Comic books that circulated from the 1950s to the 1970s were jam-packed with ads that promised everything from fame and fortune to live miniature puppies. You could buy a shrunken head, print your own money, or grow 3″ taller, all for 99 cents, C.O.D. (which meant you paid the mail carrier cash on delivery). Most of the items were junk and for many of us, it was the first buzzkill of our idyllic young lives. Millions of boys were disappointed that they didn’t end up with bodies like Charles Atlas and millions more were devastated when the x-ray specs didn’t allow them to see under the dresses of the girls at school. It was probably a good thing that the FTC eventually stepped in and put some regulations in place so kids could find more productive uses for their allowances, like Wacky Packages and Bubble Yum. Nevertheless, it was fun to dream about what might arrive in the mail after you filled out the coupon from the back of the comic book and waited 4-6 weeks for delivery. Because you never knew…
Here are 10 comic book ads that destroyed your faith in mankind before you hit puberty…
10. Polaris Nuclear Sub
“How proud you will be as commander of your own POLARIS sub — the most powerful weapon in the world!” the ad copy in the back of the comic book read. It promised that you’d be able to fire nuclear weapons and torpedos — actual torpedos! Uncle Sam was apparently willing to part with the nation’s nuclear secrets for a mere $6.98. Sure, $6.98 was on the high end of the comic book paraphernalia price points, but it was a small price to pay for the opportunity to command an actual submarine. It was definitely worth several weeks of chores (and maybe your birthday money thrown in).
While it probably disappointed millions of children who saved their allowances for months to pay for the nuclear sub (with a real periscope!), we should probably be relieved that the U.S. government didn’t sell our military secrets to Honor House Products. What kids actually received was a cardboard model that, after assembly, just sat there. Doing. Absolutely. Nothing. My guess is that the nukes were to be provided upon two boys entering the sub right after eating a hearty Mexican lunch.
9. “Krak-A-Jap” Machine Gun
Who could forget the New Commando “Krak-A-Jap” Machine Gun? After learning a racial slur, you could head on over to Pearl Harbor to see if there were any Japanese soldiers skulking around. As bad as Krak-A-Jap sounds, they were actually first made in 1942, at the onset of WW II. Back then, Americans considered those with whom we were at war to be the enemy and it was still OK for children to play with toy guns — no SWAT team investigation necessary. The best part? “You needn’t send a single penny to own a Krak-A-Jap. Just have Dad or Mother -fill out the no-risk coupon.” This would buy you some time to save up the $1.49 the postman would collect (C.O.D.) when he delivered your package.
One blogger describes what you received when your package arrived: “It is entirely crafted from wood with the exception of the ‘cooling sleeve’ which is made from cardboard. The gun has a ratchet mechanism that, when cranked, makes a loud clacking noise replicating a machine gun. The bipod legs can be removed and the pistol grip moved forward so the gun can be carried as a ‘tommy gun.'” It was certainly a step up from the POLARIS nuclear sub (and not a bad deal for a buck forty-nine!).
8. Frontier Cabin
The frontier cabin promised that it was “big enough for 2-3 kids to live in on their own.” Many children, after seeing those ads, drifted off to sleep at night dreaming about what it would be like to have their own place. Perhaps they could set up their cabin in mom and dad’s backyard — heck, at 5/$4.00, you could set up a small village back there. You were sure your parents would go for this as long as you did your chores at the main house and kept up with your homework! Ahh… think of the freedom! No bedtimes, you’d get to eat whatever you wanted, and you’d have your own nameplate on your door… it was going to be like a Western movie right in your own backyard!
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be that simple. What arrived in the mail was actually a sheet of vinyl with logs printed on it — a flat sheet of vinyl that could only assume the shape of a log cabin if you draped it over a table. If you managed to fit 2 or 3 of your friends under the table, you quickly found out that it turned into a sauna and you were soon overcome by the smell of vinyl fumes. So much for your dream of independence!
7. Exploding Army Hand Grenade
“All you do is pull the pin, wait 4 seconds, throw the grenade, and watch the fun as it explodes.” What could possibly go wrong? “It’s completely harmless but the explosion it makes can be heard for a block. Really scatters the gang when you throw this baby in their midst!” Don’t try this at school, kids. If you do, you’ll likely be expelled, possibly serve jail time, and you’ll have a permanent weekly appointment with a shrink, at least by 2014 standards. Back in the ’50s and ’60s when the ads ran in comic books, teachers would simply confiscate the contraband (along with unauthorized bubble gum and baseball cards) and school would go on with minimal disruptions.
6. X-Ray Specs
Admit it. You wondered if these would allow you to see through people’s clothes. Maybe you even shelled out a buck because if they really worked, these specs would rock your world.
According to Wikipedia, you’d have been sadly disappointed:
X-Ray Specs consist of an outsized pair of glasses with plastic frames and white cardboard “lenses” printed with concentric red circles, and emblazoned with the legend “X-RAY VISION”.
The lenses consist of two layers of cardboard with a small hole about 6 mm (.25 inch) in diameter punched through both layers. The user views objects through the holes. A feather is embedded between the layers of each lens. The vanes of the feathers are so close together that light is diffracted, causing the user to receive two slightly offset images
I suppose if you had an exceptional imagination you could see what you wanted to see. Otherwise, another wasted dollar sent to Honor House Products.
5. Imitation Vomit
This may be the most legit of all the comic book ads simply based on the fact that I’m sick to my stomach looking at this gloppy, rubbery fake vomit right now. It looks a bit like a chocolate chip cookie with the milk included. The ad says, “Created a riot when we tested it,” which reminds me of the Robin Williams movie Toys, with the innovative fake vomit testing room (is this the “vomit of the white man”?).
4. Real, Live Miniature Monkey
Even as a child I was horrified by these ads purporting to sell live monkeys (similar ads sold live raccoons and miniature dogs). There were times I nearly wept over the fate of those poor, defenseless animals being shoved into boxes and loaded onto mail trucks, only to be shipped halfway across the country in the sweltering heat.
Fortunately for the baby monkeys, it didn’t happen that way. The ad above is for Dean Studios. In order to “win” a baby monkey, you would have to distribute 20 coupons for Dean’s services to your friends, who would then have to place a minimum order with the company. In 1960 when the Federal Trade Commission got involved, they found that no tiny monkeys had been distributed and the company had no way of even obtaining monkeys. They issued an immediate cease and desist letter. After all these years I can finally stop worrying about those poor baby monkeys!
3. Invisible Helmet
Tom Corbett was the main character in the 1950s series Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. The stories were depicted on television, radio, books, comic books, and comic strips. Obviously the helmets couldn’t make you invisible, but you’d look just like Tom Corbett, for what that’s worth. And if you were having a bad day you could just put on the helmet and tell everyone you’re invisible and demand that they respect your cloak of invisibility.
2. U-Control 7-Foot Life-Size Ghost
This monstrous ghost promised to soar 30-40 feet (or more!) in the air, and the best part? You would be controlling it in secret. Somehow (it’s best not to ask too many questions about comic book ads) this 7′ ghost could be concealed in your pocket, along with the “secret control.” All for a paltry 95 cents (an additional 95 cents would get you a horror record to accompany your life-like ghost that would obey your commands).
What did you actually get for your hard-earned 95 cents? A string, a trash bag, and a balloon with an (alleged) ghost face printed on it (adding to your embarrassment at being hoodwinked by this ad, it wasn’t even a scary ghost face).
Finally, we come to what I count as one of the biggest disappointments of my childhood. I agonized for months and months about whether to “risk” sending a whole $1.00 for pet Sea-Monkeys. My parents had always warned me that the ads in the backs of comic books were fake and were “a bunch of crap,” but these Sea-Monkeys looked like the real thing. The exotic Sea-Monkey family in the ads was smiling and playing — and pink! Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I sent in my $1.00 of allowance money and prepared a home for my new pets and playmates.
I knew something was wrong the moment the package arrived and the instructions said I would need a small jelly jar. How was my (traditional nuclear) family of four Sea-Monkeys ever going to fit in a tiny jar??? Next, I discovered that they would somehow evolve from a smelly powder that I mixed with water and some chemicals. When all was said and done, I ended up with a pungent jar of slime filled with lousy brine shrimp. They didn’t play.They didn’t smile. They didn’t even seem to know I existed. Per the instructions, I tried to train them to do tricks (using a flashlight); my Sea-Monkeys were unresponsive. I was devastated. And forever jaded and cynical from my mail-order experience (my Amazon Prime habit notwithstanding).
As it turns out, most of these worthless comic book items are quite valuable to collectors if you happen to have them in your attic or basement, especially if they’re in mint condition. There may yet be a way to redeem your misspent allowance if you kept any of these items around.
Which ones did you waste your allowance on and how disappointed were you?