Sunday, January 14, 2007

Johnson Smith Products

It’s easy to make fun of these old Johnson Smith mail order ads (this one from 1941) with their teeny-tiny type and their outlandish products but let’s take a closer look. I think these guys were onto something!
First of all, their Ju-Jitsu course was clearly designed to foster an interest in learning martial arts some 32 years before Bruce Lee had every kid in America taking Karate lessons.
The blank cartridge pistol is labeled as "Fine for Protection," presaging the concealed carry movement by decades.
"Broadcast through your radio! Talk! Sing! Play!" says one ad. You know, like you do on YouTube!
Personal telephones were 10 cents a pair back then and who amongst us doesn’t have cell phones today (at maybe 10 cents a minute but that’s progress!)?
That adding machine adds up to 9999 with positive accuracy. Beyond that apparently it’s anybody’s guess. Still, I got my first calculator in my sophomore year of high school 32 years ago now…but 35 years AFTER this ad!
A personal telegraph? Hey, I don’t know about you but I’ve already received three text messages on my cell phone this morning. What’s the difference?
So you see, the folks at the much maligned Johnson Smith seem to have been the grandfathers of today’s greatest achievements! Who knows, maybe REAL X-Ray Spex are just around the corner!
What’s that? Oh, yeah…the mysterious running mouse? The live chameleon? The Mounted Police Suit? Okay, okay, maybe it really was all a bunch of rubbish! Never mind!


  1. Anonymous9:43 AM

    Okay, Steve, you hit my hotspot here. I could talk about Johnson Smith all day.

    I discovered this wonderful catalog in 1960, when I was 13. I had a paper route that earned me five bucks a week. Mom took $2 for my "clothing fund", leaving me three dollars every Saturday. And I spent it like this:

    A dollar on a Hardy Boys book,
    A dollar on the three C's (comics, candy bars, Coke), and
    A dollar on a Johnson Smith order.

    You could get a ton of Johnson Smith merchandise for a buck, and I always ordered a dollars' worth because if your order was a dollar or more, shipping was free!

    I bought magic tricks, books, electronic stuff, novelties, etc, etc. That Johnson Smith catalog (along with the radio) got me through my adolescence.

    Oh, the marvels you could get for a dime or a quarter! I bought that judo book you mentioned; in 1960 the price had risen to 35 cents. BUT, if you bought three judo books (each was different) you saved a nickel - all three were a dollar.

    I bought a lot of Little Blue Books (tiny paperbound books, usually 64 pages) at 15 cents each or 7 for a dollar. Everything from Mark Twain short stories to Snappy Jokes, from the history of Rome to anecdotes about Abraham Lincoln, from Geometery self-taught to How Radio Works, from hypnotism to vaudeville routines. One that tempted me, but I never bought, was a novel called The Girl in the Snappy Red Roadster.

    I bought the radio button, which allowed you to talk through your radio (never hooked it up, though - you had to solder wires to it, and get batteries, and know where to hook it up inside the radio). I bought a little puzzle for dime, bet classmates a quarter they couldn't solve it, then sold a bunch of them for a quarter each - my first exercise in capitalism.

    I bought a booklet of baseball pitching tips with chapters by Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, etc. A lot of the Johnson Smith stuff in the early sixties must have come from warehouse stock from the 1930's and 1940's. And I'll bet that baseball book would be worth a fortune now.

    If I had that catalog today, and it had the same stuff it had then, I'd send them an order for a few hundred dollars' worth of stuff, and I'd wait by the mailbox until the order came, just as I did then.

    And by the way, it ALWAYS took six days. If I sent them an order on Wednesday, it always arrived the next Tuesday.

    Steve, thanks for making me think about Johnson Smith again.


    P.S. An outfit in Florida bought the name ( and still puts out catalogs, but all they really have of the classic Johnson Smith Company is the name. They should be shot.

  2. Anonymous2:43 PM

    I have a couple of these catalogues from the late 20's and they're just great...well except for the racist ads which are just plain scary!