips through the pages, the beautifully drawn dancer artfully articulates her fans. She does not reveal a lot. But in “The End”, we see her fanny. How deliriously naughty!
And suddenly I remember where I obtained many of these extraordinary things: “JOHNSON SMITH & COMPANY!”
Detroit was, actually, Novelty Central of the USA. Most notably, it was the new home of the notorious Johnson Smith & Company. They produced the ultimate novelty catalogue, over an inch thick, mail order only. Its cover proclaimed that the book contained 9,000 novelties. Johnson Smith & Company was the Sears and Roebuck of Schlock! They had moved to Detroit in 1935, from Racine Wisconsin, where they had been doing business since 1914, continuing through the Roaring Twenties. And much of the stuff they still sold in the 1940s, dated from those early days. The Johnson Smith catalogue was like a time machine, a Noah’s Ark of Novelties, where many an amazing oddity had weathered the storm of two World Wars, and remained onboard, for an eternity.
I just went to the bookshelf and pulled out a couple of copies of their catalogue. I have several, dating from the early 50s, going back to the mid-20s, in their Racine Wisconsin days. I notice that the paper was of a higher quality, back then, as was some of the merchandise. The pages have remained bright white, while those printed later, in Detroit, have darkened considerably with age.
My God! What a revealing trip down memory lane! I see the very ad for “Hotsy Totsy” in her Original “Fanny Dance”. Yes, that is where I acquired that amusing novelty. I definitely got her from Johnson Smith, for just ten cents. Surely, that was one item that, unlike most, did not disappoint. The drawings were truly charming, her sweet innocence, disarming! The animation was delicious, almost on a par with Disney. I’m scanning and posting the ad here.
Oh, I was about to crop the Fanny Dance ad, along the bottom, no pun intended, when I noticed the ad for “Surprise Chocolates”, directly below it on the page. Is it just my imagination, or did Subliminal Advertising exist in the 1930s? Is this illustration a commentary on how hot Hotsy Totsy might be, or simply how exciting a box of Surprise Chocolates is? I can’t make up my mind. Maybe there’s a clue in Hotsy’s final line, which mentions “6 inches of spicy, piquant entertainment!” Hummm! I decided to leave the ad in place, for you to decide. Looks like the “Pop-Eyed Scull has already made up its mind. “No Butts about it”, says the Cigarette Stub on the other side. This page offers a taste of the depth of Secret Symbolism, implied through words and pictures, in the Johnson Smith Catalogue. It lies just beneath the surface, and, from time to time, raises its ugly head.
So, don’t be Surprised! There was no telling what one might find, as they turned the pages of the Johnson Smith catalogue. And it wasn’t all just Novelties. There were many offerings of a more elegant nature. For instance, what lady could resist a stylish Cleopatra Cigarette Holder. It was “The Queen of Cigarette Holders”, according to the ad. And, who wouldn’t want to insert their cigarette in Cleopatra’s Asp?
And what red blooded American guy wouldn’t want to put the barrel of a smoking gun in his mouth? This novelty might have been somewhat prophetic. In those days, few realized that smoking is a great way to commit suicide. Back then, smoking was "all the rage", and it occupied, page after page, of the Johnson Smith catalogue.
One Smokers accessory that was was bound to be popular was the “Snapping Cigarette Case", a subtle “way of discouraging the persistent Cigarette borrower." And "the “snapper” mechanism was not liable to get out of order”. 25 cents seems like a good investment considering all one would save in cigarettes. I picked this ad, because I like the art. The gentlemanly smokers, are so suavely debonair, in contrast to the chubby moocher, who is loudly dressed and vulgar. The artist is an astute observer of stereotypes and fashions of the time. Like many a victim of a Johnson Smith practical joke, the persistent borrower levitates with surprise. While his pooch runs away, in fright.
Over time, the quality of Johnson Smith’s merchandise went down, and the prices rose. But the catalogue descriptions and uniquely tantalizing art, often with a distinctive comic flair, uniquely all its own, remained the same. The stuff that arrived in the mail, might not have looked like the picture anymore, but the catalogue art never changed. It embodied an iconic comic style, that was, in its own way, quite beautiful. Some of the illustrated practical jokes are exquisitely drawn. And much of the imagery, even though, it looks its age, has survived to still adorn a few of the remaining novelties one finds among the racks in Spencer
One classic is the Whoppee Cushion ad. That Iconic depiction of embarrassment has survived, burning itself into every practical joker’s mind. I like the final line, “It gives forth noises that can better be imagined than described!”
Peppered through the pages, is the work of an unknown illustrator whose work I greatly admire. I posted one above, The Snappy Cigarette case. I simply love the art. His practical joke illustrations capture the essence of the times, perhaps the late “teens” or early 1920s. The people he depicts are beautifully stylized caricatures of ordinary people, one might say stereotypes. Yet, each has a unique comic look; they are all “characters”, exuding personality. Their reactions are often extreme, being swept off their feet, and yet there is a reserve about the drawings that makes each figure iconic. This is as good a comic artist as I have ever seen. Just seeking examples of his work makes viewing these old catalogues a joy for me. I also like the fact that he registers everyone's reactions with little talk balloons. And everyone has something to say, including the pets. There is usually, at least, one animal in every scene. I would be pleased to learn that this artist had a career drawing cartoons, and that his work was not solely limited to the forgotten pages of Johnson Smith.
I will show you a few examples, not so much for the novelties they depict , but for the intriguing quality of his art. Here is a Classic, The Loaded Cigarette. These people are not just anybody; every person pictured is unique.
I actually had one of these Money Making Machines. The illusion is quite amazing. A secret strip of fabric is attached between the rollers. As the crank is turned, it transfers the fabric from one roller to the other. Real money is first loaded between the upper folds. When a sheet of paper, the size of a bill, is inserted from behind, the machine swallows the blank paper as it expells the real money, at the same time. When everything is lined up perfectly, the effect is stunning. Of course, it is not as dramatic as the situation in this illustration implies. The kid says, "Get him to make me a penny!" The pig adds," And me a pen!"
These characters are so well crafted: The young lady, who remarks that there are none of “those” (snakes) in this box, Mr. Perkins, her shy suitor, her marriage promoting Papa, making plans for fishing with his hoped for son-in-law, who one look tells us is not the outdoors type, her bratty brother, airborne in hysterics, his younger brother, giggling at seeing his bullying older sibling getting his comeuppance, and the wise cracking domestic, who remarks,” I told him candy would give him worms.” and, finally the “Snake” larger than life, and leering ominously. One look at these people, and we know them. They are self-explanatory, and could easily have been familiar characters in a daily comic strip. They are far too good to have spent their short lives, here, in only this one ad in Johnson Smith.
Bill, a persistent pencil borrower takes flight, to the delight of the gang in the office, the boss, the jovial employee, the persnickety bookkeeper, and the errand boy, who advises “try a piece of chalk!” Even the critical cat chimes in, from the confines of a wastebasket, remarking, “And he said he went to school!”
Last of all, this one is fascinating. I can’t believe I have forgotten what is in that box. I know I saw the actual gag, years ago, but don’t remember what “the World’s smallest one tube receiving set” might have been. A one tube receiving set was a common name for the newly invented device that we know as a radio. And what could it be that is so” horrid”? I admire the charming drawings, the different body types, and the way each person is reacting, including the cat, who exclaims that he’s "inquizitive!”
The Johnson Smith advertising copy was outrageous and hilarious. It never failed to make incredible claims, promising impossible things; or, on the other hand, neglecting to mention small details that gave the game away. The creative writing team that crafted these seductive ads could fill an entire page, describing all the tricks your Magic Moues might do, without ever mentioning the fact that the mouse, itself, was just a small piece of wax, or alluding to the “invisible” string.
This concept was, later, successfully merchandised as “Squirmles”
The copy writers rhapsodized over how amazed your friends would be, when they saw your dancing skeleton come alive, while you were clear across the room. I studied the ads for hours, trying, in vain, to figure out how these miracles could be achieved, while waiting for my package to arrive. And, all the while, I believed, believed the Magic could be real, and all these wonders might be true, and the skeleton, made out of some material they did not disclose, would really do all the things they promised it would do; and all for just a dime!
Admittedly, I was more than a little disappointed when the package finally arrived, and the skeleton turned to be a paper cut out, just like the ones sold everywhere on Halloween, and the secret that endowed it with life “while you were clear across the room”, was revealed to merely be a longer piece of string. In spite of these inevitable injections of reality, I kept the Faith and continued to believe that I’d have Better Luck, next time, and reordered from Johnson Smith, time, and time again.
Throughout my childhood, I remained a willing devotee to these masterpieces of false advertising, compiled, since long before my time, in this one mesmerizing book that, every year, was replenished and refined. It was a living testament to both my faith and gullibility. Furthermore, I was convinced that if I could just embrace the Gospel of Johnson Smith, I would come to understand the significance of every word, and the secrets they revealed, as well as those they hid. And, over time, I’d come to accept the theology, and believe that there really is True Magic, even in a disappointing piece of string, too thick to be invisible, and too short to reach across the room. Thus, I spent hours studying the catalogue, religiously. It was like a Bible to me, which is probably why I became a toy designer, and not a rabbi, or an Episcopalian minister, like my grandfather, the Reverend Charles Heckingbottom.
Although, Johnson Smith & Company was located in Detroit, right down by the Detroit River, on East Jefferson, it, nevertheless, took the stuff one ordered, well over, six weeks to arrive. The building, itself, was an ominous gray warehouse, uninviting, even foreboding, and yet, I longed to get inside. I regarded it with the reverence of a national shrine! Unfortunately, they were not open to the public. But many of the novelty shops along the downtown streets sold much of the same merchandise.
Paging through the pages of these catalogues, I am amazed at all the items advertised here that I still own, today. As I am embarking, elsewhere, on documenting my collection, I suddenly realize how daunting and inadequate that effort is destined to be. I could open any drawer, and fill a book with just the tiny things that I got from Johnson Smith.
As I already implied, many of the novelties I waited for so patiently were a disappointment when they actually arrived. Perhaps, they might have been better, early on, when the ads were drawn. Forty years later, the things that came often bore little resemblance to their pictures in the catalogue. Then again, what did I expect for a dime? On the other hand, some of the items were a pleasant surprise. They turned out to be everything they were claimed to be, and more. I’ll show you three of these.
The first is called “The Blonde in a Bathtub”. It was based on an earlier item that I believe was called "King Tut" in his sarcophagus. One could buy these in novelty shops, as well. I realize now, even more than I did then, what a marvel the Blonde in a Bathub really is. The sculpture is amazing, statuesque, iconic, elegantly stylized, refined and unmistakably erotic, a Willendorph Venus for modern times. And it is awesomely small, measuring only 2 ½ inches tall. I’ll reproduce it here, actual size, and then show it to you enlarged as well. I can also demonstrate how it operates, by magnetic attraction and its opposite. If you know the secret, she’ll stay in the bathtub securely, but if you don’t, shell jump out in a hurry, and refuse to go back in again. That was the aspect of the item that amused me as a kid. Today, it is the imagery that I appreciate.
The Blonde in a Bathtub comes from a time when small things were commonplace, and postage stamps were actually engraved by hand, minute and perfect. The plastic she is made of, no doubt, an early form of styrene, has a certain quality that resembles ivory, and the arc of the tub is reminiscent of a votive shrine. This is an image that could stand enlarging to life-size. Pass your mouse over her to see her jump out of the tub. The illusion is accurate. She jumps out, and in again, every bit as fast as this, in real life.
The second item I submit for your inspection is called The “ACROBATIC COUPLE”. Here’s a novelty that looks, at first glance, like everything Johnson Smith & Company claimed it would be. It’s all here, exactly as it was described: two figures enclosed between two pieces of semi-transparent glass in a circular frame one - and - a - half inches in diameter. So I guess I should be satisfied. The problem is, there is something seriously wrong with mine. I don’t think it’s working right. The ad said this “lively couple” are “Two Acrobats!” Well, I held the apparatus up to the light, as instructed, expecting to “see the frolicsome couple go through the most amazing stunts, equal to anything I ever saw on the stage”, like the ad said. And, frankly, NONE of the stunts they did looked the least bit ACROBATIC to me!
I certainly never saw anything like this on the stage! I looked at them for hours, as the ad suggested, and the word "acrobat" never even crossed my mind! Alas, I guess, 65 years later, is too late to ask to get my money back. And besides, 15 cents isn’t worth that much, these days. What do you think I should do? Do these look like ACROBATS to you?
Next, you are about to see a sight that few have ever seen. Of all the items that Johnson Smith & Company has ever sold, this is one of the most notorious, “THE MYSTERY MOVIE PIG”. It had pretty much disappeared by my time. I got this later, at an Antique show, many years ago. Incredibly, it has its original box with the secret of its mysterious motion, printed inside. Curiously, of all the “mysterious” items that were advertised in the Johnson Smith catalogues, The Mystery Movie Pig, was the only one, I know of, to disclose its secret, openly, right in the ad. I wonder if that is because the secret would, to some, be so disgusting that they would be appalled if they got this item in the mail, without being forewarned.
What animates the Mystery Pig? To put it bluntly, a live FLY, trapped inside, and struggling to survive. These pigs turn up, from time to time, and, inevitably, there is one or more dead flies, inside. How do they get in there? This is revolting too. There is a rubber plug in the pig’s butt. One must pull it out, shove in some "lively flies", then, insert the plug again.
Fortunately, through the miracle of the computer, I can replicate the effect of the mystery pig, "live!" And you are about to see it with your own eyes! The Mystery Movie Pig that you will meet, is actual size. He is directly below the ad. And he will demonstrate the spectacular effect of several flies, all inside, at the same time. As it says in the ad: "This piggy really Goes to Town!" The Mystery Movie Pig gives a whole new meaning to the expression: “If Pigs Could FLY!"
Disclaimer: No insects were harmed in the making of this video.
I’m digging deeper, now, rummaging through the residue of a childhood that is so far away, and yet, still feels like yesterday. At the very bottom of the cigar box, I discover, scattered among the remaining remnants, a group of tiny figures. And, suddenly, this trip down memory lane is transformed into a guilt trip instead. The memory of a crime that I committed, seventy one years ago, comes back to haunt me. For I stole a similar set of figures, almost identical to these, when I was four. And, ever since, I have carried with me, both the guilt and the elation of that petty theft. I never spoke of this to anyone, until now.
The crime took place in the basement of a neighbor’s house, just along the street from my own, in Berkley Michigan, on the eve of the Second World War. It was a rare occasion for me, playing with one of the kids in my neighborhood, and even more so, being invited into his home. For, being Jewish, and living in the shadow of the ultimate anti-Semitic edifice in America, Father Conklin’s Shrine of the Little Flower, I was seldom a welcome guest, anywhere, along the street, on which I lived. The kid, himself, must have let me in, and his parents might not have realized I was there.
We were in his basement, digging through cardboard boxes of old toys and stuff, when I saw them. They were just lying there, all jumbled up, and looking abandoned, in the bottom of a box of junk, small insignificant and powerful, the figures of the Christian Nativity, half a dozen tiny precious effigies, made out of clay, hardly bigger than an inch, and calling out to me. I knew exactly what they were; don’t ask me how. It was a mystery to me, then, as it is now.
And I knew that these tiny icons were forbidden. That was the entire issue. The fact that they did not belong to me was not part of the equation. It was only the realization that not being able to possess something like these was all part of what made me an outcast of society, different from the other kids. I wanted them desperately. By some miracle, my playmate left the room to have a pee, and I was momentarily alone. Realizing this was my chance, the only one that I might ever have, with one mighty grab, I scooped them up. They all fit easily in my small hand. And put them in my pocket. My friend never noticed they were gone.
Of course, nobody knew that I had stolen them, nor did anybody, including my parents, ask me where I got them. The secret, and the guilt, was mine to bear, alone. But I was too young to really understand. The joy of possessing them temporarily overcame all consciousness of guilt. And I came to cherish these small figures, openly and unashamedly.
I remember sitting on my Uncle Mark’s warm friendly lap, one summer evening on the screened in porch of our brick house at Berkley. I even remember the chair that we were sitting in, large, tall-backed, almost throne-like, and woven of rattan. And I can recall exactly where the chair was placed, as well. The porch had semicircular brick arches with screens between; It was directly in the arc of one of these. Beside us, was a lamp with a shade made from the outer casing of the top half of a coconut, with multicolored strands of tiny glass beads, dangling down, like a glass grass hula skirt, encircling the waistline of the shade, and glimmering in the darkening twilight. And I was showing him the figures of the crèche, slowly, one by one, and proudly reciting their names, Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, the three Wise Men! Being the most religious of all the 13 siblings in the Birnkrant baker’s dozen, Uncle Mark was mortified. I knew that I was shocking him, and I was loving every minute of it.
I played with “my” Nativity set a lot that year. I can still visualize the Holy Family on the living room floor, interacting with a battalion of crudely cast lead soldiers, brought into my life by the War. That year, and every year, thereafter, I found a special place of honor for Jesus and his family, among the sparkling mica covered cotton snow, under the Christmas tree. And to ease the guilt of having stolen them, I managed to convince myself that God, himself, intended them for me.
As I grew older, slowly but surely, the guilt crept back again. By then, my little Nativity set had joined the other Yuletide decorations to be packed away, throughout the year, unseen, until the Holidays. And each year, as I trimmed the tree, I found that I could no longer look at them, without remembering how I got them. Eventually, the pleasure they once brought me was replaced by shame. Soon after that, they disappeared.
They must have been missing for several years, for I vividly recall that when I discovered this set, while bicycling through Spain, at 18, it seemed like a long time since I had last seen them. I was amazed that these substitutes were so hauntingly the same. It was a little like a miracle, Heaven sent, and I was thrilled to have them back again. I purchased them for only a few pesetas. The shop displayed a multitude of spectacular things made out of clay. This was their humblest offering, and the least expensive. I carried these small figures, carefully wrapped, on the back of my bike for the remainder of the summer, feeling that I had been issued a reprieve! This time, they belonged to me, legitimately.
Rediscovering these, abandoned and forgotten in the bottom of this old wooden cigar box, today, and my emotional response to seeing them, made me realize that the guilt has never fully gone away. Here I am, still feeling the repercussions of a sin that I committed, seventy years ago, when I was only four. Such is the power of small things.