Farts are funny. Always have been; always will be. In fact, flatulence humor goes back to the first known joke, recorded by ancient Sumerians. Since then, it’s lingered for thousands of years, wafting from Medieval illuminated devotionals to Shakespeare’s plays. So naturally, employees of JEM Rubber Company in Toronto, known for making tire repair patches, were delighted when they figured out how to turn its scrap rubber into literal windbags around 1930. They approached Soren Sorensen “Sam” Adams—whose S.S. Adams Company was responsible for giving the world Sneezing Powder and the Joy Buzzer—but the cushion that blows a loud raspberry was just a bridge too far.
“They came to Adams because he was a big producer of novelties, hoping to sell it to him as a product to distribute in the U.S.,” says novelties collector Mardi Timm. “But he was so incensed about the indelicacy of the joke that he refused it.”
Undeterred, the representatives of JEM took their fart joke to Alfred Johnson Smith, whose popular Johnson Smith & Co. catalog was a Bible for mischief makers, offering novelties, magic tricks, and popular pranks like trick cigarette cases and squirting flowers. “Mr. Smith looked at it and said, ‘What a great gag!’ and put it in his catalog,” Mardi explains. “Mr. Adams missed out on that huge-huge-huge sale, but he just couldn’t do it—nope!”
Thus, the Whoopee Cushion was unleashed in the United States. Offered in two versions, priced $.25 and $1.25, the gag was a tremendous hit with Americans miserable from the Great Depression who needed a cheap and easy laugh.
“Novelties are so much more than goofy, silly things. They’re things that make you say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen one of those before!’ or ‘What is that thing?’”
This is the world of Stan and Mardi Timm. Perusing their collection of products sold by Johnson Smith and other novelty firms is an experience akin to Pee-Wee Herman’s gleeful romp through Mario’s Magic Shop, trying out squirting mustard bottles and buying trick gum. It takes me back to my family’s lake house where my “I got your nose” grandfather passed down fake dog poop and snake nut cans to my jokester cousins, along with piles of “Archie” comics. Or my kid brother’s obsession with putting on mini magic shows and scaring me with strategically placed glow-in-the-dark plastic insects and lizards.
But the Timms’ vast collection of roughly 1,800 artifacts, focused on items from the Johnson Smith catalogs from the early 20th century and beyond, is more than juvenile pranks—it includes cheap toys and quirky but practical inventions like flashlights, twirling spaghetti forks, and electric tie presses, as well as guides promising to teach valuable skills like detective work or jiu-jitsu.
“Novelties are so much more than goofy, silly things,” Mardi says. “Everything that comes on to the marketplace starts out as a novelty. They’re things that are not common, things that make you say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen one of those before!’ or ‘What is that thing?'”
The collection documents U.S. popular culture from the mid-1910s through today, Mardi explains. Exploring the Timms’ catalog, you can identify the problems that plagued Americans over the decades—particularly in the early 20th century, when most Americans lived in more isolated rural communities—and sometimes unintentionally hilarious ways they tried to solve those problems. (Is your bath cold? How about you plug an electric heating device into the wall and then put it in your water?)
“We have the Tark Electric Razor, which is a scary thing for me,” Mardi says. “You put razor blades in it, you plug it in, and the thing vibrates. Now, would you want to put that on your face if you were a man? I don’t think so. But that was a novelty at the time.”
The intentional humor is also revealing. While fart jokes transcend time, other wisecracks and gags are specific to their eras. Today, many of us would be unsettled by the racial caricatures, ethnic stereotypes, ableism, cruelty about physical appearance, and overt objectifying of women that you see in early Johnson Smith joke books and pranks.
“Our collection gives us insight into day-to-day, regular folks—what they were interested in and what was funny to them,” Mardi says. “It’s American culture. It’s our history. That’s what’s important about this collection. It’s not just the stuff, but what the stuff represents.”
Over the last 30 years, the Timms, who live in Racine, Wisconsin, have become known as the foremost American collectors and experts in the field of novelties. At Collectors Weekly, we’ve interviewed them multiple times to discuss “girlie glasses” (or pint glasses that reveal more of a scantily-clad pin-up girl the more you drink), the invention of wind-up chattering teeth, the process of making fake barf, and the 3-D joke cards known as gag boxes. Outside of Collectors Weekly, the couple pops up in articles all over, like when a “New York Times” reporter needs a comment on, say, the history of Whoopee Cushions, and they’ve written pieces themselves for magazines like “Magic” and “Games.”
The married couple first showed their collection—only around 500-600 items at that point—from April 3, 1993 to February 27, 1994, at the Racine Heritage Museum. The exhibition was called “Johnson Smith & Company: ‘Only Concern of Its Kind in America’—a wonderful exhibit!” and included catalogs, magic tricks, fake barf, girlie glasses, and a “midget Bible.” In spring of ’94, they were asked to give a talk on their collection at the Magic Collectors Association in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
“During the Depression, Johnson Smith & Company was hugely important because it provided cheap entertainment for people, even if that was just reading the catalog.”
When they moved to their current house in 2005, they turned the basement into an invitation-only museum. Mardi set up an interactive wall of more than 100 gag boxes so visitors could lift the lids and see each joke’s punchline inside. In 2012, a History Channel producer invited the duo to appear on a reality show called “Sold!” that depicted the behind-the-scenes machinations of a rural Missouri auction house. There, Mardi and Stan sold a WWII-era pin cushion that lets you stick needles in Hitler’s butt.
“That was the most fun I think I’ve ever had, doing that show,” Mardi tells me. “How often do you get to work with a TV production? It was pretty cool.”
But all good things must come to an end. Mardi is in her early 70s, and Stan is in his early 80s. Their two daughters have been long grown, and they’ve decided to downsize and move to a smaller home. This means they need to shed their tremendous novelties collection. And it’s not just the objects. The collection comes with a nearly complete archive of Johnson Smith catalogs from the 1910s through the 1950s and decades of primary-source research. The Timms have talked to former Johnson Smith employees and customers as well as family members connected to company founder, Alfred Johnson Smith; a major gag supplier, H. Fishlove and Company; and his catalog publisher, Western Printing.
“We really don’t want to sell the collection in pieces,” Mardi says. “We’ve spent 30 years putting it together. We could sell it in pieces; there are pieces that are pretty valuable. There are also pieces that aren’t real valuable, but might be in a group. But what we would like to see is the collection go somewhere, to someone, that has an interest in popular-culture history. It’s painful, but it’s time. Somebody else needs to be the curator of this.”
But what do you do when you’re trying to sell a bulky collection that includes Whoopee Cushions, half a dozen varieties of fake vomit, and a couple hundred toilet jokes? Potty humor notwithstanding, Todd Coopee, a toy historian and the author of Light Bulb Baking: A History of the Easy-Bake Oven, says this is a common struggle for Baby Boomer collectors who are hoping to both boost their retirement funds and pass on the collecting hobby they’ve poured their hearts and souls into.
“In my experience, selling a large collection in bulk is quite challenging and often leads to disappointment for the collector from a return-on-investment perspective,” Coopee says. “There are often only a few collectors in the niche who are interested and capable of such large-scale purchases. Typically, many of these collectors have their own collections and may only be interested in purchasing items they don’t already have that are rare and could be resold in the future.
“It is improbable—but not impossible—that one could locate a new collector who would view the purchase as the ultimate entry point into creating a collection,” Coopee continues. “That being said, a big draw for collectors of anything is ‘the thrill of the chase’ and the process of discovery and curating a collection over time. Buying someone else’s large collection would certainly mitigate that appealing aspect of the hobby.”
“A magnificent smudgy thumbprint of a totally lusty, vibrant, alive, crude, post-frontier-society.”
However, the Timms’ tremendous collection, with about 1,800 pieces, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Johnson Smith offered in its catalogs over its 105 years as a mail-order company. At the company’s peak in 1929, a single Johnson Smith catalog advertised 7,000 items. H. Fishlove, which was based in Chicago, wholesaled its jokes to stores around the country and had a contract with Walt Disney Enterprises in the early 20th century. In the mid-century, S.S. Adams had a rack of pranks in every Stuckey’s roadside store around the country and sold tricks at Disneyland’s Magic Shop. It would certainly be possible to purchase the Timms’ collection and continue unearthing Johnson Smith, H. Fishlove, and S.S. Adams treasures for the rest of your life.
Johnson Smith & Company was officially founded in the United States in Chicago in 1914, but it moved several times over the past century, including a long stint in and around Detroit, Michigan, in the mid-century period before settling in Bradenton, Florida, in 1986. The company, which changed its name to Johnson Smith Company along the way, just shuttered in December 2019.
“Collectors that are very interested in preserving the legacy and historical value of a collection often end up donating it to a museum or library that will preserve it and make it available for others to enjoy,” Coopee says. For example, both Johnson Smith and H. Fishlove played an important part in the history of Chicago toy manufacturing, and an institution there could be interested in maintaining the Timms’ collection.
Stan Timm first became fascinated with magic after he learned his first trick, “Nickels to Dimes,” at age 8. “This is a trick where you show a stack of five nickels, and then put a cap over them,” Mardi explains. “When you remove the cap, the nickels have changed to dimes. This trick was given to Stan when he was a boy by a salesman visiting his dad’s electrical contracting shop. Stan was fascinated. The next time the salesman came, he brought the trick and gave it to Stan. From that moment on, Stan was into magic. He still has that original trick! In fact, that same trick is going to be passed on to our daughter.”
Growing up in a working-class family in Beloit, Wisconsin, in the 1940s and ’50s, Stan became enamored with Johnson Smith. “Stan got Johnson Smith & Company catalogs all during his youth and teen years,” Mardi says. “He often browsed the catalogs for magic tricks and would memorize the ad copy.” When he earned some money at age 12, Stan finally had the chance to purchase the trick from his favorite memorized ad, “Penny to Dime.”
Like many boy magicians, Stan mostly gave up doing magic while he was in college and then during the two years he served in the U.S. Army. He met and married Mardi in Racine, Wisconsin, in the ’80s. Mardi—who, as a child, loved to prank her friends and family with a kaleidoscope that gave the user a fake black eye—saw that her husband missed magic, and encouraged him to return to it. Soon, Stan would be performing stage magic for an annual Racine benefit for the Boy Scouts.
“Our collection gives us insight into day-to-day, regular folks—what they were interested in and what was funny to them.”
“My daughter was 5 when we got married, and she started doing magic with him shortly after, going onstage, assisting him with tricks,” Mardi recalls. “Our little one was born in ’83. So by the time she was 3 years old, she was on stage, doing magic with Dad. Our older daughter has five kids—all five of those kids have been onstage since they were old enough to walk.”
Stan’s love of magic is what led the couple to fall down the novelties-collecting rabbit hole at the end of the ’80s. “Stan was in a bookstore looking at a clearance basket,” Mardi says, “and he found a very colorful, thick, little book called The Whole Fun Catalog of 1929,” which was a 1979 reprint of the 1929 Johnson Smith catalog with an introduction by Jean Shepherd, the humorist best known for writing and narrating the 1983 film “A Christmas Story.” Shepherd describes the catalog as “the epitome mail-order America. A magnificent smudgy thumbprint of a totally lusty, vibrant, alive, crude, post-frontier-society … an exotic mixture of moralistic piety and violent primitive humor and it is impossible to find a single dull page.”
“When Stan opened the book up, inside, there was the cover of a Johnson Smith & Company catalog, and at the bottom of cover, it said, ‘Racine, Wisconsin,'” Mardi says. “So he brought it home and he showed me that Johnson Smith, whom he had ordered from when he was a kid, was at one time in Racine. So we got fascinated by that, and decided to find out more about Johnson Smith in Racine.”
Stan and Mardi started out simply collecting the Johnson Smith catalogs, and then the things sold in those catalogs. “Then over the years—and we’re talking a lot of years here—it morphed into more than that,” Mardi says. “We discovered over time that an awful lot of things in the Johnson Smith catalogs were actually made by H. Fishlove & Company, a toy and novelty inventor, manufacturer, and wholesaler. And so we started collecting Fishlove things, too.
“Then we started comparing and contrasting what was sold in Johnson Smith and other novelty catalogs like S.S. Adams, either before or during the same time period of the early 20th century,” she continues. “So it mushroomed from Johnson Smith to Fishlove to the greater world of novelties in general.”
As they unearthed these novelties, the Timms researched the background of many of the items they collected. They can tell you that the electric toothbrush was also invented in Racine, a small city that birthed multiple companies that make small motors for tools and appliances like InSinkErator, Hamilton Beach, Dremel, and Oster. They’ll tell you how Silly Putty was first a failed attempt by a General Electric scientist to make a rubber substitute during World War II. And that when the predecessors to Chia Pets came out during the war, most Americans who bought the pottery soldier or sailor heads, which you could grow chia “hair” on, had never seen such a thing. Mardi wants to make sure you know that Milton Levine of Uncle Milton’s Ant Farms didn’t invent ant farms, he simply replaced the wood and glass container with plastic.
“We’ve done tons of research on the items we collect just to get to know more about them,” Mardi says. “We’ve also dispelled a whole bunch of myths because of it.”
Alfred Johnson Smith, who was born in the United Kingdom, grew up in Queensland, Australia. According to Mardi Timm, Smith started his mail-order business in his early 20s, around 1908, in Toowoomba, and then moved his operations to the big city of Sydney. The Timms have a 1910 Johnson Smith pamphlet catalog from Sydney in their collection. His first catalogs offered magic tricks and flashlights—and eventually he expanded to include other novelties.
“The flashlight is kind of magical, when you think about it—bang, and the light goes on,” Mardi says. Smith was selling flashlights at a time when most people didn’t have electric lights their homes, so a portable electric light was a mind-blowing invention in those days. “Back in the early 1900s, flashlights were novel, exciting things, but clearly, they’re not anymore. Things that we see every day now and mean nothing to us were once novelties.”
In 1914, Alfred Johnson Smith moved his family and his business to Chicago, with big dreams of taking on Montgomery Ward & Company and Sears, Roebuck, & Company, the two major mail-order catalogs that offered rural Americans everything they could buy at a general store and more.
“We have the earliest Johnson Smith catalogs in the U.S., and they’re filled with all kinds of things,” Mardi says. “He sold some furniture, medical devices, and household items. He tried and tried to compete with the big general-interest catalogs, but he couldn’t. Then he settled on novelties, because that was where his expertise was.”
In the beginning of their collecting journey, the Timms, both history buffs, set out to find out where Johnson Smith had been located in Racine after it left Chicago in 1923 and before it moved to Detroit in 1936. When Alfred Johnson Smith died at age 63 in 1948, his two sons Arthur and Paul Smith took over the company.
“When you shake it, it sounds like there are nuts inside. So you open it. What else are you going to do?”
In 1974, Paul Smith sold the company to a Johnson Smith manager named Paul Hoenle, who eventually created three separate catalogs for the company: “Things You Never Knew Existed,” “The Lighter Side,” and “Betty’s Attic.” Hoenle passed the mail-order business to his children, Ralph Hoenle and Kim Boyd, in 2001.
“They were a very private company,” Mardi says. (In 1984, WAGA-TV’s “Weekend Magazine” in Atlanta sent reporters to the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens to do a story on Johnson Smith for April Fool’s Day, they were repeatedly rebuffed by the company.) “I talked to Paul Smith once, which was amazing because they are really a private family, and they didn’t want anything to do with us. They didn’t want us to dig into anything. They didn’t want to give us any information. Johnson Smith never kept a real archive of their company, so I don’t think the Hoenles have the catalogs we have.”
Scanning the microfiche of old Racine newspapers was no help. Mardi recalls, “Because they were a catalog company, they didn’t advertise in the local newspapers that they were doing business in Racine in the 1920s and ’30s.”
Determined to learn more, the Timms placed an ad in a Racine newspaper in the late ’80s asking for anyone connected to the company to contact them. “Well, a wonderful thing happened,” Mardi says. “We were contacted by some ladies who had worked for the company when they were young women in their teens or early 20s. The company had left Racine in 1936, and these women had stayed in contact with each other all that time, over 50 years.” Mardi punctuates the revelation with one of her characteristic high-energy exclamations, “I know!”
“So Stan and I invited them all to lunch,” she continues. “We rented a room, got them food, and just let them talk. It was the most wonderful thing. The two of us learned so much about the company from them. We wanted to record it, but couldn’t because they were all talking at the same time. We wrote down what we could.”
Some of the women laughed about making Itching Powder, which was a popular prank in the 1920s. Handling the stuff was about as much of a nightmare as you can imagine, but even worse was opening the mail customers sent back to Racine.
“One of the ladies reminisced about working in the returns department,” Mardi says. “At the time, the company was selling live animals such as turtles, snakes, salamanders, chameleons, and baby alligators—I have no idea if any of these alligators became the fabled ones growing in the New York sewers.”
“Smith was an absolute master at marketing. You read his descriptions for various items, and you can’t not want them because his prose was amazing.”
Smith’s copy for “Live Baby Alligators – A Fascinating Pet From the Louisiana Marshlands,” price $1.50, read: “Do you want a Baby Alligator? You bet you do. What boy wouldn’t? … And do you know that Alligators can be hypnotized? To do this you lay the Alligator on its back, make a peculiar moaning sound, and he will be completely ‘hypnotized,’ remaining motionless in this position for hours, days, or even weeks, not even breathing! … Alligators can be tamed and trained, in fact, Alligators will also really SING and LAUGH!”
However, the package often didn’t deliver on the promise. “A lot of these creatures, by the time they went through the mail and got to the people who’d ordered them, were dead,” Mardi says. “So the customers would return them. The lady who was doing returns did not like that job. The packages smelled awful, and in some cases, she had to scrape the dead animal out of the box. The worst ones were the snakes and alligators. From what I remember, she never got used to the sight or the smell.”
Despite of the grim realities of working for “the whole fun catalog,” Mardi says the senior women the Timms interviewed had nothing but positive things to say about the company culture, and its owner, Alfred Johnson Smith. “That was amazing, listening to them talk about Mr. Smith and what a nice guy he was and how well he treated his ‘ladies,'” Mardi says.
The Timms’ newspaper ad also brought out older people who’d held onto to their childhood Johnson Smith catalogs, which they offered to give the collectors. “During the Depression, Johnson Smith & Company was hugely important because it provided cheap entertainment for people, even if that was just reading the catalog,” Mardi says. “One reason we’re still able to find these old catalogs is because people didn’t throw them away. They would keep each catalog. They would loan it to a friend.”
Well into the 1940s, Alfred Johnson Smith wrote all the words that filled the pages of his catalogs, capturing the imaginations of his customers and enticing them to buy his cheap thrills, from summer-camp pranks to water whistles and kazoos, from Ouija boards to mesmerism guides, from riddle books to strange new electrical inventions.
“Smith was an absolute master at marketing,” Mardi says. “You read his descriptions for various items, and you can’t not want them because his prose was amazing. Of course, he lied a lot in the catalog. Before laws changed in the ’50s, advertisers could say anything. I say lying, but with Johnson Smith, it was more like misdirection.”
In addition to novelty inventions and toys, Mardi and Stan have a large collection of do-it-yourself and self-help booklets Johnson Smith sold promising to teach valuable skills like how to win prizes in contests, how to fight using martial arts, how to become a detective, and even how to clog dance. These guides were inspired by similar articles that were published in popular magazines like “Boys Life” and “Popular Mechanics.”
“Alfred Johnson Smith would hire ghostwriters to write the how-to books with his name on them,” Mardi says. “And those were written by people who had never done the things they described, for the most part. A lot of them—maybe not all of them—were written by people who, say, had never flown a plane but were telling you how to fly a plane.
“These guides were similar to the medicine man of the turn of the century with the miracle elixir,” she continues. “The mystique of these booklets came out of those golden words from Alfred Johnson Smith, who knew how write his catalog in way that would make people want them. He was talking to people’s deepest wishes and saying, ‘You know what, we can solve it.'”
Some of the most enticing titles promised to reveal some esoteric or occult knowledge, like Secrets of Black Art or The Mysteries of Clairvoyance. How could any of these have actually worked?
“I haven’t read them all, but from browsing some of them, I know they always had steps to do things,” Mardi says. “Whether those steps would produce an outcome, I don’t know, probably not. It was wishful thinking to say, ‘I really want to read minds,’ and get a book to learn. Then you think, ‘Well, it’s not quite there, so maybe I’ll get another book on it and that book will have the secret.’ The reason people kept ordering from Johnson Smith is that they would get this thing, and it didn’t do quite what they wanted. I think—I’m just guessing here—to some extent maybe they blamed themselves and said, ‘Well, let me try again. So I’ll order another thing for a dime. Maybe it’ll work this time.’ That’s the beauty of it.”
Smith knew his target audience, too. When comic books became aimed toward kids and adolescents in the 1930s, Johnson Smith & Company took out full-page ads in the center and back of comic books that looked like a page from the catalog, which were always full of fun things like X-Ray Spex and U-Control Ghosts.
“We’ve heard this from people that bought from Johnson Smith back in the ’30s-’40s and said, ‘You know, we would send for this stuff, and when it turned out to be junk when we got it, we always sent for more,'” Mardi says. “There’s something wonderful about that. It’s like you can’t not send for it. It’s cheap, interesting, and exciting.”
“One of my favorites is the gun toothbrush. I laugh at that all the time. It’s like, ‘Who the heck is going to put a gun in your mouth and brush your teeth?’ But I guess they did! In the 1950s, yep!”
One man who reached out to the Timms because of their newspaper ad knew exactly where Johnson Smith had been, on the second floor of huge Racine warehouse, on the 1200 block of Washington Avenue, because he would go buy items from the catalog in person. “He told us about his excitement walking up the stairs to the Dutch doors,” Mardi says. “You’d ring a bell, and someone would open the top half of the Dutch door to answer you. Then you’d tell them what you wanted, they would go out into the warehouse and bring it back. You could buy it right there.”
The Timms also learned what brought Johnson Smith to their town, thanks to the son of H.M. Benstead, the one-time CEO of Western Printing, a major company that published children’s books, jigsaw puzzles, board games, and playing cards—and later, Little Golden Books. As soon as Johnson Smith launched his mail-order business in Chicago in 1914, he hired Western Printing—located in Racine—to print all his catalogs.
“Johnson Smith was running into some major financial difficulties in Chicago in the 1920s, and couldn’t pay the printing bill,” Mardi says. “So Western, instead of doing what people would do now—sue them and put them out of business—decided that Johnson Smith’s business was worth moving to Racine in 1923, so Western could help oversee its finances and make the company whole again. Which Western did—Johnson Smith became much more profitable after that. The Johnson Smith catalogs got quite large toward the end of the 1920s and into the ’30s. In 1929, it was up to 768 pages.”
The Timms’ 1980s newspaper ad—a “gold mine” as Mardi calls it—also brought out an 80-year-old man who had worked for Western Printing in the 1920s. He was on the team that miniaturized the Bible for Johnson Smith’s so-called “midget Bible.”
“He talked about how they did it—they didn’t have computers, you know,” Mardi says. “They just kept taking pictures of the text. Take a picture, and then you take a picture of the picture, and a picture of the picture. You keep doing that, making the text smaller and smaller and smaller. When you get it the size you want, you print it. That was it. But it was quite a project at the time.
“He showed me an original of that Bible, his, from the day he first printed it,” she says. “It was incredible. And then he gave me another one. Now we have several, actually. Back then, miniaturizing Bibles and other books was a big deal. Today, people pay a lot of money for vintage miniature books and Bibles.”
Stan and Mardi started hunting for items sold in Johnson Smith catalogs about 10 years before eBay launched, so about one-third of their collection was found scouting small-town and rural antique stores they spotted on road trips through the Midwest. But these catalogs had thousands of products. How would you narrow that down?
“We’d have favorites that we’d search for,” Mardi says. “For years and years, I searched for a little toy called the Baby Tank—and the Baby Tractor. There were catalog entries Stan or I would look at and say, ‘Wow, I really want one of those!’ Then, we would always be on the lookout.
“On our way back from Missouri in the early ’90s, late on a Sunday afternoon, we spotted a little antiques store,” she continues. “It was almost 5 o’clock, so we knew they would be closing. We stopped anyway—what the heck. We went in, walked up to this glass case, looked down, and lo and behold, there was a Johnson Smith item, a scarf pin that’s a stanhope. We had been looking for one of those for a long time. I know! We were like, wow! And we paid $35 for it. I’ll never forget that.”
Johnson Smith’s main toy and novelty supplier, H. Fishlove & Co., was also founded in Chicago in 1914, by a 49-year-old Ukrainian Jewish immigrant named Haim Fishelov and his 16-year-old son, Irving. (The family changed its name to “Fishlove” in America.) H. Fishlove & Co., which marked all of its products with a number and its unforgettable name, became known in the 20th century for inventions like the twirling spaghetti fork, a “Brush for Bald Heads,” Yakity-Yak talking teeth, and Whoops! fake vomit.
Irving Fishlove, who took over the company at age 26 when his father died in 1924, had a reputation for being an incorrigible jokester who cracked himself up. But he was also a savvy businessman who had the foresight to buy dollhouse toilets in bulk when they were first introduced in the 1920s by another Chicago toy maker, TootsieToy. Irving put these mini stools to good use for H. Fishlove gag boxes, which already regularly incorporated TootsieToy miniatures like tiny tools or tea sets, which were also used as the prizes in Cracker Jack boxes. Gag boxes, which had a misleading statement or promise on the box cover, would open to reveal a printed punchline based on the toy inside. The TootsieToy toilet let Irving go wild with potty humor.
“I’ve played with everything. Otherwise, what’s the point of having it? There are some things I don’t touch because they’re just too fragile. But yeah, I’ve broken things.”
“I would love to have known Irving, because that man had to be the most amazing prankster anywhere,” Mardi says. “When Irving Fishlove got a hold of one of those early TootsieToy toilets, he said, ‘I can do something with this!’ And that started this whole rash of toilet jokes. Irving Fishlove had such an imagination for this stuff. Using those TootsieToy toilets was a stroke of genius on his part because he could use the same toilet, the same box, and all he had to do is change the label and he had a whole new product.”
Irving’s son, Howard, who was born in 1936, inherited the company at age 32 when his father died in 1968. Howard’s true passion was acting. As a college student, he’s been an extra in the 1958 B-horror movie, “The Blob,” starring Steve McQueen. In the 1980s, Howard Fishlove found success in TV commercials, including a role as a Soviet fashion-show announcer in a 1985 Wendy’s ad, created by ad man Joe Sedelmaier, who was known for his “Where’s the Beef?” campaign. Howard sold the company to Fun Incorporated—another big Chicago-based magic-trick and novelties retailer run by Graham Putnam—in the mid-’80s, which allowed him to pursue his blossoming commercial career. Howard passed away at age 76 in 2012.
When Stan and Mardi decided to hunt down the Fishloves in 1996, “Stan looked in the Chicago phonebook and there were only two Fishloves listed in the whole book,” Mardi recalls. “The first one he called turned out to be Howard Fishlove’s son. The son called Howard, and then Howard called us.”
Howard Fishlove agreed to meet Mardi and Stan Timm in Chicago, at what Mardi calls a “resort-type restaurant.” This would be the first of several interviews the couple did with Fishlove.
“The first time we went to Chicago to meet Howard Fishlove,” Mardi says. “We brought a whole bunch of the Fishlove things that we’d collected. He had told us he didn’t want us to bring anything, but we brought them anyway.”
Among the items the Timms brought to Howard Fishlove were Spectaculars (giant eyeglasses), chattering teeth, Whoops! plastic barf, girlie glasses, toilet-themed gag boxes, and Tricky Dogs (romantic-couple dog figurines with little magnets in their noses).
“We put some of the things up on the table, and he would pick up an item and not even look at the number on it—because all Fishlove items have a number on them—and he would recite the number of that item and the date that it was produced,” Mardi says. “That man had the most amazing memory. With every single item we brought, he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s a great item.’ Then, he would tell us some backstory about it—I know! Fishlove had put out thousands of items. It was unbelievable.
“All this from a man who didn’t really want to take over this company,” she continues. “He got saddled with it when his dad died. It wasn’t his first love, but he still loves it enough to know everything about it. We were fortunate enough to become friends with Howard. He was an amazing man—quirky and intelligent. I just loved that guy.”
Shortly after talking to Fishlove in the late ’90s, the Timms approached Graham Putnam at Fun Inc. and offered to inventory the Fishlove archive. “When Howard sold the business—and he regretted this afterward—he sold it with all of the archives and back catalog,” Mardi says. “It was all in boxes, just helter-skelter, stuck in a room on the second floor of the building. We were granted access to it, and it was a treasure trove. We inventoried it all. We went through the whole thing, and we took pictures of every box, which we numbered and put it in order. Then, I gave Fun Inc. a CD-R with the whole inventory in a spreadsheet.”
The Timms uncovered Fishlove products they’d never seen before: The Dander-Up Comb (a comb that puts dandruff in your hair), an original General Electric-made jar of Bouncing Putty, a 1930s hula girl that wiggled when you cranked it, among other things. “It was amazing to find all of these things; it was like going back in time,” Mardi says. “The company has since been sold again, so I don’t know what the new owners have done with any of that stuff.”
As a bonus, the first time Mardi and Stan took the train into Chicago to tour the Fun Inc. warehouse, they had the magical experience of seeing the top floor warehouse room where the fake vomit invented by Irving Fishlove in the late ’50s cures in the sunlight.
“Oh gosh, that was so amazing!” Mardi says. “The second floor of this warehouse building has a skylight. This natural light comes in and heats the room, which is a perfect way to dry this stuff. The patties are laid all out on big sheet pans like cookies. I walked in there, and it looked like there were cookies all over. I was just blown away by it. But the recipe is a big secret. Nobody knows it.”
“When you show younger people a Johnson Smith catalog, they are spellbound. I don’t think that’s ever going to end.”
Besides upsetting your mark with a potentially unsanitary substance (fake poop, fake vomit), Johnson Smith catalogs offered many ways to get a rise out of your friends, family, and co-workers. There are things with “creatures” that jump out at you; things that make loud noises; things that squirt water at you; things that smell bad, like Stink Bombs; things that taste bad, like Soap Chocolates; and things that make you messy, like the kaleidoscope that gives you a black eye.
In the early 20th century, American society was far less litigious than it is today. Human frailty and naiveté could be mocked with slapstick humor, without much concern about lawsuits. Back then, nearly every small city or big town had an amusement park at the end of its trolley line, and many of them had walk-through funhouses, which featured at least one prank meant to cause pratfalls while onlookers laughed. But if you were too kind to get a laugh out of someone’s falling down, then you could get a laugh from making them jump.
“Startling was a big deal,” Mardi says. “We have, for example, a little wooden box with a sliding top that fits in your hand. You slide the top off because you want to open it. When you do, a fake mouse (or rat or cockroach) comes out of it, because when you’re pulling the lid, you’re actually pulling a lever that pushes this critter out. It looks like a real animal is crawling out. It’s really scary.”
Perhaps the most well-known startler is the “snake in a can” gag. The Timms collection has no less than 32 objects related to spring-driven devices that send a fake snake or two flying. The cans and jars claim to be mixed nuts, marshmallow cream, shaving cream, “appel blossom” face cream, mustard, raspberry jam, “Lafter’s Beer,” “Old Salt Aged Whiskey,” and peanut brittle. But if you were smart enough to refuse anything offered to you in a canister, you could still get got. The Timms have examples of devices where snakes seem to pop out of pencils, cameras, game boxes, lighters, radios, and bow ties.
“Japanese manufacturers went crazy at one point,” Mardi says. “They just took anything and made a snake pop out of it. There’s one—I think it says it’s pecans—that has something that rattles inside. When you shake it, it sounds like there are nuts inside. So you open it. What else are you going to do?”
A more romantic way to be started by sudden movement is receiving a card that, once you open it, sends a false butterfly fluttering through the air. “Each butterfly has a rubber band,” Mardi explains. “You just wind up the wings with the rubber band, and then you put it inside the card. Because the wings are wound up, it flies out of the card. It’s the coolest thing! Then you can wind it up again and put it back in the card and open it again. You can do it as many times as you want. They were popular during World War II, as soldiers would send them to their girls, or their sweethearts would send butterflies to them overseas. It was a wonderful thing. It still startles you, but it’s just beautiful.”
Skittish and sensitive people no doubt loathed the noisemakers the most. Some of the Timms “bang” pranks were meant to make you think a car tire has blown out or an engine has backfired—and the need for any vehicle repair could be a devastating misfortune in the Great Depression. Some bang devices were set off by activities as mundane as opening a pen cap, reaching for a cigarette, or opening a matchbox.
“It’s amazing all the stuff that goes bang—or snap,” Mardi says. “We have a book with a ‘bang’ device inside; it’s like a cap from a cap gun. So when you open up the book, the plunger hits the cap, and it makes a big bang. We have indoor fireworks, that’s one of my favorites. It’s hard to believe.
“And then there’s ‘snap.'” Mardi says. “We have these little cards called ‘Lola’ that are very suggestive. It looks like a picture of a lady’s legs sticking out of the bottom. It looks like if you pull on the legs, you’re going to reveal a nude. Instead, this little piece comes and smacks on your thumb. I guess that was funny.”
Somewhere in between the water-squirting bow tie and the prank soap that makes your skin grimier as you wash is the Dribble Glass, a tumbler or cup with a hole in it, designed so the would-be drinker ends up with their beverage all over their chin and shirt.
“Collecting dribble glasses was Stan’s big thing,” Mardi tells me, indicating how even though they’ve shared this passion for novelties as a couple, they’ve each gotten excited about different aspects of the field. “In the last 15 years or so, Stan went nuts with dribble glasses. Every one of them is different. Several of those are made by S.S. Adams. I have pictures that give close-ups of the hole in the glass. You can see some are pretty crude, and then some are almost invisible. With the best ones, you can’t even tell the holes are there. But yeah, Stan has, like, 45 dribble glasses. He loves dribble glasses. I don’t know why.”
One big sea change the Timms’ collection documents is how prevalent smoking used to be in America. Today, Americans know that smoking is addictive, and not only causes cancer and lung disease in smokers, but also threatens the health of nonsmokers nearby. Smoking has been banned in restaurants and bars around the country, and smokers are encouraged to quit, using vape pens or Nicorette gum as an intermediate step. Before the ’50s, though, bars, restaurants, hotels, and even drug stores encouraged the habit, giving away countless advertising matchbooks. Cigarette vending machines were everywhere.
“You can’t understand history unless you look at it in its entirety, and then make decisions about what was right and what was wrong.”
The Timms have collected 56 novelties related to smoking: Some let you proffer cigarettes or matches that won’t light. Others, like exploding cigars or water-squirting lighters, are designed to startle. Still others are just clever cigarette dispensers shaped like figurines or a crass ashtray with a boy figurine standing over the bowl—squeeze the device attached to the figurine and it pees water on the smoldering ashes. With so many jokes meant to punk smokers, it’s easy—from a 2020 perspective—to assume the point was to punish smokers or dissuade people from having that smoke. Not so.
“There wasn’t any animosity toward smokers,” Mardi says. “Smoking was the thing. These pranks exist because so many people smoked. It was easy. It was common. Someone was always bumming a cigarette. If you watch an old movie, there’s always somebody going, ‘Oh, can I have a cigarette?’ So there were all kinds of gags that went along with that.”
Similarly, here in the 21st century, guns are a source of deep conflict and fiery debate, given how easy it is to buy a semi-automatic weapon and how common mass shootings have become. So it’s easy to forget how guns were icons of Americana, particularly given the romanticism around World War II heroes and the popularity of Westerns, which were full of shootouts where hardly anyone, except for the baddest of baddies, got shot to death.
So the Timms’ collection has all sorts of toy guns that either make noise or shoot things other than bullets, including a water gun, a pea shooter, a potato gun, a Paper-Buster gun, a cap gun, and spark guns. There are things that just look like guns, but serve completely different purposes.
“Guns were a big deal,” Mardi says. “When kids didn’t have guns, they used their finger and thumb to play cowboy or soldier. So manufacturers created all kinds of ways for kids to have toy guns, or have gun-shaped objects that do something else. For example, there’s the Auto-Magic Picture Gun, which let you project a picture on the wall with a gun. A kid could play with it as a toy gun, but they also use it as a projector. That’s neat.
“There’s a Western Pistol Pencil, where you pull the trigger and a pencil you can write with comes out,” she continues. “One of my favorites is the gun toothbrush. I laugh at that all the time. It’s like, ‘Who the heck is going to put a gun in your mouth and brush your teeth?’ But I guess they did! In the 1950s, yep!”
Not all gun novelties were meant for children. “The pipe gun is another one of my favorites because it’s actually a working pipe,” Mardi says. “But when you turn the pipe upside down, the bowl becomes the handle of a gun, just not a gun that shoots.”
Another common, possibly scandalizing theme in the Timms’ collection are novelty items that brazenly objectify women, including gag boxes that hold two disembodied plastic boobs (The cover of one such gag box says “2 Good Reasons Why Men Leave Home”; another reads “Flats Fixed Quickly”). You still see plenty of fake boobs today on the Spencer Gifts website, but the page is also full of dick jokes. There’s nothing about male genitalia in the Timms’ risqué section.
The Timms have 178 items they’ve grouped into the “girlie/risqué” category. Many are gag boxes that play on men’s fascination with women’s bodies and undergarments. Compared with the bawdy and sometimes cruel humor of the gag boxes, the Timms’ dozens of girlie glasses, with the lovely pin-up images that are more naked inside the glass, seem downright sweet. Many girlie collectibles are everyday objects—like cigarette holders, pencil holders, aftershave bottles, and even soap—made in the shape of a naked woman.
“I would love to have known Irving Fishlove, because that man had to be the most amazing prankster anywhere.”
The so-called girlie items flourished during World War II. Young men, some of them still teenagers, were being sent to a grim situation where they would either die or watch their friends die. Indulging their hormonal fantasies, which otherwise might have been frowned on in polite American society, was a way to let them have joy in dark times.
“During World War II, it was huge to send girlie items to the servicemen,” Mardi says. And the loosening of propriety lingered in the postwar years. “Even going through the ’50s, these things were real popular.” At the same time, the U.S. government’s public-education efforts—along with the advertising and entertainment industries—was selling the idea of the perfect nuclear family as a modest woman with a Barbie doll figure who stays home keeping house for a faithful breadwinning husband as they raise two well-behaved children in the suburbs. Even now, a lot of Americans revere this image promoted in the ’50s as ideal, but “that’s not real,” Mardi says.
America never did live up to its puritanical image. The Timms’ “risqué” section includes saucy hat bands and pins that say things like “Let’s Sit in the Dark,” “Slip It to Me,” and “I’m Single But Willing.” These come from the Roaring Twenties, the first time American mores around courtship loosened up so men and women were freer to mingle and flirt.
Then, there are Johnson Smith-produced pamphlets that must have been so tantalizing for teenage boys (and girls) like Bawdy Ballads and Lusty Lyrics, Confessions of a Taxi Dancer, and How to Make Love. Several of these booklets seem to have a salacious fascination with what they called “white slavery”—and the fact that the word “white” was cause for alarm emphasizes how racist America was.
Speaking of racism, the Timms novelty collection definitely exposes a lot about that national affliction. Many of the jokes and joke books in the Johnson Smith catalog punch down on an already marginalized group. For example, their collection has multiple Irish Jokes books, and no, these are not full of jokes originally told in Ireland. “In the early 1900s, Irish immigrants were seen as ‘the deplorables’ by other Americans,” Mardi says. “Every period throughout history, there’s always a group that you make fun of, and it was the Irish at that time.”
Among the most shocking items in the collection is a WWII-era “Japanese Hunting Certificate,” which is really upsetting when you consider how all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were rounded up and sent to far-away prison camps for years, losing their homes and life savings in the process.
“People tell us, ‘We would send for this stuff, and when it turned out to be junk when we got it, we always sent for more.’ It’s like you can’t not send for it. It’s cheap, interesting, and exciting.”
Mardi also tells the story of finding a Johnson Smith blackface costume with an unprintable name, made out of a straw hat, a black stocking, and fake eyes and lips, at an antique shop outside of Whitewater, Wisconsin. “It’s obnoxious, but it was there,” she says. “It was something in the Johnson Smith catalog, and therefore, we wanted it. It was brand new, never touched. No one had ever used it.”
The Timms have 17 black-memorabilia items featuring racist caricatures, all sold in the Johnson Smith catalog, at a time when such ugly stereotyping was rampant in American pop culture.
“There are things in our collection that I absolutely hate, things I would never let Stan display,” Mardi says. “The only reason we collected those is because they were sold in the Johnson Smith catalog, and therefore, they’re a part of pop-culture history. You can’t understand history unless you look at it in its entirety, and then make decisions about what was right and what was wrong. You can’t just put it away like it doesn’t exist. Otherwise, how can you stop it from happening again?”
While it’s difficult to face the racism that passed as humor in the early 20th century, it’s much more comfortable to imagine our grandparents or great-grandparents having a laugh at a poop jokes. The collection doesn’t have much by the way of postcards, but it features 10 “sand cards,” which are among Mardi’s favorite Johnson Smith offerings—and naturally, they’re usually potty humor.
“A sand card is like a postcard, only it’s a little bit thicker,” Mardi says. “There’s a picture on each side, and they relate to each other. For example, you see an image of a barmaid pouring a drink for someone. Then you rotate it, and as she pours the drink, the sand runs out of the bottle. You don’t know where it goes. So then you flip the card over and someone is usually sitting on a toilet, and you see the sand going in the toilet. That’s the sand card. Now, not all of these work. Some of them, the sand is gone, but you still get the idea of it because they’re just beautifully done. I love these.”
Also on the lighter side, the Timms collection comes with 56 “musical” items such as a nose flutes, kazoos (including specialty toys like the Kazoo Trombone and Sterokazoo), and bird calls, including nearly a dozen “warblers,” which are bird-shaped whistles you fill with water to create trills. They also have 62 toys including banks, handcuffs, miniatures, noisemakers, spinning tops, jumping or zooming critters and model vehicles, and predecessors to the Slinky (Mr. Wiggle), the Magic 8 Ball (Syco-Slate), and Silly Putty (Magic Bouncing Putty).
“The Bicycle Motor is really cool,” Mardi says, naming one of her favorites. “When I was a kid, I wanted my bicycle to sound cool, like a motorcycle. So I attached a playing card to my bike frame with a clothes pin so the card hit the bike’s spokes and it made the noise. Well, this Bicycle Motor does that. It looks like a motor in your car, and when you put it on your bike, it has little bits that touch the spokes as you pedal.”
One of the most striking items in the toy section is called Doozies Animal Faces, a colorful play set Kenner put out in 1960. “That’s a real weird thing,” Mardi says. “I’ve tried to put that together. It’s these Styrofoam pieces you stack and then you put plastic things over the stack to make various faces. The minute you move it, the whole thing falls apart.”
It’s refreshing how Mardi is not at all precious with her collectibles. She’s a kid at heart. “I’ve played with everything,” she confesses. “Otherwise, what’s the point of having it? There are some things I don’t touch because they’re just too fragile. But yeah, I’ve broken things. Stan gets mad at me. He’s like, ‘We can’t put it back together again.’ I say, ‘I don’t know. We’ll figure this out.’ That doesn’t make him happy.”
Naturally, a novelty and magic collection wouldn’t be complete without red clown noses, “horrible” fake teeth, and the basic “disguise” that comes with spectacles and a fake nose. The Timms’ vintage disguise is particularly special, though. Stan bought it on eBay, and received an illuminating note from the seller, Matt Weaver.
He wrote to the Timms: “My father, Robert Edward Weaver, Peru, Indiana, Artist/Professor Emeritus, Indiana University, grew up with the American circus when it winter-quartered in Peru, Indiana, and went out with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Show in the 1930s, working as a clown along with drawing and painting the performers, etc. This was one of his props and one that survived since his passing in 1991. He loved to wear it at parties given at our house or would bring along to other events to surprise or create a scene. The kids would go crazy and would want to wear it, so it has had great times and is a survivor. I really have never seen one like this, as all available are new cheap, China-made pieces. The nose is soft rubber and the frames are hard, dark amber plastic. This is all the background I have of how I can state the time frame of the 1930s. Thank you for your interest. Matt Weaver”
“Isn’t that amazing?” Mardi says. “I love that! These are amazing glasses. The nose is deteriorating, you know, but it’s just such a great piece, especially with this note that goes with it because it gives it some history.”
The collection also has 71 items grouped under “puzzles and games,” including the ESP Cards with simple shapes Dr. Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) uses to torment a college student in the beginning of 1984’s “Ghostbusters.” These cards, sometimes called Zener cards, were actually developed in the 1930s by real academics, psychologist Karl Zener and parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine, who established the parapsychology department at Duke University. These are the things you learn hanging out with the Timms.
Most of the puzzles are mechanical brain teasers related to Houdini’s contortionist magic, things that require you to get twisted nails or metal hoops apart. “Most of these are logical,” Mardi says, “so I can’t make ’em work. In magic, there’s always the idea that whatever just happened couldn’t possibly have happened. And so when you look at these puzzles, it’s the same thing. You think, well, it’s impossible to get the pieces apart.”
In the early 1990s, the Timms began to correspond with Jerry Slocum, a world-renowned puzzle collector, known for books such as Puzzles Old and New and The Book of Ingenious and Diabolical Puzzles, both with Jack Botermans; and The Cube: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Bestselling Puzzle with David Singmaster, Dieter Gebhardt, Wei-Hwa Huang, and Geert Hellings. He had collected some Johnson Smith catalogs and wanted to know if the Timms could tell him more.
Mardi finally met Jerry Slocum while she was in Indian Wells, California, at a 1995 All-American Girls Professional Baseball League reunion—the ’40s and ’50s women’s sports organization that inspired the 1992 film “A League of Their Own.” At the time, the Timms were making T-shirts, jackets, and other memorabilia for the league. Slocum later invited Mardi and Stan to his home in Beverly Hills.
“He’s known worldwide because he was literally the puzzle collector,” Mardi says. “I was at his home twice and—amazing, unbelievable. He had a whole building built behind his house that housed his puzzle collection, which was phenomenal.”
Slocum, a historian and former engineer at Hughes Aircraft, had collected more than 40,000 mechanical puzzles and 4,500 books. At age 75 in 2006, Slocum donated more than 30,000 puzzles to Indiana University’s Lilly Library.
“When I was at his house, Jerry gave me a small Coke bottle,” Mardi says, “and there was a wooden arrow going right through it. He challenged me to figure it out. I spent years trying to figure out how that stupid arrow got in there. He always said to me, ‘Mardi, if you can figure it out, call me up, then I’ll tell you if you’re right.’ Well, I called him several times, and he said ‘Noooo.’ Every time, he said ‘Noooo.’ I now know how it’s done because I have a friend who solved it. But I haven’t called Jerry to tell him.”
“It’s painful, but it’s time. Somebody else needs to be the curator of this.”
If you’ve made it this far in this story, you’ve probably recalled a time in your childhood when something small and goofy provided you with hours of entertainment. Johnson Smith closed down just last year, and the S.S. Adams brand was bought by Magic Makers in 2007, but Fun Inc., Archie McPhee, Spencer Gifts, and magic-trick dealers around the country are holding down the novelties market. Still, do the Timms think, with all the new, shiny, digital ways we have to play and punk each other—TikTok, Angry Birds, Rickrolling—that old-school novelties, and their numerous farts jokes, have lost their appeal?
“Absolutely not, no,” Mardi says. “I can tell you that a thousand percent. Especially with younger people, when you show them a Johnson Smith catalog, they are spellbound. When we had our collection on display, people were just blown away by it, wanting to try things and saying, ‘Oh my gosh! Oh, that’s great.’ I don’t think that’s ever going to end. It’s just too much fun.”