My uncle Norm was an occasional comic book reader as a kid in the seventies. Somehow those comic books were saved from the trash bin for years (most likely because my grandmother never threw anything away) and I was thus able to spend part of my youth reading them.
Of course what always caught my eye briefly were the ads for cheap novelties that were sprinkled throughout the magazine. More specifically, I wondered what I would get if I actually placed an order. I longed for the Ed Roth Rat Fink models and wondered what the shrunken head would look like. I believe I may have attempted to outwit time and inflation and sent in an order for something ten years after the ad first appeared, but to my knowledge I never received anything.
(quick aside: when I was in college my roommate bought some Sea Monkeys for pets. We forgot to feed them regularly and thus the tank became a Darwinian experiment, as the huge colony dwindled to one hardy brine shrimp. This was my only brush with this stuff.)
“Mail Order Mysteries” by Kirk Demarais is a fun and compelling look at what you received in the mail when you replied to those ads. In addition to reproducing the original ads, the author scoured the internet for people selling these treasures, photographed them, and paired the original ad with the junk you actually got. And more often than not, it WAS junk, even though the ad promised something a lot more exciting – something that would truly scare your friends, amaze your family, or humiliate strangers. You could create a whole course on deceptive advertising based on these ads which, upon a second read, deliver exactly what was promised.
There’s no question these companies knew exactly who their market was. Take the Charles Atlas company, for instance, which promised quick results that you could achieve in your own home. Would there be anything more appealing to a gawky adolescent than the ability to become “husky” without being ridiculed while doing so? Spy equipment, super powers, all the stuff of the the teen years.
I was struck by two things while reading “Mail Order Mysteries” which, in keeping with the subject matter, was entirely different than the book I thought I was getting (unlike the subject matter, however, I was pleasantly surprised.) One was that there are people out there who not only collected this stuff but actually had the foresight to keep what so obviously only provided a few minute’s worth of entertainment for posterity. The other is how hard it would be to fleece people in this way today. There would be a website out there put together by some frustrated, yet computer savvy kid (and many comic book reader are exactly that) dedicated to exposing these charlatans. If not sure the comic book novelty market would work today, especially since technology has provided us with plenty of other ways to bilk people out of their money.
Perhaps, though, these trinkets taught kids two important traits: hope that things would be as good as we wish coupled with the realization that in most cases, we will be sadly underwhelmed. Just ask anyone that ordered a pair of X-Ray Spex with the promise of clandestinely looking at womens’ undergarments, only to find feathers that refract light to create suggestive silhouettes.