S.S. Adams, now owned by Magic Makers, was the original American novelty company. For their 100th anniversary, they released a pictoral history of their products called, Life of the Party. Kirk Demarais, the author, agreed to answer a few of our questions. Kirk is not just an author, he’s also an ace designer and the blog-master of Secret Fun Blog. When J.J. Abrams was recently asked to name his top ten most wired things for Wired Magazine, Kirk’s book was number one!
So Kirk, what got you into novelties? Was it a particular toy or memory?
I’ve had a raging affinity for toys since early childhood, from Fisher-Price to Weebles to Star Wars and so on. My introduction to the novelty world came at age four when my uncle took my family to the House of Magic at Walt Disney World where I scored a King Tut Magic Mummy trick and my first Beagle Puss (a.k.a. the Groucho disguise.)
I graduated to pranks in second grade when my buddy brought an S.S. Adams Snake Nut Can to class. I’d been coveting these things in the comic book novelty ads for ages, and suddenly the gap between me and the impervious mail order world had closed. The gag was so intriguing because it was fun like a toy and yet something about that metal can with its serious graphics and the unforgiving snake made it seem so grown up. I was also fascinated by the notion of a store-bought product that was produced solely for the sake of deception. You could terrify your friends and family… and that was the whole point! The next weekend I talked my dad into a trip to the local novelty shop for a can of my own. It was there that I discovered a whole line of Adams products. A reputable company that endorsed and promoted mischief— this was truly a novel concept.
How did you become a collector?
When I was eleven I bought a small package of old plastic trinkets at a yard sale for fifty cents. The miniatures were similar to the ones I’d always found in gumball machines, but these were from a series called Goofy Gifts, which were packaged on a card that featured this stunning 1950s style illustration of a scientist. I valued the artwork so much that I couldn’t bring myself to tear it open and play with the trinkets; so I displayed it on my shelf. I consider it to be my first collectible.
I didn’t start amassing pranks until I was a teenager. I’d always dreamt of being a master prankster, going everywhere with a concealed arsenal of gags under my jacket, equipped for any situation. There’s a scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure when Mr. Herman makes a routine stop at a prank and magic shop where he stocks up on what he calls “supplies.” The shopkeeper knows Pee-Wee by name and he obviously burns through a reserve of tricks on a weekly basis. I wanted that. So I eventually started buying tricks whenever I could get my hands on them, mostly during vacations at tacky tourist destinations. At some point I realized that I preferred admiring joke items to actually using them.
How did you get involved with S.S. Adams?
As a kid my enthusiasm for pranks was matched by my passion for drawing, so naturally I started putting gags in my artwork…
This is my childhood version of a prank catalog…
(I prefer not to speculate on what that hairy blob is supposed to be.)
In the mid 1990s when I first got access to the program PhotoShop I asked myself what my dream design job would be, and working on a novelty catalog was the obvious choice. So in order to learn the program I assigned myself a layout for a faux S.S. Adams catalog page. The result was this now-shameful piece…
(It should be noted that two of those items weren’t even produced by Adams.)
By 2003 I was actually getting paid to design, but not by a novelty company. In fact, I often gave on-the-job soliloquies to my coworkers on how I would go about redesigning the S.S. Adams product packaging.
By then I had also become an expert in the art of Ebay. One of my triumphant auctions involved a set of vintage S.S. Adams display cards. When I got the invoice from the seller I noticed that he was Christian Adams from New Jersey. Chris confirmed my suspicion that he was indeed a member of the royal family of novelties (Samuel Sorenson’s grandson) and the current owner of the business. He had no choice but to become my pen pal.
The following year I mailed Chris a DVD of a short film (Flip) my friends and I created because we had used some vintage Adams product to dress the sets. I don’t know if he cared for the film or not, but he saw that I had designed the DVD cover…
And he asked me if I would be interested in doing some work for them. When I got the news I looked exactly like the victim in the Joy Buzzer ads. My feet flew up behind my head and my entire body violently convulsed.
Incredibly, my first assignment was a destiny-fulfilling catalog cover…
I went on to give them their first package redesign in decades…
And as if all that wasn’t dream-like enough, one of my cover illustrations was adapted as a prop in the recent version of the movie Hairspray…
When all of this happened I was living in a tiny Arkansas town with relatively little design experience. Even after I’d crossed paths with Chris I never expressed my secret life-long wishes to create for his company. In case it isn’t clear by now—I didn’t just get involved with them, I was custom made to work for the S.S. Adams prank and magic company.
How did the book come about?
The manifestation of Life of the Party is just as miraculous as the rest of my Adams story. In the days when my relationship with Adams was merely a wild fantasy I purchased a copy of Chip Kidd’s Batman Collected book and decided that it was the greatest collectibles book ever conceived by man in both form and content. (This was obviously prior to the Archie McPhee Who Would Buy This? book.) My next thought was that commercial pranks and magic deserved the same treatment.
But by the time I started working for Adams two books had come out on the subject of novelties; one was on Adams specifically. (They were S.S. Adams, High Priest of Pranks and Merchant of Magic by William Rauscher and Mark Newgarden’s Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item.) This shot holes in my aspiration and I never saw any point in pitching my book concept. That’s why I was floored when Adams co-owner David Haversat asked me if I’d consider doing a visual history book to celebrate their centennial anniversary. I remain astonished.
More than a year later as I was putting the finishing touches on Life of the Party, in a moment of pure full-circleness, I got a surprise email from Chip Kidd. His unsolicited message contained a wonderful blurb for my book! It so happened that his good friend and legendary graphic novelist Chris Ware (who had generously contributed the foreword) had passed the layouts on to him completely unaware that Chip’s book was the very one I was ripping of— I mean- was my inspiration.
My favorite story from the book is the discovery of sneezing powder. Could you tell it?
Cachoo sneezing powder was the first product Adams offered. S.S. discovered it while working for a company that sold coal-tar derivative. The outfit spent big money to extract an undesirable ingredient called Dianisidine from their product. Dianisidine was troublesome because it caused massive sneezing for anyone who worked near it. S.S. found that just a tiny pinch of the potent powder could turn a large room into a sneezing riot. In the 1940s, decades after Adams had built an empire on this bi-product, the FDA stepped in and banned it. Around this time, the Germans were adopting it as a chemical weapon. They poured it into shrapnel shells and fired it at the French, but its use was discontinued because “it has only limited ability to create casualties on the battlefield…” (quoting Chemical and Biological Warfare by Eric Croddy) Thus the unsavory ingredient in sneezing powder was eventually replaced with finely ground pepper.
Is there a holy grail of novelties that you haven’t found?
Thanks to ebay I keep having to come up with new holy grails. In the past there were things like The Weebles Haunted House, the S.S. Adams Life of the Party joke set, and the original pair of X-Ray Spex (with plastic frames).
Right now it would have to be the U-Control Ghost that was sold by Johnson Smith and Co. It consisted of a balloon, some string, stick-on eyes and a sheet of plastic that looked suspiciously like a trash bag. Countless kids were suckered into buying them, but for obvious reasons, nobody seemed to keep them. If anyone can direct me to one, please do! It’s okay if it’s not for sale; I just want to marvel at it.
What product do you think has the largest gap between the promise of the comic book advertisement and what you actually get?
Most any of the giant monster items that were hawked in comic book ads. There’s the U-Control Ghost I mentioned earlier and then there’s the Life Size Monsters that were offered by the Honor House Corporation. The ad for those specifically cited “durable polyethelene” which really misled boys into expecting a huge action figure, but in truth they were posters printed on sheets of plastic. There was also a crop of giant monsters and dinosaurs that turned out to be balloons.
Was there ever a safety issue with an Adams product that got hushed up?
From what I understand, there’s never been an involuntary product recall (heh, aside from the whole FDA sneezing powder thing. Oh, and the same thing happened with itching powder.) Their relatively clean record is especially remarkable considering some of their long gone products like the Bending Knife which was a knife with a hidden hinge where the blade meets the handle (constructed from a genuine steak knives no less), and the Auto Bomb which was a pyrotechnic device that was wired to the victim’s car battery which emitted smoke followed by an explosion.