December 06, 2011
THE "LOST" MAIL-ORDER MYSTERIES
As I worked on the layouts for my book Mail-Order Mysteries, the limited number of pages quickly became my enemy. In fact, early in the process Kevin Toyama, my amazing editor, was granted a request to bump up the page count to better accommodate all the goodies. But even with the added space there were a number of items that didn't make it. Some never even appeared in the rough layouts and some kept getting shifted around before finally getting cut at the last minute. But thanks to the internet these images needn't go unseen, actually you will be looking at them in just a few seconds!
I should clarify that none of the deleted products would have received a write-up, rather they were going to serve as little extras throughout the book.
12 Ivory Elephants in a Bean- Of all the omissions this one is probably the most heartbreaking for me. It's such an awesomely bizarre product and I've talked to a number of people who are very enthusiastic about them. They were available apart from comic advertising, and I think they're actually still being produced. As you see the "elephants" are nothing more than rectangular flecks of ivory with a few slits in them for appendages. Now that I think of it I'm not sure why I didn't make these a full page entry to begin with. Stupid, stupid!!
Fully Furnished Doll House- This is another regrettable cut mainly because it was a pretty popular ad and it exemplifies the "it's actually made of cardboard" principle. It actually came with a little packet of seeds for growing a real "lawn." This belongs to my friend Eddie of HouseOfTheUnusual.com who supplied a lot of the rarest stuff in the book.
Whack Jack Tension Reliever- This is a fun item but the poor guy already looks so world-weary that it doesn't feel right to smash him. I remember these being sold in my mom's catalogs like Lillian Vernon and Harriet Carter.
Spook Hand- I love the great illustrations and the spooky approach. These were available in monster magazines as well as comics. The Spook Hand was a product of H. Fishlove, makers of fake vomit and jumbo sunglasses. This was a part of a really cool "party prank" kit that I demonstrated here.
Franco American's Shock Book- A classic item, but I'd already covered plenty of pranks. Unlike the Joy Buzzer which simply vibrates, the Shock Book really gives a mild electric shock. (courtesy of Eddie at HouseOfTheUnusual.com)
The Secret Agent Periscope- It's cool but I'd already included the Secret Spy Scope which was a comic book staple for years. Plus, this ad didn't appear very often. It works better than the Spy Scope and seems a bit more practical especially considering the Spy Scope's weak magnification. However the mirror in mine has been dislodged so I don't spend nearly as much time at my neighbor's privacy fence.
Moto-Bot- Being from 1985 this is the most recent Mail-Order Mystery but that's the main reason it didn't quite gel with the rest of the stuff in the book.
Do I even have to mention that it's a cheap GoBots/Transformers knock-off? Oops, too late. I did make certain to find the exact model that's pictured in the ad, a fact I'm both proud and ashamed of. Say, I'll bet I could secure the Moto-Bots film rights for a song.
Martial Arts Patches- These garden variety patches are the kind of thing I would have worn thinking it would scare off adversaries, only to discover they create a bully-tempting effect.
Flipit Frankenstein- I've always liked this thing because for one it's Frankenstein, and it's also sort of a hybrid of a couple types of comic book novelties. Giant monsters in comic offers were always either balloons or two dimensional images and this is both. But the Flipits are to be commended for their forthright advertising and use of officially licensed characters.
These guys are wonderful but I didn't have a full ad for them. The illustration above shows up as a design element on a full page advert for an outfit called the "House of Laffs." I've seen them available in novelty distribution catalogs but never direct-to-consumer. You may wonder why this matters. I have no idea. Incidentally, the devil head is very similar to the one that appears on The Twilight Zone episode with William Shatner and the Mystic Seer fortune telling machine.
Bleeding Skull Candle- As it is, the book is populated with quite a lot of skulls but one really shouldn't put a limit on such a thing. (a skull-cap... brilliant!) I bought one of these only to discover that it was slightly misshapen so I used a heat-based skull re-shaping treatment that I developed myself. I ended up ruining it. So months later I found another one at an almost decent price and there he is. Add those up (plus shipping) and that's over fifty bucks I spent for what turned out to be a nice blog decoration. I don't mean to sound bitter but that's roughly twice my annual skull candle budget.
150 Civil War Soldiers- This is a nifty set with a great ad, but in the soldier section the book already covers WWII Army men, Revolutionary Soldiers, Roman Soldiers, Knights in armor, and Pirates. For some reason these have the honor of being even flimsier and more poorly crafted than any of the others.
Abracadabra catalog- Funny how the illustration in the ad looks oversimplified when actually it's almost photo-realistic aside from the exaggerated colors. (courtesy of Eddie at HouseOfTheUnusual.com)
250 Magic Tricks- Yup, it's a magic book much like the one in the picture. I must say that swami guy in the ad sure looks amazing.
The Apple Worm Bank- This one is missed because it rings familiar with many people. The fact that it was widely available is actually one of the reasons I didn't give it full coverage, and I already included a couple other coin banks. Photography-wise I was quite pleased with my chalkboard/school desk backdrop, smug even. Thus the adage "pride comes before the fall."
And here's a photograph that there just wasn't a place for. In the early 1990s my pal Eddie (yes, of the House of the Unusual) revived a mail-order company called the Fun Factory. Their ads appeared in DC comics and Eddie tore open envelopes stuffed with change and fulfilled the orders with classic funmakers. This was the last time many of these things would ever be found in the pages of comic books. Anyway, the photo is a stack of actual coupons that were mailed in from kids all over the country.
This seems like an appropriate place to share a few behind the scenes photos too. Here's a shot of one of my state of the art photography studios...
And here's the picture I took which does appear in the book...
Here's my portable set up that I hauled up to New Jersey where my friend Eddie lives (he runs some web site, I'll have to look that up.) Those utility lamps cost upwards of six dollars (or one fifth the price of a vintage skull candle).
The setup consists of a light tent, a laptop, a power strip, extension chords and a scanner, everything you need to give the TSA cause to search you at every opportunity. When I arrived home the scanner had magically transformed into a plastic box full of glass shards.
Here's me in my kitchen setting up a shot of "floating" magic tricks...
After some photoshopping, here's the result...
For the shot of the "Smokie Pet," a plastic dog that smokes fake cigarettes that you really light, I thought it would be funny to photograph him standing on a bed of ashes in front of a raging fire (Get it? Because kids could burn down their houses.) Here was my solution which took hours to set up...
I managed to snap the photo before that cardboard box ignited and fell out of the fireplace. It didn't cause any damage because I doused it with a precautionary bucket of water. The gallons of ash-water required much effort to clean up, but I got my precious shot...
Lastly, there are another set of items that I consider "lost." As I compiled the products for the book I often asked myself "What am I missing that folks will want to see?" Now that I've heard so much great feedback I can answer that. The most asked-about items that are not covered are the "build your own hovercraft plans" and the "monkey in a tea cup."
I'm well aware of the ad for the do-it-yourself hovercraft but since I already had the remote control hovercraft represented as well as several sets of plans, I didn't include them. I even had access to these very plans. You see, I have this friend named Eddie who owns them.
There were many monkey ads but the tea cup really stuck in the collective memory. These "pets" were indeed real, often causing harm to their new owners when first released. Ideally I hoped to get my hands on a photo of a genuine mail-order monkey but that never happened. I was tempted to use a stock photo of a Rhesus or Squirrel monkey, but I eventually decided that everyone knows what a monkey looks like. (That's the same reason I didn't cover the 411 piece fishing set, one of the hoped-for items of an Amazon reviewer.)
This concludes our tour of the extraneous mail-order mysteries. I hope you had as much fun viewing them as I did researching, buying, photographing and then deleting them.