The following ran in my newsletter, The Magnet.
Anyone who’s ever read a comic book from the 20th century has seen a Johnson Smith advertisement touting joy buzzers, rubber masks, fake vomit, luminous ashtrays, motor kits, rubber chickens, hypo-coins, miniature cameras, magic tricks, and other novelty items. In fact, it’s hard not to come across a comic book from the 1940s through the 1980s that doesn’t have a full-page ad from the Johnson Smith mail order company. The back cover of Action Comics No. 1, which introduced Superman, has one.
When I was a kid, I loved looking at the Johnson Smith ads in comics. They were often better than the stories in the comics. Even now, when I come across one of these ads, I can’t help but pore over the page, marveling at the hyperbolic ad copy and tiny illustrations of the products.
Alfred Johnson Smith was born in England in 1885 and raised in Australia. As a young adult, “A.J.” Smith sold rubber stamps and novelties through magazine advertisements. In 1914 A.J. moved to Chicago and began hawking whoopie cushions and masks from his car trunk. He then launched a catalog selling all kinds of curiosities, including seeds for growing giant pumpkins, ESP cards, ukuleles, live alligators, rubber knives, squirt rubber peanuts, realist fake pistols, and thousands of other items. He described his company as the “Only Concern Of Its Kind In America.”
Each issue became fatter than the one that preceded it, and by 1929 the catalog had swollen to 768 pages.
Johnson Smith Co. became so famous for its jam-packed ads that in 1955 MAD put a pitch-perfect parody Johnson Smith ad on the cover of issue #21, calling it “Smithson John & Co.” (Johnson Smith ran an ad in the issue, naturally.)
To give you an idea of what you could buy from Johnson Smith Co., the spine from the 1940 edition of the catalog has a list of just a few of the things for sale: auto goods, books, cameras, emblems, hobby sets, jewelry, home goods, knives, live animals, magic, make up, microscopes, model kits, music, office supplies, optical goods, pipes, projectors, puzzles, radios, rifles & pistols, seeds, sport goods, stamps, telescopes, and time savers. (Here’s a scan of the spine next to Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library cover from 1993.)
The Internet Archive has a scan from a 1951 edition of the catalog. It’s 584-pages long and is like an alternative universe version of Amazon. Unfortunately, it has lots of racist and sexist items for sale, and I’m not going to reprint those here. Instead, I’ll share a few of the weird (bordering-on-sociopathic) products from the catalog.
I learned about the history of the Johnson Smith Co. from the booklet, “Johnson Smith & Company: Only Concern of Its Kind in America” by Mardi Timm and Stan Timm.