UPDATE!: Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom of the article to check out an amazing reply to this post from Mark Pahlow, founder of Archie McPhee!!
Content Advisory: It's pretty mild, but this post contains some imagery that might not go over well at the office, or any place where semi-nudity and crude humor isn't okay.
During a recent journey across the internet I happened upon this photo of a genuine novelty shop window from the 1980s. I'd like to send out my heartfelt thanks to the anonymous soul who had the wherewithal to capture this piece of space and time. The cost of film and development alone would prevent most from snapping a picture like this. (That's why I suspect it was taken by the shop owner or the window dresser, but I'll speculate more in a moment.) Not only does it exist— it's a quality photo and somehow it made the digital leap onto the web! The extent of the display is also remarkable even for a time when novelty items were more prevalent.
After marveling for a while I put on my cyber-detective hat and started asking questions.
When was this photo taken?
Based on the "Think Fat"poster I have deduced that it was taken in 1985 or later. However, the mix of merchandise goes back at least a decade and a half before that. For instance, the Executive Waste Basket Ball dates back to 1966 (though they remained on shelves for a long while). A couple other packages have that late sixties look too. This may be a clue as to when the store opened.
Where was this?
Certainly in the United States, as indicated by the Jimmy Carter bottle opener, and probably below the Mason-Dixon line considering the confederate flag, hat, and bow tie. It's most likely a touristy spot. Some place like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or maybe somewhere in Florida or Texas, or perhaps an east-coast beach town?
What store is this?
Is the business called Michel's or Michelle's, or something else? That's still a mystery.
When I reversed the image and enhanced it a bit you can see another sign that says "Michel's."
Also, commenter Hugh Walter theorizes that it could be an internal display, possibly for trade rather than retail. Very interesting!
Of course the big question is, what exactly were they selling? After a lot of staring and a lot of googling I've been able to identify over two dozen objects, and I've located photos of most of them. Some I recognize, but couldn't find photos of. These include: the big blue Sob Scarf, the Talking Refrigerator at the bottom, and that particular Lucky Dice display.
A couple of them remain shrouded in pixels. The one that drives me nuts is the thing that looks like a camera in the bottom middle. The image on the side looks like sequential shots of a baseball player. Is it some sort of novelty camera? The other one I want to know about is the pinkish box in the bottom left with the hand dropping something (a coin?) into another hand. There's also that tasseled fabric thing hanging next to the flags in the upper right corner. This could be another clue to the locale. If you have any ideas, please don't hesitate to comment.
Mysteries aside, let us turn our attention to the known products that make up this carefully curated medley of mirth.
1. Blow-up doll
This is probably the most common inflatable girl, considering it's been in production for nearly half a century. She's inexplicably named Judy and she's often sold alongside her soulmate, John. This model is not anatomically correct, however, that fact doesn't dispel the social stigma placed on Judy owners.
2. Phony Arm Cast (with sling and safety pin for the sling)
The 'phony' genre of gags are typically unable to fool anyone standing closer than ten feet away. But this classic sympathy-getter is surprisingly realistic when worn. Cover it in fake signatures for maximum effect.
This reaction to the '80s fitness craze demonstrates the gift shop's role as a cultural first responder. Trend chasing profiteers brought us everything from Michael Jackson-esque glitter gloves to Beanie Baby preservation devices. Timely or not, it's tough to imagine even one customer compelled to pay for this poster and then hang it up for daily viewing. Maybe the ultra-wacky college student from a Spring Break movie, who already owns the double-can beer helmet, and a closet full of Hawaiian shirts? But the truth is, enough people voted with their dollars to fund a fat joke poster subgenre. And it wasn't just this company, here are a couple others from Western Graphics...
Speaking of poster makers, according to the copyright info, the Think Fat image was bestowed upon us by "Tony Stone Associates." Some ebay research yields a mini portfolio by Stone and company which includes: two bewildered kittens, a cockpit, and a baby sitting among a selection of chamber pots and bed pans. Mind you, all of these are large wall posters intended for home decorating.
4. 'Kiss Me' Inflatable Lips
This misshapen, yet demanding object is the sort of thing that can pass for romantic in the context of a carnival, or a sweaty boardwalk.
5. Mr. John Fake Urinal
This was produced by Fishlove, Inc. which was one of the top commercial merrymakers in the 1960s and 70s. They were responsible for the classic Chatter Teeth, Whoops fake vomit, jumbo sunglasses, and a ton of box gags. ( I demoed a Fishlove party gag kit a long time ago.)
This item seems like another potential classic, but I suppose few would-be pranksters were willing to risk the messy consequences of it actually fooling someone. (I found this photo on the Fun Incorporated Instagram which does indeed incorporate some fun images.)
6. Rubber Chicken
Another definitive novelty, and this shop proves their credibility by offering at least three different designs. (This is the one on the left.) Think about that, three different styles of rubber chickens to choose from! That is just unbelievably hardcore. I fancy myself a novelty enthusiast, but this makes me a bit uncomfortable.
7. Costume Ball and ChainEven at this place a ball and chain seems like an odd choice for a window piece. There I go again, always underestimating the number of people interested in dressing as the standard black-and-white-striped prisoner. In actuality, it's been a staple for decades. It's half of the old 'cop and crook' couples' theme, plus, a prisoner represents deviance in the most general sense. In fact, the ball and chain is an internationally recognized symbol for captivity even though it hasn't been commonly used for generations! Now I totally get why they put one in the window.
8. Magic Knife
Kicking off a series of "thru head" items is the Magic Knife. The name of the product, the unrestrained graphics, and the chintzy plastic construction blur the lines between illusion, costume accessory, and toy. The blood splattered word "TERRiBLE" is simultaneously appropriate and out of place. The whole thing smacks of cultural illiteracy, which only adds value in my opinion. The Native American artwork may seem odd, but I'm betting that it's an attempt to associate with the better-known Arrow Through Head tradition. One thing is for sure, Knife Thru Head poses a real marketing challenge. Just look at these other designs...
The approach on the bottom right is the most successful in my opinion. The vampire element doesn't make a lot of sense, but the designer prevented the product from obscuring the artwork and the text, and the light gray gravestones are a nice contrast to the black knife, which ensures visibility.
Wow, critiquing decades-old novelty packaging gives me a tremendous rush.
9. Trick Arrow Trough Head
As I said before, this is the most well known of the "through the head" products. It looks to be the earliest incarnation, plus, it was popularized by Steve Martin's stand up comedy act. Martin fans took to wearing them to his shows where he mocked the lesser quality versions. I have a theory that Martin's were custom made from real arrows. This is a thought that puts deep envy in my heart.
10. Nail Thru Head
This one feels like a cash grab following the success of its predecessors. It's also the most unlikely of the bunch considering the scarcity of foot-long spikes in our daily lives. However, I do appreciate the phrase "wonderfully weird 'nut' case."
11. House Rules fake clock
This is probably the uncredited inspiration behind Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet's horrible song.
More importantly, it represents one of my favorite forms of novelty: humorous barware from the mid-century. I love the notion of the basement bartender keeping a stockpile of sight gags on hand to keep things lively. There were no bar shelf pictorials in Good Housekeeping, nor was there a "man cave" aisle in Hobby Lobby, and yet people instinctively knew how to decorate this corner of the house. The booze and the decor worked harmoniously to create a casual atmosphere intended to maximize comfort and minimize pretense.
I'd like to take a few moments to celebrate this phenomenon with pictures. Fictional examples can be seen in Edward Scissorhands...
and Mary Tyler Moore...
And here's a real life example that I found on this blog...
This one even has a different version of the clock...
More glorious real life examples courtesy of ebay...
12. Magnum P.I. Poster
While this bit of pop culture isn't out of place in a gift shop such as this, the choice to put it in the window seems to reflect the taste of the window dresser, especially considering that it's one of two dark-haired, mustachioed hunks on display. (see below)
13. Burt Reynolds Reclining Nude PosterThis is the poster version of Burt's infamous 1972 photo shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine. It is perhaps the closest thing to a male equivalent of the famous Farrah Fawcett poster from the same era. Burt recently said that he regrets his decision to do it, even speculating that it may have cost him an Oscar for his role in 'Deliverance.' Read the link, he really said that.
Here's the photo again so you don't have to keep scrolling back up...
14. Fake Lobster-
I know I shouldn't question the appeal of novelties, but it's hard for me to understand the endgame here. It's too big and artificial looking to be a dinner table gag. It's not really a toy. My best guess is that it's more of a party decoration, maybe for a luau or ocean themed event. Whatever the use, the demand is real or they wouldn't keep manufacturing this thing decade after decade.
15. Hanging Fuzzy Dice
Another perennial item, cleverly juxtaposed with the display of regular sized dice in the shop window.
16. Fake Spear
This potential costume accessory doubles as a toy for the kiddies. This type of thing popped up when baby boomers were kids and just never went away. Every souvenir hut seems to have a mini arsenal of 'historic' weapons and regalia. Speaking of which...
Who are the parents that encourage their kids to dress up as the losing team?
18. Executive Waste-Basket-Ball
This was produced by Poynter products, another notable player in the novelty game during the golden years. Their most prevalent output (based on Ebay listings) was the Jayne Mansfield water bottle, the go-go dancer drink mixer, and a battery-operated Frankenstein whose pants fall down.
I really admirer their product line. It was far more diverse, complex, and imaginative than the competition...
Anyway, I consider the Waste-Basket-Ball a minor classic. How else would movies depict the passage of time for playful people with writers block, or all-night study montages?
19. Sin Glasses-
I wonder which came first, the name or the product? The box design was definitely 'on trend' but the glasses are almost unrecognizable on the model. (Maybe to tone down the bawdiness?) I can sense the optimism behind this one, someone thought it would be the next big thing. Maybe they were ahead of their time because this Youtube video has nearly a quarter million views.
Urinating statues have been around since ancient times, but during the last century they finally became portable (and affordable) thanks to the advent of squirt gun mechanics. I'm impressed with the way this figure is designed with careful ambiguity, so as to cater to both young and old, and notice how the genitalia is obscured on the package while still communicating the product's function. But despite so many well-made decisions, I think the name was a big mistake. I was writing a paragraph that explained the problem, and explored possible solutions when I realized that I've already lingered on this way too long.
Believe it or not, this item was in the news earlier this year when a popular gas station attendant was fired after a customer complained that he used a Weepy to spray cleaning fluid on their windshield. The internet was not happy with the decision.
I've tested my share of trick balls (billiard, baseball, and golf) and none of them move in squiggly lines like the one shown on this deceptive package. However, the Crack Up golf balls are made of some compressed powdery stuff that will indeed fly apart when hit hard enough. The down side is that it lacks the shine or markings of a real ball so good luck fooling anyone. I wish I could travel back to 1978 and warn everyone.
22. Happy Mouth Bottle Opener
In the gift biz Jimmy Carter was reduced to his mouth and his
love of peanuts pre-presidential role as a peanut farmer, often at the same time. I'm amazed that the makers of Happy Mouth didn't turn the handle into a peanut. I have nothing but respect for their sense of restraint.
23. Gas-Up Pocket Flask Decanter
Produced in 1973, this was undoubtedly inspired by the national oil crisis of the same year. I love that it exists, but it seems so elaborate (even requiring batteries) for such a semi-amusing concept, and the possible payoff seems pretty low.
Unless you imagine the very best case scenario— It's 1973 and you're a well-liked member of your local lodge. You're deep into the biggest party of the year, the girl has already popped out of the cake, and you walk over to the coat check where you pull this decanter out of your briefcase. You picked it up at your favorite joke shop on the way here. (You're a regular and the owner knows you by name, and gives you discounts.) You got a big bonus this year so the lofty price tag didn't cause you to blink. Also, you remembered to buy batteries.
You discreetly assemble the whole thing, and fill it with your favorite booze while your friends start to notice your absence. (This group of lugs are the best a guy could ask for, friends til the end.) Thanks to the 'pocket hook' the Gas-Up device fits undetectably inside your jacket.
Armed for laffs, you head back towards the heart of the shindig trying to conceal a huge grin. Someone has a lampshade on their head, but you know they're about to lose their "life of the party" status. You approach a semi-circle of esteemed brethren that includes: the local mayor, the owner of the new bowling alley, and Telly Savalas. You say, "Can I freshen anyone's drink?"
as you open your jacket. The room is a tinderbox of laughs and you just brought a stick of dynamite. You've ensured your rise to social stardom while lessening gas crisis anxiety. You are an American hero.
But under any other circumstance Gas-Up seems a bit lame.
UPDATE: Here's a very insightful response to this post from Mark Pahlow, founder of Archie McPhee!! Excess at 1980s Gatlinberg gift shows?!! Tales of the Manhattan toy show?! An exclusive peek into the history of the novelty biz?!! It's so great I can't take it!!...
"The time your photo was taken could be as early as late 1970s, because of the Jimmy Carter items being so prominent, or most anytime in the 1980s. There was so much Jimmy Carter junk produced that it was being sold years after he left office.
Carter's run for the White House (a classic move by a governor most of the country never heard of but who had a strong state support group to push him through the various state primaries) was a period full of peanut theme novelties because of his family's long history of peanut farming in Georgia.
As for where it was taken, it might have been in Gatlinburg, TN, at a Smoky Mountain Gift Show. That small town held a famous trade show for decades, often scattered in the conference rooms of assorted motels there, that was strong on novelties and had national attendance. I remember the local folks being really friendly there. And I remember being scared driving a rental car at night from the airport to Gatlinburg on narrow, two-lane roads.
We ate lots of chicken fired steak at those shows. There were a lot of characters at that time, with lots of unhealthy food, cigarettes and booze. I loved the small companies making
novelties out of tree stumps, coal, sugar, etc.--lots of small outfits trying to make it in the marketplace.
But I think it is more likely to have been taken in one of the lower rent, lower floors of the 200 Fifth Avenue Toy Center (Building) in Manhattan. I went there for many years, starting in the late 70s. I was a naive kid in the Big Apple, sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment there because the hotels were so expensive. At the time, New York City was the motherlode for the novelty trade.
The big toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel had large, posh showrooms on the upper floors, that often required an appointment to enter. The smaller jobbers, importers and old family novelty firms, most of which also had offices and warehouses (yes, at that time Manhattan still had property cheap enough to use for warehousing) nearby, showed there. There were small rooms, often without windows, were jobbers showed goods while chain smoking.
After I wandered that building, I'd walk to the nearby offices/showrooms of novelty importers to inspect their huge selection of products.
M. Pressner & Co. was a short walk south on Broadway. I'd walk the showroom aisles with Jerry Pressner and place orders. Pressner carried the popular Sin Glasses that you showed in the photo. Their logo was a crown and the name "Empress" which was on their packages and shipping cartons.
At that time Pressner still had a small facility in New Jersey that producing US-made plastic toys like Cracker Jack animals, doll accessories and novelty charms and trinkets. It was such lovely stuff!
Also nearby was Nadel & Sons, where I worked with Mel Nadel. I bought the classic Nail Through Head carded novelty, exactly as shown, from Nadel. And then I 'd see the notorious Nat Shaland at Wm. Shaland Co. There was Louis Greenberg as well.
All of these importers still had old stock novelties and toys that were made in Japan and I bought all I could. It was a transition time for novelty and toy production being moved to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
I'd sit with these Kings of the Novelty Trade and ask questions and listen to their stories.
World War II was really a challenge for them as all Japanese goods were banned in the US and their warehouses were full of Japanese made goods. I also learned in the old days a firm selling merchandise could depreciate their product inventory each year, as though it were a fixed asset, which is unbelievable when compared to general accounting principles today. And in the 1950s they faced an income tax rate that was as high as 90%.
I loved those guys and the amazing products they created and sold. They were rubber chicken/nail through head swashbuckling marketing pirates and geniuses, who helped teach me the trade and gave me payment terms of net 30 days when I was starting out and had no money.
This blog post brought back some good memories for me! I miss all those guys & that ephemeral world. I am happy that you, Kirk, are doing the work to capture some history and flavor of these wonderful products and people. I tip my hat to you, buddy!"