© 2017 Bill Murphy
Years before the bunny-magazine hit the news stands, the boys of Evergreen Street had our own ‘play boy’ magazine. (Calm down – this is a squeaky clean story.)
It was not a magazine actually, but a catalog – a catalog right out of Aladdin’s magic storehouse! It overflowed with all manner of exotic and exciting items to thrill, inspire, and educate us. This wondrous publication was the Johnson Smith Catalog, which gained almost Biblical respect among the boys of the neighborhood. (The illustration at right is not from a 40s edition.)
This was the late 40s and early 50s. We were school boys then, grade school, junior high. Cokes were a 5c, and bubble gum a penny. Everything in the Johnson Smith Catalog was dirt cheap! We always had enough change in our pockets to order that next ‘gotta have’ item.
For only $2.50, shipping included, I ordered a telescope kit. What came in the mail was only two glass lens, and a single page of instructions. But I was NOT disappointed. Actually BUILDING the thing was the major part of the fun. The telescope body was made from a section of round, aluminum rain-gutter pipe, almost 3 feet long. The movable focusing scope was a piece of metal electrical conduit. The ‘seat’ for the eye-piece lens was an empty wooden sewing thread spool supplied by my mother. But guess what? When finished, I could actually seen the craters on the moon!
Then there were the crystal radio sets. Years before battery operated transistor radios, for $1 (or less) we ordered crystal radios. They were not much more than a small pea-size glass-like crystal, a small coil of copper wire, a thin wire ‘whisker‘ which sat onto the crystal, and a short metal rod inserted through the copper wire coil. It came with a one-ear ‘ear-bud’ head phone, and an metal alligator clip fastened to a long wire. To listen to your favorite radio station all you need do is: set the whisker on the crystal, attach the alligator clip to a metal pipe (most schools had hot-water radiators for heat, with lots of metal piping), move the metal rod to the right position to tune in your station – then LISTEN! Remember, there were NO batteries, NO outside power source. Unfortunately, there were teachers who caught us listening to the radio in class.
I ordered the ‘learn to throw your voice’ kit, fortunately BEFORE ordering the ventriloquist dummy.
There was the disappearing ink, fake ink spill, fake vomit, fake doggie poop, whoopee cushion, miniature ‘spy‘ camera, and my favorite – ITCH POWDER. (It really worked!)
No doubt, there were very few male 12 year old Johnson Smith customers who did not order the X-Ray Glasses. They were a huge disappointment. It was enough to warrant a letter to the Better Business Bureau.
The frame of the infamous X-Ray glasses was nothing more than two pieces of cardboard glued together to hold in the ‘X-Ray’ lens. X-Ray lens – yeah, right! Then ‘lens’ were nothing more that pieces of BIRD FEATHERS! The false-advertised X-Ray vision was created when one eye, looking through the bird feather saw a shadowy silhouette of the cute girl in front of you, and the other eye saw the same silhouette, but slightly off to one side. Where the two shadowy figures merged in the center, your eyes/brain gave you the fuzzy impression of viewing a skeleton. Bummer.
Amazingly, Johnson Smith is still alive and well (and selling X-ray glasses), although the cost of a single item is more than 6 months worth of my orders way back when. And the catalog is in color now, and on-line. Oh, and now they’re more truthful in advertising, admitting that the X-Ray vision is only an illusion. Peggy Sue – you are now safe from prying eyes!
Things just aren’t like they used to be. Oh well.