Mail-Order Mysteries


If you devoured comic books in the ’70s and ’80s, you were probably as enchanted with those small-print, full-page toy ads as I was. Mail-order companies, such as Johnson Smith and the Fun Factory, sold novelties like hotcakes. Incredible guarantees for X-Ray Spex, spy cameras, hovercraft, spud guns, smoking pets, and the iconic Sea Monkeys seemed too good to be true. As author Kirk Demarais found out, most of these offers were. In his wonderful volume, titled Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!, Demarais delineates the fine line between grandiose gag gifts and genuine junk.

Collecting these inexpensive oddities since childhood (and expanding his collection as an adult via eBay), Demarais debunks the cheap throwaways and lauds the bona fide keepers. Complete with a glow-in-the-dark cover (!), the full-color book sorts the gags into groups. In the “High Finance” category, the roller-style money-maker is prominently featured. As it turns out, it was indeed a trick: you roll in a blank, bill-shaped piece of paper, and out rolls a crisp dollar that you had to preload!

Under “Superpowers and Special Abilities” is, naturally, the iconic Charles Atlas. He didn’t immediately make you a strongman for those beach trips, but his program booklet contained the secrets to a better body in just fifteen minutes a day. The Charles Atlas Fitness Program still lives today, though its cost has gone from a mere dime to the current $49.95!

In “War Zone,” that classic set of 100 green plastic toy soldiers was lovingly featured in Pixar’s Toy Story movie franchise, housed in a plastic bucket, though the original mail-order versions arrived in a cardboard foot locker. And let’s not forget the atomic mini pistol, which was simply a glorified cap gun on a keychain.With its demystification of exploding pens, whoopee cushions, book safes, joy buzzers, switchblade combs, onion-flavored chewing gum, and tacky glue that simulated “mystic smoke” from your fingertips upon application, Mail-Order Mysteries is the perfect book for those who spent countless hours in Spencer Gifts as kids while their mothers were shopping in the mall. In related news, the author produced a short film entitled Flip, about a ’60s-era, novelty-obsessed kid.

Chris Ayers

Chris is mega-excited to contribute his wacky ideas to Retroist, because he thinks that there wasn't any better era for growing up than the '70s & '80s. He also contributes to Exclaim! Magazine,, and Metal Urges Podcast.

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