As I reminisced in a prior entry (03/01/2010), I grew up in the 1950s in the small town of Spencer, Iowa. I often think of our Main Street with it's surprising number of diners, bars, pool halls, stores, and numerous other businesses that were a part of mid-century mid-America.
Spencer was a self-contained bustling little burg located in the northwest corner of Iowa, near such “major metropolitan areas” as Milford, Fostoria, and Lake Okoboji. It was a microcosm of the big cities. We had everything anyone could possibly want, just not in the quantity available in the metropolises. And for a kid like me, the scale of the place was pure perfection. It was a fun ride while it lasted.
In the brilliant Barry Levinson film “Avalon,” the lead character, Sam Krichinsky, laments “If I knew things would no longer be, I would have tried to remember better.”
Today my brother Toby jarred my own memory by sending me a disc full of mid-1950s images from our home town of Spencer, and I have posted a few of these wonderful photos above (click on any photo to enlarge). Thanks for the memories, bro.
The golden age of jokes, tricks and gags in this country began in 1904 with Soren Adam Sorensen, a salesman who discovered that one of the ingredients in the coal based dye he was peddling caused sneezing. He found a way to extract the material, and opened the Cachoo Sneezing Powder Company. For reasons not completely understood, causing someone to sneeze was thought to be funny.
Ultimately he realized that he needed to expand his product base, and in 1906 he founded the S.S. Adams Company of Neptune, New Jersey. Over the next several decades, he became the godfather of gags. His innovations included itching powder, the snake in can, the dribble glass, and the joke joy buzzer, the later of which he patented in 1928 (one of 40 joke/novelty items he so patented).
Another pioneer in pranks was Alfred Johnson Smith, who founded the Johnson Smith Company catalog business in Australia in 1906 and moved it to Chicago in 1914. In 1923 he relocated in Racine, Wisconsin, then again moved to Detroit in 1936. He was the king of hyperbole, personally writing many of the exaggerated descriptions in his catalogs and comic book ads. The Johnson Smith catalogs were voluminous and wonderfully illustrated, tempting buyers with a wide variety of notions, novelties, and nonsense.
Another forerunner was the Franco American Novelty Company, established by Sam Oumano in 1910, well known as makers of fake vomit, whoopie cushions, and artificial doggie doo
An additional player in this field of fun was Chiam Fishelov who established H. Fishove Company in Chicago in 1914. He passed away in 1924, and his son Irving took over operations. Fishlove is credited with such classics as chattering teeth, the fake hypodermic needle, and a wide variety of joke boxes.
Richard Appel Company was established in 1941 in New York, and became best known for their Jo King line as well as for their Jokers for Smokers.
Another milestone (or perhaps more of a bump in the road) was in 1961, when yours truly, Bernie Shine, at age 13, opened Bernie’s Novelties in an a small store front in Spencer, Iowa. I would order jokes, gags, and novelties from Rich Brothers in Sioux Falls, Gellman Brothers in Minneapolis, and the Oriental Trading Company in Omaha. After school I would open my store and peddle my wares to my chums. On June 11, 1961, a column in the local newspaper entitled TEEN TOPICS
, reported “One of the newer members to the teenage group is Bernie Shine. I think this kid will really go far, because he already opened his own business. On the first block of West Second street is a large brick building with a sign over the front door. This sign says “Bernie’s Novelties”, and the door leads to Bernie’s new business, a novelty shop. Like I said, this kid’s going far.”
Today I own Shine Gallery in Los Angeles, where we offer a wide variety of iconic novelties from the past, all rescued from old stores, dusty warehouses, and closed factories. We have an entire section on our website devoted to Jokes, Novelties & Magic
. These items were always low brow and low tech, but with the passage of time have become high art. In retrospect these items take on an innocence and charm that is irresistible. The passage of time has served to elevate yesterday’s junk into today’s treasures.
Recommended Reading: Cheap Laffs, The Art of the Novelty Item, available at Shine Gallery.
One of our best selling items is our Fortune Teller Miracle Fish. Ours are made in Japan in the 1930s and come in a delicate tissue paper envelope. These should NOT be confused with the later Taiwanese versions that are packaged in a plastic enclosure. So if you are picky about your Fortune Telling Fish, buy ours . . . the original 1930s Japanese versions.
We actually carry FOUR different styles, probably the biggest selection anywhere of something you don’t really need.
We have a tiny “Fortune Tellor Fish” replete with some charming Japanese misspellings in the instructions. We also have a medium size version in both red and blue paper envelopes, and even a larger version in a red wrapper. And if you don’t like fish, we also carry a Japanese Fortune Teller Miracle Clown. You will find them all in the JOKES, NOVELTIES & MAGIC
section of our online store.
If you are not familiar with these novelties, here’s what they do. You put the thin cello-type fish in your hand, and depending upon how the fish moves or curls (or doesn’t) determines your fortune, which is printed on the back of the tissue envelope. Some experts believe that these Fortune Teller Fish work as they react to body heat in one’s hand. However others in the scientific community conclude that they are made of long-strand polymers that grab water molecules causing them to curl. Whatever the method, this is certainly a classic penny toy.
Trivia: A Fortune Teller Fish was the title and subject of the 2009 Academy Award Nominated Short Film “Miracle Fish.”
Nothing is quite as nostalgic as the circus or carnival midway. In 1907 The Ringling Bros. purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Initially the two shows toured separately, but in 1919 the attractions were merged to create the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, proclaimed “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Like every great showmen then and now, they did not simply rely on ticket sales as the sole source of revenue. The food and souvenir concessions were huge money makers, representing high profit items to captive and motivated buyers. As a result, a tremendous amount of circus memorabilia was produced, and it has become a major category Americana particularly attractive to collectors.A related field of collecting is items from the carnival midway. Traveling carnivals flourished in the 1930s through the early 60s, and their lighted midways featured exotic dreamlike wonderlands in sleepy little towns throughout the country. The primary venue for these shows was State and County Fairs, as well as other regional festivals and celebrations. These midways featured a cavalcade of attractions, rides, games, and shows. Many of the carnival games were crooked or “gaffed”, leaving no chance that the mark (i.e., player) could win anything. Others were known to the carneys as “hanky-pank” games, those touting “A Prize Every Time!” While it was true the player would receive a prize for every 50¢ he would pay to play, the prize was nearly worthless…so cheaply made that carnival supply houses referred to these items as “slum” in their own catalogs. Ironically, today these inexpensive prizes have become highly sought after collectors’ items, a strange twist of fate for the carny who thought of them as of no value.At some point, the mark would come to the realization that it was cheaper to buy a prize than win one and the souvenir stand was there to sell what could not be won. In addition to prizes, these concessionaires offered pin-back buttons, pennants, toys, and other trinkets and treasures for the weary customer. Like the games themselves, these stands had plenty of flash to take the buyer’s cash!The amusement business was big business, and carnival wholesalers flourished across the country In New York there was B. Shackman Company., in Chicago N. Shure Company, in Minneapolis the Gellman Bros. and so on coast-to-coast. Harry Watanabee founded the Oriental Trading Company in Omaha in 1932, with a great portion of his inventory imported from Japan. Watanabee and his wares were a favorite among carnival operators for flashy game premiums and prizes in duck and fish pond concessions and other midway concessions. Claw machines (known to carnies as “diggers”) were typically filled with such treasures . . . pistol lighters, pot metal ponies, big dice, miniature knives, desk calendars, toy binoculars, and other such temptations that always seemed just out of reach to the player. Watanabee produced his first catalogs in the 1950s, with many pages featuring “Digger Specials,” items especially well suited for claw machines. The N. Shure Co. was remarkable in the sheer volume of merchandise it handled. In its heyday in the 1930s the “Shure Winner” catalogs had upwards of 900 to 1100 pages of wonderfully detailed black and white engravings of their wares. Over the years, the amusement business has gone corporate, and much of the early charm has been lost in the transition. In addition, local law enforcement and concerned citizens eroded away the more unseemly aspects of the midways . . . the crooked games, politically incorrect ten-in-one side shows, girlie reviews, and other temptations that thought to have corrupted the farm boys. We carry a wonderful assortment of vintage circus, carnival, and exposition memorabilia that may rekindle those temptations of a by gone era…a second chance to part with some money without incurring the wrath of your parents. Take a look at our store website, www.shinegallery.com.
I grew up in the 1950s in the small town of Spencer, Iowa. I often think of our Main Street with it's surprising number of diners, bars, pool halls, and numerous other businesses that were a part of mid-century mid-America.
Every September Spencer hosted the Clay County Fair. My favorite section of the Fair was the Art B. Thomas traveling Midway, complete with rides, ten-in-one shows, carnival games, and concession stands.
We spent our summers in nearby Okoboji, Iowa, a typical lake summer resort with its tourist cabins, boat houses, bait shops, souvenir stands, and lakeside amusement parks. Fireworks never look better to me than those 4th of July exhibitions at Arnolds Park on the shores of Okoboji.
Our family took numerous winter road trip to California via Route 66, often concluding with our attendance at the Rose Bowl Parade and Game in Pasadena. Route 66 was a dreamland drive for a kid from Iowa, filled with exotic exhibits and
eateries, roadside attractions and concessions, neon meccas and motels, and endless hand painted signs offering even greater treasures miles ahead.
Many years ago I received a mail order catalog from a company offering a wide variety of reproduction nostalgia and memorabilia., much of which was reminiscent of my own childhood. I was both fascinated and disappointed by the offerings. While the objects looked somewhat inviting, they lacked luster, magic, and soul. Upon reflection I came to the conclusion that what was offered were merely failed three-dimensional objects that were totally devoid of the patina of time. I thought how wonderful it would be if the catalog had genuine vintage items for sale. I think of such objects as four-dimensional in that they exist in the context of time.
We offer such items on our website (www.shinegallery.com
) and in our Los Angeles retail store. We do NOT sell reproductions. We spend a great deal of time and effort searching old stores, dusty warehouses, and closed factories in pursuit of bona fide period items. We even surprise ourselves as what wonderful things we are able to find without the benefit of a time machine. We are very selective in what we buy. Each item must be vintage, unused, found in quantity, and wonderful!
I hope you enjoy these objects from another place and time. Whether you are a collector or dealer, here is your opportunity to purchase a piece of history from the popular culture . . . at popular prices!