December 06, 2011


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 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

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

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.


Dex said...

This was a great post for me, reminding me of things I actually had for a change!

I had the apple bank and periscope. My parents had the shock Joke Book. I remember when we first got it and were forcing it on everyone that came to the house. Funny stuff!

Jamey Clayberg said...

Great behind the scenes stuff! All this time I thought I never had a comic-ad item but we had an Apple Worm Bank I realize.

C. Elam said...

I smell sequel! Well, I doubt that would be commercially viable, but I'd sure buy it!

I just got my copy of the book yesterday, and this shows up after adding Secret Fun Blog to my blogroll. Surely, it was meant to be.

Marcus said...

Oh, I wanted those Civil War soldiers when I was a kid. I would have been so disappointed if I got them.

Thanks for sharing!

Jody B. said...

Yay! These are like DVD bonus features for the book! Very cool!

Stefan Jones said...

The elephants are a big disappointment. It's like they hardly tried!

I'd have loved to see more of the dollhouse. What was the promised electrical lighting? Were the grass seeds glued to a sheet representing the lawn?

Raymond Castile said...

My brother had the elephants in a bean. I wouldn't be surprised if they are still in a drawer somewhere.

Thanks for the behind the scenes shots! I like seeing how you set up your shots.

Drunk stories said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kirk D. said...

Dex1138- That's a surprisingly high ratio of owned items from this one post. I can surmise that your childhood was a good one.

Jamey- You narrowly made it into the had a comic item club!

C. elam- Thanks for getting the book! Yes I should make a sequel for the truly hardcore collectors. It will be fifteen pages and cost $150. Limited Edition with hologram of authenticity too!

Marcus- Glad I could help you understand your wise decision.

jody b- yes, please print these out and tape them in your copy and then you may write Criterion on the cover.

Stefan- great questions there, but I don't actually remember seeing the electrical system or the lawn, or even the family. Now I'm curious as well.

Raymond- you're welcome! and I hope your brother wasn't too heartbroken. I think I would have been.

nffcnnr said...

Excellence! i remember sending change to Fun Factory & Johnson Smith Co. for fun stuff like this. i do recall getting a response from somewhere stating that the amount of money i enclosed was insufficient because the ad was outdated. i think the order form was from a 1977 comic book, and i ordered stuff the early 80s. Heh.

Gary Zellar said...

Me and my brother ordered the Civil War set with money saved from mowing lawns, etc. Our wise and wonderful Ma asked us several times if we were sure we wanted to send the 1.50., but not wanting to dash our dreams of Civil War battles, she sent the check after we gave her the money. Her instincts were correct as usual. After badgering her for two months with "did you get the mail yet ?" It finally arrived in box a little smaller than the ones that check books used to come in. What a let down! We later set the whole POS up and mowed it down with BB guns and firecrackers. 5 minutes of revenge for the swindle versus time spent mowing 6 lawns (@ .25/lawn). Lesson learned.

Anonymous said...

Our next door neighbors got the teacup monkey (when I was a kid). They said come see it. I remember looking in the kitchen . there was a blur moving about the room like the ghost images of the Flash. I never actually saw it. It wouldn't stay in one place long enough to see it.

sugarcoma said...

Oh my god, I had a doll house almost exactly the same as the one here. Two actually, my aunt replaced the original one with a new one when I was about 10.

The only difference was that mine was probably double that size because it was made so you could sit inside the doll house and close it around you. I remember I was still able to fit in it comfortably when I was about 12(4'6 and about 75 pounds).

The electrical lights were basically a long strand of thin christmas tree lights, that is the best I can describe them. You poked them into holes in the rooms. I believe I recall little working lamps as well.

The furniture was some kind of hard molded plastic in different pastel colors. The family was made of some sort of wire, I think, because I could bend their body parts. A mother a father, two kids, and maybe a baby..I recall one piece of furniture was a crib.

The original doll house came with a "green house" that you attached to the cardboard dollhouse, the seeds came in a small packet. I don't recall the green house with the second doll house though, and I never remember anythig growing.

It was a fairly cheap thing and I believe my aunt ordered them from Amway? Amaway? I can't remember the name. I wish I could find it again to order for my son, I loved how big it was and spent hours closed up in it.

Anonymous said...

I have to wonder if the quality of some of these items just declined over the years.

In my mother's jewelry box is a bean with ivory elements from her childhood (40s / 50s)...and the elephants are recognizable and quite cool. I assume that's from her childhood...might be older.

I have a set of the Revolutionary War soldiers still. They were pretty decent, unlike the cruddy ones above...3-D, recognizable uniform elements, etc. Would've been about 1975-76 when I got those.

Anyhow, terrific post...I need this book!

gw said...

I went to art school at VCU in Richmond, Va and my typography teacher there was none other than Phil Meggs.

Our typogrqaphy class had been talking about the look of those old comic book ads and Meggs goes into this great story about how he had ordered one of those miniature monkeys. He said that the postman arrived at the door with a small box with holes in it, sopping wet at the bottom. Meggs said he opened the box to reveal a very alive and aggravated monkey that proceeded to run out the front door, never to be seen again.

Anonymous said...

Wait, the monkeys were actual living monkeys? I always figured it was some scam, like a doll or something. What kind of monkeys were they? How was that legal? They sent a live monkey through the mail? In what, a box??

Anonymous said...

Ah, the Meggs post wasn't there when I posted the monkey question. Can't believe they actually sent monkeys. If I knew that, I would have ordered one. Figures the one time a comic book ad item is actually real is when it's a live monkey.

Brooks Bell said...

Love the book. Love the book's hidden surprise, too! Fantastic!!!! Thanks! The surprise made my day.

I bought the X-Ray specs as a kid in the 60s. They weren't what they said they were but they were still fun. We used to laugh about U-control meaning "string" and none of us were dumb enough to buy the Polaris for $2.95.

Kirk D. said...

nffcnnr- Oh, that story made me groan out loud! Even another layer of disappointment I hadn't considered. That's the stuff childhood is made of!

xpat- I love your story. Really I can't think of a better way to have fun with those. The poetic justice is perfect.

anon- is it odd that I envy the fact that you almost saw a panicked teacup monkey in someone's kitchen?

babycakes- thanks for the great account of the dollhouses! Come to think of it I think I've seen an ad with a girl sitting in one. and I've seen that family somewhere, I think on an auction I got outbid on.
It's great that you were able to have so much fun with it. My son has fun with plain cardboard boxes, so this would be a huge step up.

anonomous2- Very interesting about a higher quality "elephants in a bean!" I must further investigate that.
I am aware of the 3-D Revolutionary soldiers, I almost got them for the book. They came out after the flat ones. That's the set that had a 3-D version to my knowledge.
So it sounds like the elephants got worse while the soldiers got better.

Greg- Ha, ha oh, man I never even considered that the box would be the monkey's personal bathroom. So not only were they crazed, they were filthy. Great story!

Anonymous3- Good point about the comic ads actually offering the real thing for a change. What an unfortunate promise to deliver on.
Yeah, I wonder if the laws were more lax back in the day or if people just know better now.
I have read some accounts of the monkey pet actually working out, but I hate to think what might of happened to the others.

Unknown- Thanks so much and thanks for buying it! Sounds like you were a savvy kid who knew how to make the most of disappointing situation. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Remember the picture of the guy carrying a big box on his back? He was supposedly using a ventriloquism device to make it seem someone was in the box. I ordered one of those, and it turned out to be a little cylindrical metal whistle. I took it to school and immediately swallowed it.

Mike Vlkovic said...

Love your blog, love the Mail Order Mysteries book. I ordered alot of the products mentioned and it was great to see them again in all their disappointing glory. I write some articles here and there for Weird NJ. Magazine. Just thought you would like to know that the Abracadabra Magic Shop in Colonia NJ is now an Italian Deli called Bella Roma and they have incredible food. I thought I noticed the address from the cover picture of the catalog and sure enough it's the same address. Too funny. At one point in NJ in the 1970's, there were a ton of Magic and Joke shops all over the state. I remember Abracadabra in Colonia and the Church Street Magic shop in New Brunswick as well as Mecca magic in Bloomfield which was huge and had all the really expensive professional magic tricks. Ralph Grassi's incredible Wildwood Amusements website has a great article about the Joke Shop that was on the Wildwood boardwalk for years. I am such a huge fan of all of this stuff that I wrote a song called X Ray Specs and performed it with my band Marty And The Martians. We are still going strong today I am proud to say after 25 years. Keep up the great work. Mike Vlkovic

Anonymous said...

Great blog. I just got the book today from Amazon. Great to find even more stuff here!

Kirk D. said...

Anon- I always knew the ventrillo was a choking hazard. I'm come close to swallowing one myself.

Mike- sorry I missed your comment back in december. Thanks for all the info!

Anon 2- thanks for buying the book, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Dr. Theda said...

the "Shock Book" gave quite a jolt... I had the "deck of cards" ( we used to have contests to see who could hold it the longest...
after I placed the two batteries in it and tried it ... it felt like it was trying to shake my arms out out their sockets... a Much more powerful shock than the cards

Anonymous said...

I used to read through my brother's Johnson Smith catalog for hours. Finally, I settled on the 12 Tiny Elephants in a Bean, and later, a plastic bank concealed in a faux red hardbound book. I was just mentioning all this to my husband the other day. Can't wait to get your book!

Kirk D. said...

Anonymous- Yes, the book bank is in there! Sadly the elephants didn't make the cut though. I hope you enjoy the book!

Ze Mastor said...

Kirk, I loved seeing these outtakes as much as the entries in your book. Please make a second book!

In particular, seeing the "12 ivory elephants in a bean" was fascinating. I remember seeing that ad a lot and wondering about it. Not enough to buy it, of course. Seeing what you *really* get is a hoot. Thin flakes of ivory, maybe shaved to the thickness of paper, clipped with scissors to make them look vaguely like an elephant. LOL.

Those look like cheap imitations of some real "elephants in a bean" that some people had posted on the internet. Like this:

In the Flickr example, the elephants had some depth to them and look like they were carved using real metal tools and not scissors.

Crazy 4 1979 Crazy Labels said...

No doubt. Johnson Smith Co. opened the doors for me as a kid to all the prank, gag and novelty items I still collect today. Honestly, I lived for that place. I have so, so, many fond memories of ordering from them. I often recall sitting by the mailbox waiting for the postman to arrive with my package. I probably ordered from Fun Factory also, but Johnson Smith Co. always was king. I'm surprised to see them still in business today, but they're definitely not the same place they were back in the 60's, 70's and 80's.

Ron S. said...

Kirk and Eddie are great guys. They live for this stuff....literally. I forgot all about that hovercraft ad. When I stumbled upon it, I just stared at it for like 30 seconds. It brought back memories of reading Boys Life in here in NJ and looking at the boy in the ad thinking what a lucky kid! He gets to ride around his neighborhood in his own hovercraft. I always wondered how it worked. Even as a kid though, I was a bit skeptical when I heard the entire operation of the thing hinges on a vacuum motor.

Tom Interval said...

Trivia: The 250 Magic Tricks edition I have has an identical cover photo but is colored red, white, and black. And it’s the same photo that's on the cover of Secrets of Magic, by Walter B. Gibson (Wm. C. Popper and Co., 1945).