If today's Generation Y and Z-ers accuse us Baby Boomers of being cynical and distrustful, well, I for one blame it all on comic books. How many of us who grew up in the 1960s and early '70s were lured by those enticing ads promising everything from X-Ray vision to frolicking, crown-wearing sea monkey pets for a mere couple of bucks? It took (in my case) a best friend with a generous weekly allowance and two parents who worked outside of the home to open my young eyes to the sad fact that advertisements didn't always tell the truth.
1. X-Ray Specs
I supposed the "optical illusion" disclaimer should've been a tip-off, but hey, who paid attention to fine print when the prospect of seeing through unsuspecting people's clothes was at your nose tip? In reality, the Specs weren't particularly discreet; they were pieces of cardboard printed with red and white hypnotic spirals and the words "X-Ray Vision" where the lenses should have been. Did they work? Well, if you studied your hand long enough against a bright light it kinda sorta looked as if you were seeing a blurry X-ray image, thanks to a feather glued inside each of the cardboard "lenses."
2. Sea Monkeys
It's not surprising to learn that the man who patented X-Ray Specs, Harold von Braunhut, was the same entrepreneur who passed off brine shrimp as trainable pets. Those of us who parted with a hard-earned buck and a quarter learned not only that the "happiness" displayed in the bowlful was only observable through a magnifying glass, but also that the little creatures looked more like creepy flagellating bacteria than the Seuss-like cartoon characters featured in the ads.
3. Frontier Cabin
My friend (and co-conspirator in most of my mail-order mischief) Mary and I spent longer arguing over whose name should be on the free nameplate (she finally agreed with my logic that if they supplied a "Kara" tag it proved that these cabins really were made to order!) than we did playing with the stupid thing. Imagine our disappointment as we waited at her front door every day that summer when we heard the UPS truck rumbling down the street, only to have the mailman eventually hand us a padded 9"x14" manila envelope. Inside the package was a tightly folded vinyl sheet that had the design of a Frontier Cabin printed on it. It assumed cabin shape only after it was draped over a card table or some similar piece of furniture. And it was impossible to spend much time huddled inside the thing lest we became asphyxiated by the plastic-y vinyl fumes that clung to it.
4. Ventriloquist Device
For only a quarter you could annoy your teachers and confound your parents?! I couldn't slap that six-cent postage stamp on the envelope fast enough! The gadget I received in exchange for that hard-earned 31 cents was something professional ventriloquists call a "swazzle." It was basically a modified tiny kazoo that you could (after much practice to avoid gagging on or swallowing the thing) conceal in your mouth and make squeaky, whistling high-pitched noises. (Back in the days of Punch and Judy shows, the puppeteer who worked Mr. Punch used a swazzle to create the screechy incomprehensible vocalizations associated with the character.) Oh, and that tiny pamphlet that taught you "How to Become a Ventriloquist" did not mention the use of the swazzle at all, it simply gave hints on how to articulate words without moving your lips.
5. Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension
Since I never felt the need to have Mr. Universe-sized biceps, I never sent away for the Charles Atlas program, but many millions of other comic book readers did. Who doesn't remember the full-page ad featuring the humiliation of the 97 lb. weakling named Mac getting sand kicked in his face at the beach? Said scrawny lad eventually returns to the beach with a newly buff physique after subscribing to the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program of exercise. The advertisement was based on the allegedly true story of Charles Atlas, who'd claimed to have sand kicked in his scrawny face at Coney Island by a husky lifeguard. As is often the case, truth is more boring than fiction. In reality, Angelo Siciliano (Atlas' birth name) had always been a strong child, and when he and his divorced mom moved from Italy to Brooklyn, New York, he lifted weights to further improve his physique. As a teen, he got a job demonstrating a chest expander in a department store window. He went on to win a bodybuilding contest and attempted to start his own mail-order business. However, his strengths didn't extend to marketing savvy, so he struggled until he hooked up with advertising exec Charles Roman. Roman re-christened Siciliano "Charles Atlas" and came up with the backstory of the puny guy losing his girl to a more muscular specimen.
6. Kryptonite Rocks
For the low price of $2.50 you could earn Superman's eternal gratitude by purchasing these Kryptonite rocks and keeping them out of the hands of the Forces of Evil. Skeptics in the audience might posit that these were nothing more than regular rocks painted glow-in-the-dark green, but how would they prove it? After all, if Superman never showed up at your house, the Kryptonite was obviously doing its job, right?
7. Fake Facial Hair
Looking suave didn't come cheaply; at three bucks for either a Van Dyke or set of mutton chop sideburns, a happenin' dude with a limited income had to decide between "cool" or "distinguished." Luckily this paste-on facial fuzz came with a "complete guide" on how to properly wear your hair, lest some folks unclear on the concept glue a 'stache to their foreheads by mistake.
8. Free Miniature Monkey
Once in a while, there is some justice to be found in the world. The above ad (sometimes a miniature dog was offered instead of the monkey) was placed by a mail order photo finishing company in Iowa called Dean Studios. In order to win a miniature animal, you had to not only distribute 20 coupons for Dean's services, those 20 people also had to place a minimum order with the company. The Federal Trade Commission got involved in 1960 and discovered that the company not only had never awarded a prize, they didn't even have access to any of the tiny creatures. An official Cease and Desist Letter was eventually issued.
9. P.F. Flyers
P.F. Flyers were the Air Jordans of the 1960s. The brand advertised heavily in comic books and on TV and led many unsuspecting un-athletic kids to believe that all they needed to not be chosen last in gym class was a pair of expensive sneakers. Even though (for a limited time only!) the shoes came with a free Johnny Quest Magic Ring (equipped with a magnifying glass, secret compartment, and code flasher), they still probably weren't your best line of defense in the event of a bear attack.
*Sigh* A whole buck for nothing more than a swirly pattern on a wiggle badge. That money back guarantee was also a sham, since you had to pay for the return postage (properly packaged and insured).
11. Polaris Submarine
Obviously, since this puppy cost a whopping seven dollars (compared to the 10 and 50 cent items advertised), it had to be on the level. Living very near Lake St. Clair, Mary and I had all sorts of plans for our sub when it arrived – "we can sneak across to Canada without paying the toll!" Alas, chalk up one more childhood dream dashed; the "nuclear sub" was made of cardboard (which was shipped flat in a box and required assembly). The torpedo and rocket launchers? Rubber bands. I still can't decide which hurt most – the submarine that was water-soluble, or the parents who tsked and lectured "Maybe you've learned your lesson this time..."
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What about you? Did you ever sell Grit or order 200 plastic army men? Share your mail-order memories with the rest of us!