The following was published in my newsletter, The magnet.
Anyone who’s ever read a 20th century comic book has seen a Johnson Smith ad touting cheer buzzers, rubber masks, fake vomit, glowing ashtrays, engine kits, rubber chickens, hypo-parts , miniature cameras, magic tricks and other novelty items. . In fact, it’s hard not come across a comic from the 1940s to the 1980s that doesn’t have a full-page ad from the mail-order company Johnson Smith. The back cover of action comics #1, which featured Superman, has one.
When I was a kid, I loved watching Johnson Smith commercials in comic books. 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 scroll down the page, marveling at the hyperbolic ad copy and tiny product illustrations.
Alfred Johnson Smith was born in England in 1885 and grew up in Australia. As a young adult, “AJ” Smith sold rubber stamps and novelties through magazine advertisements. In 1914, AJ moved to Chicago and began peddling throw pillows and whoopie masks in the trunk of his car. He then launched a catalog selling all sorts of oddities, including seeds to grow giant pumpkins, ESP cards, ukuleles, live alligators, rubber knives, rubber peanuts, realistic fake guns and thousands of other items. He described his business as the “only concern of its kind in America”.
Each issue grew larger than the one before it, and by 1929 the catalog had grown to 768 pages.
Johnson Smith Co. became so famous for its jam-packed advertisements that in 1955 CRAZY put a pitch-perfect parody of the 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 might buy from Johnson Smith Co., the back of the 1940 edition of the catalog lists some of the items for sale: automotive items, books, cameras, emblems, sets hobbies, jewelry, household items, knives, live animals, magic, make-up, microscopes, models, music, office supplies, optical products, pipes, projectors, puzzles, radios, guns and pistols, seeds, sporting goods, stamps, telescopes and saving time. (Here is a scan of the spine next to Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library 1993 cover.)
The Internet Archive has a scan of a 1951 edition of the catalog. It’s 584 pages and looks like an alternate version of Amazon’s universe. Unfortunately, there are a lot of racist and sexist items for sale, and I’m not going to reprint them here. Instead, I’ll share some of the weird (bordering on sociopathy) 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.